CALI, Colombia—During a meeting with Colombian President Iván Duque at the White House early last week, Donald Trump more or less ordered Colombia to wipe out coca plants—the main ingredient in cocaine—by spraying the controversial herbicide glyphosate from the air.
No, it’s not the infamous chemical Agent Orange used in Vietnam, but it’s bad enough, and likely to poison the people and the land beneath the toxic clouds.
“You’re going to have to spray,” Trump said in front of reporters. “If you don’t spray you’re not going to get rid of [the coca plants]. So you have to spray with regard to the drugs in Colombia.”
Duque, long under pressure from the Trump administration, has now agreed to an ambitious “bilateral” plan to eradicate half of Colombia's 212,000 hectares (523,863 acres) of coca by 2023. But Colombia remains the world’s leading exporter of processed cocaine, with about 90 percent of the finished product flowing north to the United State.
That doesn’t sit well with Trump, who has vacillated passive-aggressively between insulting Duque and threatening ominous repercussions for Colombia if cocaine production isn’t curbed.
In 2017, Trump threatened to decertify Colombia as a good-faith partner in the U.S. ”drug war”—a move that would lead to a cutoff of most foreign assistance to the nation. At the time, other leaders in Washington rushed to assure Duque that his country remained one of Washington’s most valued allies in the region. But Trump doubled down on his coercive threat again in 2018, and this time he made it personal:
“He [Duque] said how he was going to stop drugs. More drugs are coming out of Colombia right now than before he was president—so he has done nothing for us," Trump said.
This cocaine quid pro quo—eradication at all costs or risk losing humanitarian and military aid—has led directly to Bogotá’s decision to resume aerial spraying with glyphosate. Colombia had curtailed the practice back in 2015 due to health risks, including cancer.
“The president’s attempts at bullying Colombia go way beyond the context of the larger drug war,” said Robert Bunker, an international security analyst at the University of Southern California.
But other critics point out that Colombian politicians—who have a long history of cozying up to Washington at the expense of their constituents—are also to blame.
A memo issued by the State Department after Trump's meeting with Duque stated that "U.S. counternarcotics assistance to Colombia is one of our most effective investments. [Eradication] efforts have already demonstrated results as coca cultivation and cocaine production levels finally stabilized in 2018 and 2019 for the first time since 2012."
Which begs the question: If new coca plantings had already been reduced and production "stabilized" without the use of glyphosate, why return to it now? Apparently because Trump wants it, and Duque can't or won't stand up to him.
“Our government is a puppet that has sold us out,” said Leyder Valencia, the spokesman for Colombia’s National Coordination for Cultivators of Coca, Poppies, and Marijuana [COCCAM], in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“Our leaders care nothing for what happens to us,” Valencia said. “They have put U.S. interests ahead of their own people.”
‘A CURSE UPON THE LAND’
Glyphosate was developed by the chemical giant Monsanto, a former U.S. company acquired in 2018 by Bayer—which acquired massive legal liabilities as part of the deal. The chemical is widely used in products like the weed killer Roundup. One recent meta study determined that exposure to the herbicide increases the risk of cancer—specifically non-Hodgkin's lymphoma—by a factor of 41 percent. The World Health Organization also has stuck by its decision to label it a carcinogen, despite pressure from U.S. officials to change that ruling.
Over the last two years, a landmark series of court cases in California also have found glyphosate to be highly carcinogenic, with juries awarding a total of about $2.16 billion in damages to the plaintiffs. More than 13,000 claims have been leveled against Monsanto/Bayer. But the Trump administration likes glyphosate. Its Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department under Attorney General William Barr said in December that a federal appeals court should reverse a lower court ruling that Bayer was liable in the case of a man in California who claimed his cancer was caused by Roundup.
But in Colombia, remember, we are not talking about focused use of the chemical at ground level, we are talking about spraying anything and anyone caught in the toxic fog released by an airplane or helicopter.
The United Nations has criticized the use of aerial spraying in Colombia due to the chemical’s toxicity, as have ranking members of the Catholic Church in impacted areas.
“It is like a curse upon the land, destroying everything it touches” said COCCAM spokesman Valencia. “I have seen it with my own eyes. It kills all the farmer’s crops, not just coca, so that they have nothing to eat. It gets into the water and even kills their livestock.”
Valencia also insisted lymphoma isn’t the only disease caused by high levels of exposure.
“It also causes cancer of the skin,” he says. “The mothers miscarry, or their babies are born with terrible deformities. Our public officials know this, but they don’t care.”
Clinical proof for such claims is lacking, but their political and social impact is considerable. USC’s Bunker called aerial spraying an “indefensible ethical position… We are essentially strong-arming a U.S. ally to engage in its own environmental degradation.”
According to Valencia, most farmers would choose not to grow coca at all if there were other viable crops that would allow them to support their families. Armed groups often compete over coca plots for the sake of producing cocaine, meaning that coca growers “always live in a war zone.” And at any time Colombian government soldiers can come along and wipe out the crops, leaving growers with nothing to harvest, he said.
“We’ve been begging for crop substitution programs since the 1980s. The government makes promises to help us, but nothing ever comes of it.”
'PEOPLE NEED BASIC SECURITY'
Deadly mutative properties aside, there’s another good reason not to return to aerial eradication with glyphosate. Namely that in the long run it doesn’t work, according to Adam Isacson, defense director for the Washington Office on Latin America.
“Fumigation can bring a short-term reduction in coca cultivation, but coca recovers pretty quickly in areas that are totally ungoverned,” Isacson told The Daily Beast. “In Colombia we saw that after a few years of spraying, heavily sprayed regions had modestly less coca and a population seething with anger toward their government.”
Coca farmers respond to aerial eradication by moving their plots, disguising the coca plants among other vegetation, and quickly cutting the plant after it’s been sprayed to avoid poisoning of the roots. Isacson, who recently authored a paper on the logistics of spraying coca, said that lack of state presence and economic infrastructure are the prime factors that force farmers to grow illicit crops because they “have no other option.”
“A government that sprays people from overhead is a government that doesn’t intend to be physically present on the ground,” he said. “Some of these areas are so ungoverned that people can’t even get their hands on the local currency easily; it’s easier to buy things by weighing coca paste on store-counter scales.”
Another new report by Brookings also calls forced eradication efforts in Colombia “ineffective” and labels results “short-lived and ephemeral.” Vanda Falbab-Brown, the author of “Detoxifying Colombia’s Drug Policy,” argues for “rural development centering on alternative livelihoods for coca growers and supported by well-designed interdiction efforts” as the best means for cutting back drug production.
Citing successful efforts in Thailand, she argues that “eradication should be delayed until these alternative livelihoods are generating sustainable income.”
But Trump, even as he demands a return to aerial spraying, has authorized a $36 million cut in aid to Colombia as part of his 2021 budget—denying funds that would have gone toward the kind of rural assistance programs Falbab-Brown advocates.
The 2016 peace treaty between Bogotá and the country’s largest guerrilla faction, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), also called for a development-first approach to eventual eradication. The armistice was engineered by former Colombian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos, but the far-right Duque regime has walked back on his predecessor’s promises to provide support for rural regions.
“The accords include a step by step process [for eradication] that also comes with social investments,” said Valencia, of COCCAM. “That treaty was signed almost four years ago. How much longer will we have to wait?”
If Trump has his way, the wait is over, and so are the accords. Let the sprays begin.