States, markets and violence in drug-affected borderlands

Drugs & (dis)order experts share insights from their fieldwork in the drug-affected borderlands of Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar at the SOAS Development Studies Seminar series.

Speakers include: Professor Jonathan Goodhand, Dr Jasmine Bhatia, Dr Patrick Meehan (SOAS, University of London) and Dr Francisco Gutiérrez Sanín  (Universidad Nacional de Colombia).


Colombia´s anti-drugs policies: evidence versus ideology

This article was first published on Latin American Bureau on 19 October 2019. Read original article with images and graphics.

By 30 July this year, 99,097 families (around 500,000 individuals) had signed up to the voluntary crop substitution programme and 94 per cent of these families had complied with the condition to eradicate their coca crops voluntarily. A total of 37,629 hectares have been eradicated under this programme (also according to UNODC).

The crop substitution programme is aimed at small-scale coca producers. These are families living in areas often controlled by the extinct FARC-EP and with little or no presence of state institutions and very poor or a complete absence of public services.

In my conversations with many of these farmers, they told me that cultivating coca has provided a means to escape poverty and has allowed them to feed and ensure education for their children. In fact, a survey carried out by the National University, one of Christian Aid´s partners in Colombia, has shown that just like middle class families, coca farmers invest most of their disposable income in their children´s education.

However, the coca farmers also assured me that they want to find a way out of this economy. One of the reasons they give is that being involved in the production of coca involves contact with armed groups and therefore security risks.

This high level of motivation explains why so many signed up for the programme and why only 0.5 per cent of the eradicated area has reverted to coca cultivation. In the context of 30 years of failed anti-drugs policies in Colombia, this is an unusually high success rate. By comparison, 35 per cent of the coca areas exposed to aerial fumigation return to coca cultivation, according to DeJusticia. The same source reveals that with regard to cost, voluntary crop substitution programmes are also more attractive because they are far cheaper. The cost of aerial fumigation is more than double – around £16,700 pounds sterling per hectare, as against £9,300 for crop substitution.

This begs the question why the government would want to sacrifice a highly effective and relatively cheap public programme with one that is far less effective and costlier.

One reason could be that, for ideological reasons, it somehow thinks it is wrong to support former cultivators of coca through subsidies and alternative livelihood development projects. Basically, the voluntary crop substitution programme consists in a cash subsidy given straight after the eradication, so that the families can survive while developing alternative income sources, plus technical assistance and materials for short-term projects, for example a kitchen garden or pigs, and long term agricultural projects, for example cocoa or coffee plantations.

To date the government has largely failed to implement this programme, with only 24 per cent of the families receiving all the cash subsidy due and not a single family receiving everything that was promised, according to Pedro Arenas from the International Drug Policy Consortium.

The ‘war on drugs’

Of course, the government is under strong pressure from the US, which continues to believe in the effectiveness of the war on drugs. Colombia is a key political and ideological ally of the US in Latin-America and is heavily dependent on the Trump administration for continued security support, development aid, and preferential trade treatment. And there is no better way to demonstrate alignment with US anti-narcotics policies than aerial fumigation.

The US, through the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, conducts a thorough assessment each year of the counter-narcotics policies of each country. This assessment, carried out by the State Department and embassy staff, the DEA and CIA, is a requirement under US law before aid and any form of can be disbursed. In March each year, the US president certifies to Congress which countries are eligible to receive aid support, based on this assessment.

The difficulty for the Duque Government is that since 2012 the area under coca cultivation has increased from around 48,000 hectares to 208,000 in 2018, a huge increase. The reasons for this are disputed, with some arguing that the prospect of benefiting from a generous voluntary crop substitution programme was an incentive to increase cultivation.

However, Arnobi Zapata, the spokesperson for COCCAM, a farmers’ association promoting voluntary crop substitution supported by Christian Aid, says that ‘the increase occurred because the FARC-EP used to impose limits as to how many hectares each family was allowed to produce but that the new criminal groups, that took over control after the FARC-EP left, on the contrary oblige farmers to increase production.’

Moreover, disputes over territory and the illegal drug economy have led to an increase in the killing of farmers involved in the voluntary crop substitution programmes. 58 leaders of COCCAM, have been killed since the programme started in 2017. Jose Yimer Cartagena was killed in early 2017 after he had denounced increased presence of paramilitaries in Cordoba, Northern Colombia, following demobilisation of the FARC. When the supposed assassins forced Jose Yimer into a white 4-wheel drive and then drove him away, they said to people watching “he should not have made those denouncements”.

While I do not believe there is a silver bullet that will once and for all solve the problem of drug production, evidence seems to indicate that fully implementing the voluntary crop substitution programme, in the spirit of the Peace Agreement, would lead to a significant reduction in the number of hectares growing coca, which is the indicator that both the Colombian and US Government seem most concerned about. In addition, I believe it would simultaneously lead to a reduction in violence and poverty rates in those areas, which are other indicators against which the success or failure of anti-drugs policies should be measured.

Christian Aid believes that a new approach to transforming illicit drug crop economies is needed in order to support sustainable transitions that achieve the targets and ambition of the SDGs, read more in the recent paper as part of the Drugs & (dis)order project, Peace, illicit drugs and the SDGs – A development gap.

Data management guidance

The nature of Drugs & (dis)order’s research poses many data management challenges, such as dealing with sensitive and illicit activities that may put interviewees and researchers at risk, or the need to build a collaborative data infrastructure for cross-partner research.

This guidance is for anyone in the project who handles research data – such as data collection transcription, translation, storage, transfer or analysis. While it has been designed for the Drugs & (dis)order project, it may also be a useful reference for other projects and researchers.

This is a working document, written to address issues arising from the project, and will continue to develop over time. Read more about how we’re building capacities in a complex research project.

Data management: how we’re building capacities in a complex research project

Data management for an interdisciplinary research project, with multiple research partners, working on sensitive issues and in conflict-affected and fragile states is far from straightforward. I’m Data Manager for such a project: Drugs & (dis)order – with twelve partner organisations researching how illicit drug economies can transform into peacetime economies in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar.

This article outlines how we approach data management within the project, with an emphasis on building capacities for good data management. We hope this information will be useful for projects and organisations to develop their data management strategy. You may also wish to read our Data management guidance.

Identify priorities and challenges

Drugs & (dis)order seeks to generate robust evidence for use in policy and practice. Evidence is collected through interviews, life histories, focus group discussions, observations, photographs, surveys, compilation of existing data sources and press information and satellite imagery. Most research is carried out by local field researchers, with information elicited from key informants such as drug users, producers, farmers, traders and the public.

Needless to say, much of the research data collected is sensitive in nature. They may deal with illicit activities and include ‘stories’ or responses whereby people or organisations may be identifiable. That is certainly the case for life history interviews and photographs. Unwanted identity disclosure, or the data getting into the wrong hands, may put interviewees and researchers at risk.

An additional challenge stems from the fact that the customs and requirements for data protection, research ethics and the understanding of consent, vary in the three research countries. And are different from UK standards. Therefore, careful management and security of the research data generated in the project, from the moment they are ‘captured’, is important.

Finally, the project donor – UKRI-ESRC under the umbrella of the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) – has the expectation that the generated data will be managed and preserved for the long-term, and made available for future use.

Understand how data are managed

Strengthening capacity amongst partners and field researchers is one of the key pillars for GCRF projects. In Drugs & (dis)order we pay much attention to strengthening capacity for data management.

In practice, this means that as the project’s research data manager I work with our partners in Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar and the UK on good data management practices.

Understanding current data management practices in each organisation is the first step. This starts with discussing which data they collect and use in their research activities, and understanding the different steps the data may take. Who collects the data? In what format? How are data brought back from the field to the office? What transformations take place and which people, other than the field researchers, may be involved in this?

For example, interviews may be audio-recorded on a digital recorder, or notes taken during an interview. Recorded interviews may be brought back to the office on the recorder, or copied onto a laptop. Interviews may then be transcribed in local languages and translated to English. The researchers may do this, or interviews may be sent to external transcribers and translators. Surveys can be captured on paper questionnaire forms, with responses later entered into a digital database. Or surveys may be captured directly in digital format via an online form.

Each data transfer or transformation that takes place, and each person involved in this data ‘pipeline’ can have an influence on the quality of the data, and will require certain data security measures.

Discussing all the steps in the research data process in detail helps to develop practical data management guidance. For example, how to store and transfer data on different devices to use unique codes as identifiers for interviewees, to anonymise data, to transcribe it, and so on. It also helps to identify the security measures that need to be put in place.

Security first

The safe and secure storage, transfer and handling of all collected research data has been a main priority for Drugs & (dis)order, especially since some of the local partners have a fairly basic IT infrastructure and no dedicated IT staff. Researchers may carry out all work on laptops, with no networked server available.

An audit was done of all the laptops (and PCs) used within the project for working with sensitive data. The audit recorded: their operating system, version and edition; the antivirus software used on the machine; and whether or not encryption is in place.

An encryption strategy was developed for laptops, whereby either the entire drive (disk) of the laptop was encrypted, or an encrypted ‘container’ was set up on the laptop in which sensitive files can be placed. Practical guidance for encryption was sent to all researchers, explaining which tools can be used and how encryption is implemented in practice.

Glasscubes was already used by the project as a collaborative workspace to share and exchange reports and information. Since it is an ISO27001 ( Information Security Management Systems) certified tool and has Cyber Essentials certification, it is now also used to share data files with colleagues on the project and to transfer data files between partners securely.

Hands-on data management

Visits to the partner organisations in Afghanistan and Myanmar helped to develop data management practices further.

Working directly with the researchers and staff members that handle and manage the data at different stages of the research process, I could observe how this is done in practice and where there may be scope for improvement.

It also means that the guidance can be put into practice for the specific data an organisation is working with, by the individuals responsible for data management, and for the software packages they are using. It is important to fit good data management around the software packages and tools people are used to working with.

With the data manager and researchers of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, I worked on implementing standardised data entry and standard coding for an Excel-based database of thousands of development projects and investments, as well as the use of formulas for analysis of the data.

With the Organization for Sustainable Development and Research in Afghanistan, I worked on the best ways to collect questionnaire and interview data in an anonymous way, using unique respondent and surveyor codes, and to remove and code sensitive information in the database where responses are submitted.

With Kachinland Research Centre (KRC) and  Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) in Myanmar, I worked on an optimal system for uniquely coding interviews carried out by multiple field researchers in different areas, and tracking the audio recordings, field notes, summaries, transcripts and translations of each interview through the use of these codes in file names and in data sheets that record the demographic and organisational information of each interview.

Country visits were also used to provide formal data management training to partner organisations, on topics such as organising data, file naming, version control, data storage and transfer, data anonymisation, quality control, documentation and metadata, transcription and tools and coding qualitative data.

Data management guidance

All the data management measures implemented by liaising with the partners are also written out into practical Data management guidance that will continue to develop as the project progresses.

In months to come the focus will shift to further requirements, such as selecting a tool to help organise, manage and tag digital images; investigating solutions for a repository system for partners to archive their data files; and developing capacity for coding qualitative data.

There is still time to make Colombia’s illicit crop substitution programme work

Colombia’s national illicit crop substitution programme (Programa Nacional Integral de Sustitución de Cultivos de Uso Ilícito – PNIS) has been one of the main instruments in the battle to reduce illicit coca production, since the signing of the Peace Agreement in 2016. But the programme has been fraught with difficulties, in part due to non-compliance by the Government.

Yet a recent survey of coca farmers enrolled in the programme in Tumaco and Puerto Asís (two of Colombia’s largest coca producing municipalities) found that they are still largely committed to and optimistic about the programme. This tells us that there is still time to adjust the policy and make it work.

But this window of opportunity won’t last forever. Adjustments to the policy will need to: address government non-compliance; improve information flows between the state and participants; and importantly, include the opinions, perspectives and experiences of the coca farmers who have for too long been dismissed in these policy debates.

A survey of coca farmers was carried out by the Institute of Politics and International Relations at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia, as part of the Global Challenges Research Fund-project Drugs & (dis)order, and its key findings were:

Coca growing families are not criminals: it’s time to change the narrative

The most common narratives about coca farmers are that they are either desperately poor, with no option other than farming coca to survive, or that they are extremely rich narcotraffickers.

The survey results don’t fit these stereotypes. They show that the typical coca grower has an income just slightly above the average income of the dispersed rural sector, but in no way could be considered rich.

It is precisely this slight but sustained increase in income that incentivises farmers to grow coca. As one coca grower said, ‘coca is for us what a company’s salary is for you.’

And far from spending their income on flashy material goods, we found that coca producing families invest their money in four things: education for their children, land, cars and housing – the same as many Colombian families.

So, coca farmers do not spend their money as criminals. Nor do they live in the shadows like criminals. Coca growers are very active participants in the social life of their communities.

They’re also active in the country’s democracy. The survey found that 85{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of respondents voted in the last presidential election. Participation in local elections was also high (national voting levels rarely exceed 50{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad}).

Coca growers have poor access to public services and face higher risk of violence

However, despite living like other Colombian families in many respects, coca growing families are different in some fundamental ways.

First, they have significantly less access to public goods and services. The survey data shows us that less than 3{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of respondents have formal access to drinking water, sewage, gas and internet. That is well below the average of rural Colombian households according to the National Agricultural Census.

Second, they have much higher exposure to violence. Overwhelmingly, the majority of coca producers who participated in the study said that coca was associated with increased violence in their region.

Government non-compliance with PNIS is a big issue, as is lack of information

When asked about PNIS, most survey respondents spoke positively about the treatment they had received from programme officials – both from the Crop substitution Directorate and the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime.

However, when talking about the government’s fulfilment of their commitments, well let’s just say that the responses were not positive at all!

Government failure to comply was without doubt the biggest difficulty that participants had with the programme.

The survey also suggests that there is an information and communication problem when it comes to PNIS. Most of the respondents received information about the programme from social organisations, not state agencies.

Alarmingly, less than 20{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of respondents actually have a copy of the signed contract between them and the government. A small proportion of those enrolled in the programme have documentation explaining the commitments of both parties.

Farmers are still optimistic: a unique opportunity that the government can’t ignore

Survey respondents mostly expressed commitment to, and optimism about, the policy. More than 85{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} said that they thought those enrolled in the programme would comply. And 90{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} said they did not know families who had replanted coca after enrolling in the programme. This is backed up by UNODC’s verification work. Just 14{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of respondents said that they regret enrolling.

In spite of Government non-compliance and contradictory signals (last year president Duque said he would not enable more registrations due to a shortage of resources) more than 60{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of respondents believe that the state will comply with what it agreed.

As the future of PNIS is being debated in Colombia, we hope that this study will be used by policymakers to inform their decisions. The voices, perspectives and experiences of coca farmers are sadly not listened to, and this is a mistake.

This blog is adapted from an article published by the author in El Espectador on 16 August 2019. The full survey results will be published shortly, and a link provided here.

Conflictos cocaleros en Colombia

These articles are currently only available in Spanish.

Cuatro artículos publicados en la revista Análisis Político (Vol. 32, Numero 97 (2019): Conflictos cocaleros en Colombia).

What you didn’t know about Mexico’s opium crisis

What links the recent deaths of America’s biggest rock stars Prince and Tom Petty, with an unprecedented economic crisis in rural Mexico? It’s probably not a question that many people have asked themselves. The answer is: a rise in the use of a synthetic opioid drug called fentanyl.

While this rise is having a devastating impact in the US and in rural poppy cultivating communities in Mexico, it could represent an unprecedented opportunity for the Mexican government to stop dependency on illegal crop cultivation in poor rural regions and to take back control from dangerous drug trafficking organisations.

In the US, the ‘fentanyl crisis’ is now killing more people than heroin

Fentanyl is around 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. For many years, it was used in US hospitals but rarely found on the streets. From around 2014, illicit pharmaceutical manufacturers in Asia began to use the dark web to advertise fentanyl to US dealers as a profitable addition, or alternative, to heroin – and one that could be cheaply and easily shipped to US cities in the post.

Because of its potency, fentanyl is now involved in 60{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of US opioid deaths – including those of a host of high-profile celebrities. Synthetic opioid overdoses have risen from around 3,000 in 2013 to nearly 30,000 in 2017. Its use has become so prevalent that some quarters of the US press have rechristened the national opioid crisis, ‘the fentanyl crisis.’

Rising fentanyl use has led to a lesser-known crisis south of the US border too

As well as leaving a trail of dead consumers and fractured communities in the US, in Mexico, the rise in fentanyl use is destroying the livelihoods of some of the poorest and most marginalised communities that have long depended on the illicit opium poppy cultivation to supply the US heroin market.

Last year, during fieldwork in poppy-cultivating communities in Mexico (that were, until recently, the source of more than 90{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of US heroin) we saw a decline in the value of the local opium crop of up to 80{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad}.

When asked about the reason for this economic collapse, locals were adamant that the crisis was provoked by the gringos (people from the US) and a new synthetic drug. ‘They just don’t like heroin any more,’ they said.

Shocked by the scale and severity of this new crisis, we began to investigate the issue in more depth. And it soon became clear that the locals were right: the upsurge in the use of Asian fentanyl has caused US demand for Mexican heroin to fall sharply, which, in turn, massively depressed the price of raw opium in the Mexican countryside.

Our research shows that for the first time in history, illicit natural drugs have suddenly ceased to be profitable cash crops in Mexico.

Mexico’s main opium producing areas

Last year, Mexican opium farmers saw a 63{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} decrease in earnings

Opium poppy cultivation has provided a lifeline to rural regions of Mexico since neoliberal reforms in the 1990s cut agricultural subsidiaries and reduced cross-border tariffs, driving down the price of locally-produced agricultural products.

In these borderland areas – which have some of the highest rates of poverty and social marginalisation in the country – opium production was all that sustained local economies, religious practices, and intra-community relations. It also stemmed out-migration to Mexican cities and the US.

By 2017, the value of the opium produced in these regions was around 19 billion pesos ($1 billion dollars). That is significantly more than the total value of Mexican beans (16 billion pesos, or $846 million dollars), wheat (13 billion pesos, or $687 million dollars), or cotton (12 billion pesos, or $636 million dollars).

Last year, however, Mexican opium farmers made only 5-7 billion pesos ($260-$364 million dollars), or even as little as 5 billion pesos ($260 million dollars). This is a decrease in earnings of as much as 63{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad}.

This is causing serious secondary effects in municipalities where opium had been the main source of revenue for local people. Families are losing their sole source of income. And money flowing into the local economy has dried up almost completely.

Many former opium producers are left with no choice but to work for drug trafficking organisations

As the Trump administration makes it ever more difficult for people to seek new opportunities as migrant labourers in the US (an option that has long constituted a safety net for rural Mexicans), many former opium producers are instead fleeing to Mexican cities,  where uncontrolled rural-to-urban migration has long been tied to social breakdown and rising violence. Others are left with no choice but to work directly for Mexican drug trafficking organisations.

While the prognosis is bad, the current opium crisis may also provide an unprecedented opportunity

The opium crisis could be a chance to move poorer regions of rural Mexico away from their dependency on illegal crops, and, in so doing, wrest control of these areas from drug trafficking organisations.

Farmers now receiving pitiful returns from illicit opium production are more likely to turn to the safer rewards offered by two ideas that have been floating around for years: crop substitution programmes, and the legalisation and regulation of opium production for medical use.

Neither of these should be conceived of as ‘silver bullet’ solutions. Mexico’s capacity for opium production still greatly exceeds the country’s demand for legitimate medical use. And crop substitution programmes are often expensive and complicated by practical problems such as a lack of infrastructure.

But with sufficient political will, financial investment, and serious consultation with local communities on issues such as sustainability, market stability, transport, and soil-, altitude-, climate- and water-suitability, they could serve as important first steps in tying local farmers to licit international markets.

And in the process, loosening the grip of drug trafficking organisations on the country’s most marginalised drug producing regions that are geographically distant from the centres of power and have historically been neglected.

If successful, Mexico’s opium crisis could constitute a watershed in the government’s long-running efforts to integrate these regions into the country for good.

Nathaniel Morris is a research fellow at UCL, London, where he works on modern Mexican history, indigenous politics, and the Latin American drug trade (@morrisinmexico). This blog is based on research published by Noria, a Paris-based collective of academics, researchers and analysts, specialising in fieldwork-based investigations into internal conflicts, foreign policy and international migration. The research was carried out by Romain LeCour (@romainlecour), Nathaniel Morris and Benjamin T Smith (@benjamintsmith7).