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Narco Pollution: Illicit Drug Trade in the Andes

Rand Beers, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs; Luis Albert Moreno, Colombian Ambassador to the United States
Foreign Press Center Briefing
Washington, DC
January 28, 2002

Photo of Rand Beers and Luis Moreno

 3:09 P.M. EST

Real Audio of Briefing

Copyright (c)2002 by Federal News Service, Inc., 620 National Press Building, Washington, DC 20045, USA.   For information on subscribing to the FNS Internet Service, please email Jack Graeme at info@fnsg.com or call (202) 824-0520.

MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center.

Today we're going to look an aspect of the narcotics issue that isn't as often discussed as many of the others: the environmental impact of the drug war and drug trafficking. We're very pleased to have with us again assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, Rand Beers, and The Honorable Luis Alberto Moreno, Colombia's ambassador to the United States. They will each offer some opening remarks, and then we'll go to your questions.

Ambassador Moreno.

AMB. MORENO: Thank you very much.

Basically, I'd just like to make some remarks regarding what specifically -- unreported, I would say, in the press regarding the environmental damages that are caused by people who consume drugs in the United States and throughout the world. And that means really, the environmental damage that that means to our country.

Since about 1985, Colombia has lost over a million hectares -- that is roughly 3 million acres -- of tropical rainforest areas in Colombia, which are really areas that are perhaps as large or larger than Yellowstone Park. Drug traffickers in Colombia are also responsible for dumping over 370,000 tons of chemicals every year. These are chemicals that are used in the process of making cocaine which, in essence, is about two Exxon Valdez every year. Just think for a minute the kind of environmental damage that is doing. And beyond that, that means roughly about 12,000 tons of pesticides and herbicides, such as Paraquat, used annually to control weeds.

On the other hand, we are doing a lot of things to try to prevent this damage. And of course, that has to do with not simply doing aerial eradication, which is perhaps the only efficient way to do eradication of coca -- but also to strengthen this through social development programs and really strengthening the capacity of the state in many of these areas in Colombia. This is really what began with what we laid out as some of our objectives in Plan Colombia, and this is what really began to be implemented during the year 2001.

On the other hand, I think it's important to note that, although it is unrelated, in sense, to the whole environmental damage, is the fact that there's been a lot of loss, really, in the interdiction war because of some of the overflights that we were able to detect with the interception and the air interdiction programs.

Colombia used to be interdicting close to 24, 25 aircraft a month. Today we're only doing about five. And that's another important issue of what needs to happen.

But more importantly, thanks to the eradication program and the number of hectares, for instance, that were eradicated last year, about 95,000 hectares, close to 300,000 acres of coca were eradicated last year. It prevented the U.S. and the rest of the world from getting close to about 550 tons of cocaine entering the world market. And if you add to that what was done by Colombian forces in terms of the interdictions, over 600 tons of cocaine never made it to the market because of both a combination of interdiction and eradication, which are critical to this process.

I will just leave it there, and I'm happy to take some of the questions later on. And I will turn it to Randy.

MR. BEERS: Thank you very much, Luis Alberto.

And thank you for having this opportunity today to talk. Ambassador Moreno has spoken to you about Colombia. Let me talk more at a regional level, in terms of how this problem affects all of us.

As you know, illicit crops are basically grown in remote areas in Colombia, but also in Peru and Bolivia, often in hilly and mountainous areas where the forests have been cleared away for either coca or opium poppy. And due to the low soil fertility that's involved in the areas in which this cultivation is undertaken, the fields are often abandoned after two, three, five years, and the coca cultivators move on to other areas in the region, cutting down even more of the rain forest and then adding to that their pesticides and precursor chemicals. These clear-cuttings of the forest allow these areas to be washed by tropical rains, and the run-off into the Amazon and Orinoco Basins is quite significant.

Just to give you a sense and perspective at the regional level, illicit crop cultivators generally cut down four hectares for each coca hectare planted, or two and a half hectares for each hectare of opium poppy. Even though Peru and Bolivia haven't been producing the amounts that have been produced in Colombia recently, they have been major producers at much higher levels in the preceding years and still remain significant today.

Over the last 20 years, we estimate that about 2.3 million hectares of rain forest have been destroyed in the Amazon region due to coca cultivation. This amounts to about one-quarter of all of the deforestation that has taken place in the region during the 20th century. So this represents an enormous amount of cutting for no other purpose than illegal drugs.

In Bolivia, slash-and-burn clearing of new coca fields resulted in the destruction of nearly 40,000 hectares of forest land in the Chapare region during the '80s and the '90s. Peru, an even larger amount.

Another problem associated, as indicated by the ambassador, is the large amount of toxic pesticides that coca growers put on their fields in order that they get a higher return on their coca crop. We have estimated in Peru, for example, that 346 metric tons of pesticides are used annually, and these substances are then washed by rain down into the watershed, damaging plants and animals directly or indirectly via the food chain.

Coca production itself occurs in three stages. The leaf is made into a paste, which is made into a base, which is made into cocaine hydrochloride. We estimate that for each kilo of cocaine, it takes 100 kilo-equivalents of precursor chemicals that include sulfuric acid, lime, kerosene, ammonia and potassium permanganate, and that 100 kilo-equivalent of precursor chemicals is then dumped into the environment. So that what we would estimate in Peru would be approximately 13,200 metric tons per year of these toxic substances are dumped into the waterways of the Peruvian environment.

At the State Department, and with respect to the governments of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, we are trying to raise this issue so that people understand the seriousness of it. We are working with each of these governments, we are talking to environmental groups, we have held roundtables, and this effort here today represents another part of our effort to get this story out to the people of the region.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Okay, now we'll go to your questions. Please wait for a microphone, and remember to give your name and news organization. We'll start up front here.

Q (Name inaudible) -- from France Presse. What is the difference between the pesticides that these coca growers use and the pesticides that the United States advise to use to kill the coca plants?

MR. BEERS: The pesticides which the cocalleros use in Colombia include glyphosate in much larger quantities than the United States spray. But it also includes far more toxic chemicals, like paraquat and parathion, which are sprayed indiscriminately on the fields in order to kill the weeds in order to allow the coca bush itself to grow more easily in this environment.

We estimate that the difference in terms of volume between what the farmers put on the field and what we put on the field on an annual basis is over 100 to 1, and theirs are far more toxic.


Q Marie Luisa Rosel (sp) -- (affiliation inaudible) -- Peru. Mr. Beers, as the Colombian ambassador mentioned before, the interdiction program was suspended. And we would like to know what will be the new procedures that Peruvian government, the United States, and Colombia is going to follow in order to reestablish this program.

MR. BEERS: We are still in the process of coming to a final decision with respect to proposals that are under consideration. I expect that we will have that decision in the next several weeks, when we will communicate that -- to the governments what our view is and consult with them about their views, in order to be able to make a public presentation. But we don't have it yet.

Q (Off mike) -- this is related to the (inaudible word) report, Mr. Beers?

MR. BEERS: This is related to the series of reports which have been done on this particular issue.

Q Mr. Rand Beers, but what had been the problem with the program interdiction? Did you search what kind of problem do you have in this program?

MR. BEERS: We did. Some of you may have heard the press conference which we gave last summer, in which we laid out the conclusions of the report which I did, and then played the tape, which I think further indicates what happened with respect to the incident in Peru. We have since then been looking at measures that could be taken to prevent that from happening again, and then deciding as to whether or not there are sufficient measures that could be taken to have a very high probability of not having the event occur again. There will never be a perfect solution.

Q Mr. Beers, hi. Sergio Gomez from El Tiempo of Colombia. Last year when the estimates of the growth of the coca in Colombia came out, according to your data, you had growth like 11 percent. I remember you telling us that it was moving to a point of equilibrium and that maybe this year, because of the work of the Plan Colombia for a full 12 months or more. So I was wondering, are you prepared to this time around say for the first time the coca is not growing but rather decreasing in Colombia in regards to the percentages sprayed versus the percentages growth? And I have a second question. I hope you can get that one.

It's my recollection that Congress asked for the administration, in consultation with EPA, to produce a report on the effects the spraying was causing in Colombia in the people, and I know that you were working also on a kind of report. Can you give us an update of what are the findings of that report, when it's coming out?

MR. BEERS: With respect to the first issue, I would love to be able to make the announcement that you suggested I might want to make, but I don't have the figures yet so I'm not in a position to tell you what coca cultivation estimates look like in Colombia at this time. We expect to have an answer sometime in February, probably late February. And when we have that information, we will make it public. But we don't have that yet.

And as Ambassador Moreno said, there was a very significant spraying program in Colombia this year which we think will be a major retardant on the growth of coca and a major deterrent to the growth of coca in the time ahead, which we think then serves one of the best ways, if not the best way, to prevent the horrible environmental damage that is happening in Colombia because the coca industry, the narcotraffickers, are inducing poor peasants to grow a crop for a high return and destroy the Amazon rainforest in the process.

So we think we're making a significant effect, but I can't tell you precisely what it is at this particular point in time.

With respect to the report on the effects of what we are spraying on Colombia, it's not done yet. I don't want to preview the results of that report. But all of the reports that we have produced up to this point in time indicate that what we are spraying in Colombia is not harmful to the environment and it is not harmful to individuals. It is certainly true that the herbicide itself, if taken in a significantly concentrated fashion, just like baby shampoo, will kill you. But we don't spray it at that level. We spray it at something considerably less than that kind of toxicity, and we do not believe and have not seen evidence that it is harmful either to the environment or individuals, despite the numerous press reports to the contrary.

Q So all of the reporting on a significant number of people who, like -- bogus reporting or something like that? I mean, they don't have any --

MR. BEERS: We have no credible evidence that any of that reporting is valid -- zero.

AMB. MORENO: Let me just add to that that one fact that is often forgotten is that in Colombia, 15 percent of all the Glyphosate used in Colombia -- 15 percent -- is the one that is used for the eradication of coca. Eighty-five percent is used for other types of crops in Colombia -- in legitimate farming in Colombia, amongst which, for instance, is corn. So it's very important to note that this Glyphosate has been used in Colombia for many years prior -- even, that I know of -- of many of these programs before. But I'm not an expert on this. I just have a four-year membership.

MR. BEERS: (Laughs.) So do I!

AMB. MORENO: (Laughs.)


Q This is a question for Ambassador Moreno and also for Secretary Beers. Is the Bush administration planning to expand the actual antinarcotics programs in Colombia? I mean, is there in the makeup the possibility of creating another antinarcotics battalion to move the focus from Putamayo to the North of the country, something like that, during this year or next year?

MR. BEERS: We have been talking for some time with the government of Colombia about what our program might look like in the next fiscal year, and we are about to present a budget with respect to that particular program. No final decisions, even at this late date, have been made about the full extent or nature of that program.

But I have said before and would say again now that we have always contemplated that we would get to a point at which the program was sufficiently successful in the South that we would want, in some fashion, to expand the program to other areas in Colombia, because coca doesn't only grow in the South. It also grows the East, in Guaviare, and it also grows in the North, in Bolivar and Norte de Santander, and some even in Arauca. So those represent areas in the country where the government of Colombia and the government of the United States have considered a larger-scale operation than we have undertaken to date in those areas.

We've sprayed in those areas, but we haven't conducted counternarcotics ground operations, with the exception of two major operations that the Colombian army ran in the east during the past year.

So we -- when the budget is ready to go up and when we have a final decision on it, we'll talk to you about what that might entail. I just can't tell you at this particular point in time because we don't have a final decision yet. It's under discussion.

AMB. MORENO: If he cannot tell you, much less can I. (Laughter.) But I can say this, we have been consulting on this for some time, really the second half of last year we began to do this. And I think the underlying point is the following. To be able to really curb the production of cocaine in Colombia in a successful way, we need to have presence and security throughout the country, and therefore, this means to have the necessary mobility and presence of governmental security forces to be able to, as a result of that, enhance and successfully put in place many of the alternative development programs and the other programs that we have been doing so far in the south.

MODERATOR: Are there any more questions? Yes, back here.

Q Sandra Vergara (sp) from Alcean (ph) TV from Colombia. Mr. Randy Beers, do you have something to say about the helicopter that had to be destroyed by army, Colombian army, before it took off hand of the guerrilla? So do you have something to say? Do you have to combat against the guerrilla because they are shooting the helicopters from USA?

MR. BEERS: I'm sorry, do we have to what?

Q Do you have to fight against the guerrilla? It is the same question that my friend say before. So are you thinking to extend quickly that aid to Colombia because you see the fight is against this kind of operation?

MR. BEERS: The government of Colombia and the government of the United States fully agree that in areas in which we are conducting counternarcotics operations, we may well, and in fact, will likely encounter guerrillas -- FARC, AUC, whatever. In those situations, we both agree that U.S. assistance on behalf of a counternarcotics program can be used to defend those resources from attack by either of those illegal armed groups.

So the fact that this helicopter went down because of a mechanical failure, but was attacked by a FARC unit that happened to be in the vicinity, and required the insertion of some Colombia National Police to try to defend the helicopter so that it could be withdrawn, represents a normal part of the program -- not one we look to have happen on any given day, but one which we're prepared to deal with on any given day. And that's what this was. It's not an expansion of our program, it's just what we expect to happen.

Q Okay, thank you. I would like to ask you another question about Colombian peace process. I don't know if you can get it. Alvaro Leyva from Colombia, he's in Costa Rica, he's working very hard helping President Pastrana to getting the peace process. So I would like to know, he say the United States government has to be involved more in the peace process in Colombia. So do you think the USA government can involve more than now?

MR. BEERS: Let me let Ambassador Moreno start to answer that question.


AMB. MORENO: Well, first of all, let me be clear that Alvaro Leyva, as you mentioned, lives in Costa Rica. He is in no part related to the peace process from the standpoint of the government of Colombia.

He's somebody, of course, that has a lot of experience in peace processes before and typically voice his opinion, like every Colombian voices his opinion, as to what's the best way to achieve peace.

I think that it's evident that all along, the line from the U.S. government has been very clear on that issue: this is, one, a Colombian conflict that must be resolved by Colombians, and that the government of the United States and the president of the United States -- and they've said this over and over and over, in every briefing that you have been to -- will support whatever the outcome and the Colombian people and the head of -- the president of Colombia will take.

So in terms of Alvaro Leyva's proposal that the U.S. should get more engaged with the FARC related to the elimination of coca, I would just simply say, one, that's an answer for the United States to do. But in any event, I think the FARC doesn't have to wait for the United States to begin to help in the eradication of coca. If they're serious about cutting their ties with cocaine and -- cocaine trafficking and cocaine production, well, put their money where their mouth is, as they say. You know, let them begin. Show it.

MR. BEERS: From our perspective, the answer at this time is, we're not prepared to be involved directly in the peace process, but we support the government Colombia in its efforts to do that.

MODERATOR: And we'll go back up front.

Q Jose Puertas, France Presse. At the same time you said that yes, this is a problem -- this is a conflict that -- in Colombia that must be resolved by Colombia, but you admitted that -- the government and the foreign minister admitted that you have been asking the United States for more military aid, specifically to fight the insurgency.

And yesterday, I think it was that President Pastrana qualified or described the acts of the FARC as acts of -- as terrorism.

In this context, I'd like to ask you both what possibilities there is that the United States will actually increase the military aid for the specific purpose of fighting this terrorist organization.

AMB. MORENO: But I would begin by saying, one, that yes, we have admittedly said that cooperation between Colombia and the United

States should not be limited to simply counternarcotics, that it should be broader in terms of looking at the overall security issues in Colombia. And that means protecting the infrastructure, protecting against, more importantly, the issues of kidnapping, and more and more the economic(s) and politics of the country. And in that regard, they could be areas of cooperation. And that's something that even President Pastrana himself talked about when he was here last, in November, at every level of the U.S. government and at the Congress.

In terms of terrorist acts, well, I think the latest acts, as President Pastrana described of the guerrillas, especially those of last week, are clearly terrorists acts. And those acts, of course, are repudiated by Colombian society, and they are really damaging not only our infrastructure but hurting especially those people that are more sacrificed in the society, people that have less resources. So of course this is an area that we would like to have cooperation.

MR. BEERS: We have certainly been looking at our policy toward Colombia on a regular basis. And I dare say that during the period in which President Pastrana was looking at what the future of the peace process might be in the days ahead was a particularly active period for us to be reviewing our Colombian policy. But I'm not in a position today in any way to say that we're changing Colombia's -- our policy toward Colombia. So despite the press's effort to write about this, I can't tell you that we're changing our policy.

MODERATOR: And with that, I want to thank you all for coming today.

MR. BEERS: Could I just add one other thing?


MR. BEERS: I forgot to show this pamphlet --

MODERATOR: Ah. We're here to promote a new product.

MR. BEERS: -- which is called "The Andes Under Siege: Environmental Consequences of the Drug Trade," which is available as part of our effort to carry through on bringing this issue to the attention of the peoples of the region and the United States so that they realize how serious and how significant the environmental damage that the drug trade inflicts upon the Amazon rainforest actually is.

MODERATOR: And we have copies for you in both English and Spanish out front.

Thank you very much.

Copyright (c)2002 by Federal News Service, Inc., 620 National Press Building, Washington, DC 20045 USA. Federal News Service is a private firm not affiliated with the federal government. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold or retransmitted without the written authority of Federal News Service, Inc. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of the original work prepared by a United States government officer or employee as a part of that person's official duties. For information on subscribing to the FNS Internet Service, please email Jack Graeme at info@fnsg.com or call (202)824-0520.


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