Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

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