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Drug trafficking (or distribution) refers to the production, selling, transportation, and illegal import of unlawful controlled substances such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), LSD, and a variety of other “club drugs,” such as GHB and Rohypnol typically associated with the young adult “rave” dance-party scene. Trafficking laws, and punishments for their violation, vary according to drug type, the quantity seized, the location of the distribution (e.g., drug-free school zones), and whether minors were sold to or targeted. Drug trafficking laws can implicate a single individual or syndicates involving broad rings of people participating in organized illegal drug activity.
Drug trafficking and trafficking networks take many different forms that are specific to the type of drug involved, the geographic origin of the drug, the risk of detection by law enforcement, the level of competition for consumers in the marketplace, and the people to whom the drugs are being sold or distributed. In addition, recent studies have shown that the nature of drug trafficking and drug markets is affected by society’s perception of the particular drug and the types of people trafficking in the drug, often independent of how serious the drug is deemed by lawmakers (Mohamed and Fritsvold 2006).
Trafficking is the direct result of a political decision to criminalize particular substances that are in demand among members of a society. The illegal drug market in the United States has established itself as one of the most profitable in the world. Americans are the world’s largest consumers of cocaine, and they rank among the top consumers of other drugs, such as heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine (CIA 2006). According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), nearly 20 million Americans aged twelve or older were current illicit drug users in 2004, meaning they had used an illegal drug at least once in the previous last month. The HHS also reports that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug among Americans. In 2002, for example, the drug was used either alone or in combination with another illegal drug by 75 percent of current illicit drug users.
This high demand for drugs (in spite of their illegality) and the lure of profits are two of the primary reasons people knowingly enter into the drug trade. In the upper echelons of the international drug trade, political ambitions and influence are also motivating factors. However, for many people, particularly those at the cultivation and harvesting end of drug trafficking pipelines, the drug trade is merely a means of survival. For example, peasant farmers in Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Ecuador have been driven from traditional crops like coffee to coca cultivation, the plant from which cocaine is manufactured. For many of these peasants, coca is the only marketable crop they can produce to sustain their already meager lifestyles—a sustenance that amounts to about $750 to the grower for every 500 kilograms of coca leaves produced (Inciardi 2002).
Drug Trafficking: a Multinational Phenomenon
Most of the illicit street drugs consumed in the United States come from plants that are cultivated in the less developed nations of Latin America, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Asia. Usually, when the plants reach maturity, they are harvested and go through a local refinement process that prepares them for trafficking to U.S. street drug markets. For example, most of the marijuana consumed in the United States originates in Mexico. As already discussed, the coca leaf from which cocaine is derived is primarily grown in the South American nations of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. The opium poppy, from which heroin originates, is grown in the Southwestern Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Southeastern nations of Myanmar and Laos, increasingly in Columbia and Mexico, and in a handful of other nations around the globe.
It is no coincidence that these less developed countries are the primary sources of the raw materials used to supply America’s illicit drug habits. Aside from being geographically conducive to opium poppy, coca, or marijuana cultivation, most of these nations have been overlooked by the global economy and resort to or tolerate drug trafficking as a means to gain an economic foothold through the estimated $400 billion a year international drug market. “As a consequence, whole nation-states—Bolivia, Colombia, Laos, Malaysia, Mexico, Pakistan, Peru, Puerto Rico, Thailand, and Turkey—depend upon opium, coca, and hemp production for their agricultural base, and the manufacture of heroin, cocaine, and marijuana is a significant productive sector of the economy” (Chambliss 2001, p. 101). In the relatively small-player South American nation of Guyana, cocaine traffickers earn an estimated $150 million every year, the equivalent of 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (Hutchinson-Jafar 2006).
For other participants in international drug trafficking, contempt for what they perceive to be a heavyhanded American foreign policy also plays a role in the funneling of drugs into the United States. The antiWestern Taliban regime in Afghanistan was believed to be largely funded by opium poppy cultivation. In the 1970s, Carlos Lehder Rivas emerged as a power broker in the notorious Medellin Cartel in Colombia. Lehder was known for being intensely anti-American, and he saw cocaine smuggling into the United States as a move toward political independence for his native Colombia (Inciardi 2002). In 2005, Evo Morales, the head of a federation of Bolivian coca leaf campesinos (simple farmers) who banded together to oppose U.S.-backed coca eradication programs, was elected president of the country. While Morales insists “I am not a drug trafficker” (BBC 2005), the vast majority of coca harvested in Bolivia and other Andean nations is not used for traditional cultural practices. Rather, the bulk of this coca is refined into cocaine for sale on the black market in the United States and elsewhere, and cocaine exports have historically provided Bolivia with more income than all of its other exports combined (Chambliss 2001).
Currently, the U.S.-Mexico border is the primary point of entry for cocaine shipments being smuggled into the United States, and approximately 65 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the nation crosses its southwestern border. But, before this cocaine reaches Mexico, it has typically made stops in several other countries whose drug traffickers play key roles in bringing cocaine to market. After the coca leaf is refined into coca paste, typically in remote locations somewhat close to where the coca is harvested, it works its way through Amazonia (the river valley and rain forest region covering 2.5 million square miles of South America) to Colombia, where it is refined into powder cocaine. From Colombia, the cocaine travels by air and sea through the Caribbean, Central America, Cuba, and Mexico on to the United States (Inciardi 2002).
Drug Trafficking and Crime
On the international level, drug production, largely fueled by U.S. demand, has brought about the establishment of criminal syndicates that organize their law-breaking activities around drugs and jeopardize political stability in drug-producing nations. “The concentration of economic and paramilitary resources in the hands of outlaw trafficking ‘cartels’ has presented a serious challenge to governmental authority” (Smith 1992, p. 1). In many cases, drug traffickers resort to violence and other criminal activities to intimidate opponents, including law enforcement, and to protect and expand their market share. However, according to some experts, the claims of the strong-arm cartels have been somewhat overstated. With regard to Colombian cocaine cartels, Guy Gugliotta notes that the murder and intimidation of small drug traffickers and other dissenters by large traffickers in the late 1970s and early 1980s was largely mythological. While there was undoubtably a great deal of violence perpetrated by these cartels, proprietary leverage was their greatest asset. “The large traffickers’ success as a cartel was probably due to a more mundane factor—the members controlled cocaine’s infrastructure . . . [and] had established vertically integrated processing networks that could move cocaine by the hundred-weight” (Gugliotta 1992, p. 112).
Nonetheless, for a variety of reasons, most of which stem from the illegality of illicit drugs, crime and violence are mainstays of the drug economy. Increased pressure by U.S. drug enforcement agencies and increased cooperation from international governments in the fight against drug distribution have driven traffickers to search for new smuggling routes into the United States. Many of these new routes, particularly those used to smuggle cocaine and marijuana, are in the Caribbean and contribute to increases in crime, violence, and political corruption in the region. In 2005, for example, drug-fueled violence drove Jamaica’s murder rate to a record high. However, as smuggling routes become more stabilized and drug territory becomes more clearly distributed among those controlling the Caribbean drug trade, levels of crime and violence may level off and decline in the region.
In efforts to avoid the violence, vice, and property crimes associated with drug trafficking, several nations (and a few U.S. cities) have adopted formal or informal drug decriminalization policies, with some success. Chambliss found that a de facto drug decriminalization policy in Seattle, Washington, reduced crimes associated with drugs, particularly murder and other crimes of violence. One of the primary reasons for this reduction was decreased competition among black-market sellers, who typically employ violent measures to protect their drug dealing territory. The Netherlands, Spain, Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, and Italy have also experimented with formal or de facto drug decriminalization policies. These nations have found that crimes committed by addicts attempting to support their drug habits have declined, while other public health problems, such as HIV transmission, have decreased as well (Chambliss 2001). However, because of the enormous profits to be gained by high-level distributors from the supply of drugs, and because of the lack of viable economic opportunities for participants at the lower levels of the drug trade, illegal drug trafficking and the ills that come with it are likely to remain mainstays of modern society.
- BBC News. 2005. Profile: Evo Morales—Aymara Indian Evo Morales Has Become in Recent Years Both a Key and Controversial Figure in Bolivian Politics. December 14. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/3203752.stm.
- Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). 2006. World Fact Book: Field Listing—Illicit Drugs. http://www.cia.gov/cia/ publications/factbook/fields/2086.html.
- Chambliss, William J. 2001. Power, Politics, and Crime. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). 2004. Briefs and Background: Drug Trafficking in the United States. http://www.usdoj.gov/dea/concern/drug_trafficking.html.
- Gugliotta, Guy. 1992. The Colombian Cartels and How to Stop Them. In Drug Policy in the Americas, ed. Peter H. Smith. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- Hutchinson-Jafar, Linda. 2006. Drug Violence Afflicts Caribbean Countries. Reuters, March 30.
- Inciardi, James A. 2002. The War on Drugs III: The Continuing Saga of the Mysteries and Miseries of Intoxication, Addiction, Crime, and Public Policy. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.
- Mohamed, A. Rafik, and Erik D. Fritsvold. 2006. Damn, It Feels Good to Be a Gangsta: The Social Organization of the Illicit Drug Trade Servicing a Private College Campus. Deviant Behavior 27 (1): 97–125.
- Smith, Peter H. 1992. The Political Economy of Drugs: Conceptual Issues and Policy Options. In Drug Policy in the Americas, ed. Peter H. Smith. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
- United States Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 2004. National Survey on Drug Use and Health: National Findings. http://www.drugabusestatistics.samhsa.gov.
- United States Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 2000. International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. Washington, DC: United States State Department. http://www.state.gov/p/inl/rls/ nrcrpt/.
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