Is Colombia Still a Major Player in the US Heroin Market?

Posted on Dec 6 2013 - 11:32pm by Editor

c1ca95e24fbe1ede6a9d61645099f1fd_LThe US government estimates that heroin production has sharply declined in Colombia over the past decade, yet the United Nations claims the country remains the primary supplier of the drug for the US market. So which is it?

The picture is confusing, beginning with the most recent World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In the report, the UN said Colombia continued to be reported by US officials as the main supplier of heroin to the United States.

This assertion draws into question other data compiled by the UN and the US showing that Mexico is now the region’s top heroin producer, manufacturing as much as 30 times more heroin than Colombia. Guatemala also appears to have surpassed Colombia in production, although reliable statistics are hard to obtain there as well.

Breaking down the pieces of this story illustrates just how deep the confusion is when it comes to estimates of heroin production and worldwide distribution.

Conflicting Estimates of Production
One important indicator in determining heroin production is the estimate of annual production and poppy cultivation that comes from the US and the UN. In one respect, the two entities coincide: after leading the region in heroin production during the 1990s, Colombia’s production of the drug has plummeted during the 2000s.

US figures placed Colombia’s heroin production potential in 2009 at 2.1 metric tons, less than half the estimated production potential three years earlier of 4.6 tons. In 2001, the country’s production potential was 11 metric tons. For its part, the UNODC estimated the country’s 2012 production potential at just one ton.

However, while they agree on the general trend, a closer look at the data reveals some important differences between the US and the UN estimates, in particular regarding the number of hectares of poppy cultivated and their evaluations of the Colombian government’s eradication efforts.

In 1995, there were 5,226 hectares of opium poppy — the primary material for heroin — grown in Colombia, according to the UNODC. In 2009, the body estimated just 356 hectares. However, the US State Department claimed Colombia was still growing 1,100 hectares of poppy in 2009, three times the number reported by the UNODC.

With regards to poppy eradication, UN figures say the number of hectares destroyed fell from 3,466 in 1995 to 546 in 2009, peaking in the year 2000, when 9,254 hectares were eradicated. According to the US, these figures dropped further to 302 hectares of poppy eradicated in 2011.

Estimates produced by these bodies have been criticized in numerous circles, with many decrying that politics too often trump science. Nonetheless, there are also geographical challenges to making accurate estimates of poppy cultivation. Most poppy is grown high up in the mountains in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Tolima and Huila, and is much more dispersed than the country’s coca crops, making it more difficult to monitor or target.

This could help to explain the fact that in 2007, then-Defense Minister and current President Juan Manuel Santos claimed authorities had eradicated all the country’s poppy, while that same year, the governor of Nariño estimated some 1,000 hectares of poppy were still being grown in that department alone. The following year, authorities reported eradicating 381 hectares of poppy.

Seizure Data: Further Discrepancies
Heroin seizures are the second major indicator we can use to help us determine how much heroin is being produced in Colombia. This too, however, shows discrepancies. According to US numbers, Colombian authorities seized 468 kilos in 2012 and destroyed one heroin laboratory; 130 kilos were seized in the country in 2011 and two heroin laboratories destroyed, with another 230 kilos seized in a joint operation in Costa Rica; 367.2 kilos were seized in 2010 and two heroin laboratories destroyed, and 740 kilos were seized in 2009. The country’s two biggest-ever heroin seizures took place in 2009: one of 97.4 kilos in Buesaco, Nariño, and one of 131 kilos in the port of Barranquilla.

The UNODC, meanwhile, says four tons of heroin were seized in Colombia between 2007 and 2011 — a figure significantly greater than the totals reported by the US State Department for that period — and that the total estimated production potential during that same period was six tons. As the UNODC states, “This would indicate a very high seizure rate, which would leave only a small amount of heroin for local consumption and export.”

With regards to poppy eradication, UN figures say the number of hectares destroyed fell from 3,466 in 1995 to 546 in 2009, peaking in the year 2000, when 9,254 hectares were eradicated. According to the US, these figures dropped further to 302 hectares of poppy eradicated in 2011.

Estimates produced by these bodies have been criticized in numerous circles, with many decrying that politics too often trump science. Nonetheless, there are also geographical challenges to making accurate estimates of poppy cultivation. Most poppy is grown high up in the mountains in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Tolima and Huila, and is much more dispersed than the country’s coca crops, making it more difficult to monitor or target.

This could help to explain the fact that in 2007, then-Defense Minister and current President Juan Manuel Santos claimed authorities had eradicated all the country’s poppy, while that same year, the governor of Nariño estimated some 1,000 hectares of poppy were still being grown in that department alone. The following year, authorities reported eradicating 381 hectares of poppy.
Seizure Data: Further Discrepancies

Heroin seizures are the second major indicator we can use to help us determine how much heroin is being produced in Colombia. This too, however, shows discrepancies. According to US numbers, Colombian authorities seized 468 kilos in 2012 and destroyed one heroin laboratory; 130 kilos were seized in the country in 2011 and two heroin laboratories destroyed, with another 230 kilos seized in a joint operation in Costa Rica; 367.2 kilos were seized in 2010 and two heroin laboratories destroyed, and 740 kilos were seized in 2009. The country’s two biggest-ever heroin seizures took place in 2009: one of 97.4 kilos in Buesaco, Nariño, and one of 131 kilos in the port of Barranquilla.

The UNODC, meanwhile, says four tons of heroin were seized in Colombia between 2007 and 2011 — a figure significantly greater than the totals reported by the US State Department for that period — and that the total estimated production potential during that same period was six tons. As the UNODC states, “This would indicate a very high seizure rate, which would leave only a small amount of heroin for local consumption and export.”