Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 388 | Noviembre 2013


Latin America

Trends and paradoxes of drug trafficking in Latin America

Drug trafficking is rapidly spreading through Latin America, changing form and increasingly affecting poor, vulnerable and marginalized people. Over 30 years of prohibition and repressive policies have failed as they haven’t broached the structural causes. Current trends and paradoxes in drug trafficking show us the urgency of shifting focus.

Ricardo Soberón Garrido

Each in its own way, Latin America’s countries are increasingly engaged in the geopolitics of drug trafficking. This activity is playing a perceptively greater role in Latin American life in this second decade of the 21st century, whether because of the uncontrolled violence caused by control efforts based on indiscriminate repression, the profusion of cases of institutional corruption related to politics and the exercise of power, or perhaps just the inefficiency of agencies responsible for combating organized crime, illegal assets and networks supplying traffickers with chemical inputs or weapons.

A failed strategyWe can identify a set of paradoxes arising from the experience of the past 30 years. Just from official data in the 2012 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), we can demonstrate structural problems in the concerted actions to supposedly “end drug trafficking” in our countries. The strategies clearly haven’t had the desired impact. Drug trafficking today is an illegal industry that operates by taking advantage of free trade, modernity and technology. The asymmetry of conditions and prices prevents the problem being resolved and the policies applied so far have even recreated both the problems and their undesirable effects: corruption, violence, illegality.

Given this failure, it’s imperative to make visible and evident changes in future public policies. Between 1998 and 2008, the international community within the UN system—UNODC, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Commission on Narcotic Drugs—initiated an extended evaluation of multilateral policies in the fight against drug trafficking. These sessions reaffirmed the existing system of treaties but very soon the need became apparent to initiate another similar assessment in 2016. The next attempt to explore the reforms and assessment of that time won’t be able to ignore the urgent need for changes.

What’s produced
and what’s seized

In 2010, according to generally accepted productivity criteria, about 1,060 metric tons of cocaine hydrochloride (60% pure) is produced annually in the jungles of the Andean countries’ Amazon region. With all the available technology and resources, the world’s combined police and armed forces seized about 694 tons of cocaine annually (as of 2010), which could certainly be considered quite an effective result, as only 300 tons of cocaine reach the end markets each year. According to the World Drug Report, 16 to 19 million people in these markets buy cocaine for the various WHO categories of illegal substance use: occasional, recreational and problematic.

But in analyzing production/seizure results in business terms, we need to understand that the drug dealers responsible for distribution and final sale to consumers cut the cocaine two or three times, mixing it with substitutes. Because of this, these 300 tons can become 600 or 900 tons sold on city streets and in bars and neighborhoods of countries in both the North and South.

The paradox of seizures

The US$25 billion spent annually by the United States—an “exemplary” country in its commitment to the war on drugs—doesn’t even scratch the surface of the drug trafficking business because the volume of any seized drugs is replaced by simply cutting the content and purity of the remaining drugs with different substitutes: phenacetin, caffeine, levamisole, lidocaine and others. The purchase and use levels thus remain unaffected.

That’s how frustrating failure can be when prohibition is based on the functionality of its tentacles and permits different kinds of political, police and/or military intervention in different parts of the world. This cruel paradox of the “war on drugs” isn’t given any thought by political parties or by official media such as those in the Newspapers of the Americas Group, an umbrella grouping of 11 of Latin America’s main newspapers, which treat complex issues with the same or a similar editorial policy and feed their sales with headlines presenting spectacular seizure and confiscation operations.

The paradox of free trade

Crime associated with illegal commercial activities is growing both quantitatively and qualitatively just as the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and the 1912 International Opium Convention its hundredth. Traffickers now spend greater efforts on activities that enable them to take advantage of the difficult paths and routes that connect the supply of and demand for drugs, weapons, personnel and capital. Given this, police forces have had to increase their work to prevent these illicit expressions of international trade.

It’s a contradiction, to put it mildly, that this coincides with modern, 21st-century economies that multiply free trade agreements and tear down tariff barriers. Networks of traffickers of drugs or other illegal products often benefit from the tools and mechanisms liberalizing the trade in goods and services.

This is another of the visible paradoxes in the war on drugs being waged throughout the Western Hemisphere under the leadership of Pentagon and Southern Command strategists with the collaboration of the Inter-American Defense Board and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly called the School of the Americas.

The paradox of ever
more people involved

Thanks to the increase in desiged controls, drug trafficking has mutated its forms to evade them at all phases of the process: production, processing, transportation, storage, large transfers and final distribution. Today the traffickers’ large corporate organizations have begun “outsourcing” each of these links, transferring to third parties the greatest risks at the different stages of cocaine production.

If a small-scale carrier gets caught, there’s no reason for the entrepreneur responsible for exporting the drug to get caught. The same thing happens with the thousands of “mules” and the innumerable migrants, youths and unemployed people pressed into service who end up filling Latin American prisons. They’re absolutely replaceable in the illegal market. As Xavier Andrade, the Ecuadoran professor of anthropology, says: “One of the main effects of demonizing drugs at the level of political discussion and international relations is that it has favored repressive action against certain constituent drug-trafficking elements.”

For each person who falls into police hands, four or five more are willing to take their place, attracted by the small reward for their involvement. This is the third great paradox: drug trafficking is a business that exposes the thousands of poor and economically replaceable social players who fill the police stations, courtrooms, rehabilitation centers and prisons.

The same can be seen with money laundering, as small-denomination transactions require new mechanisms to attain financial legality. At first, money launderers used the financial system and tax havens. Now, they use all kinds of mechanisms. The US State Department’s Report for 2008 said that money laundering from a wide array of illegal transactions accounted for between 3% and 5% of world GDP a year, which translates to between US$2.1 trillion and $3.6 trillion.

This is why it’s so important to redraw the theoretical and factual frameworks that determine the current composition of drug trafficking so they can appropriately inform public policies. In circumstances in which all levels of the international community seem to be involved in the task of exploring alternatives to the current prohibitionist policies it’s necessary to reconsider this question in a modest and timely fashion: What proposal can be made today to regulate the cocaine markets?

Rural poverty and drugs
are both a growing trend

Many components comprise this illegal economic sphere of operation, and the community of players involved in it—or in its repression—is just as varied. The South American cocaine trafficking scenario is increasingly more complex. In this second decade of the 21st century we can identify some trends that delineate the new elements comprising this global phenomenon in Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, the Andean region and the Southern Cone.

Third World rural societies have found a way to adapt to the new era of globalization and join the free market by linking into the free market circuit through their incorporation into illegal agrarian economies. This is true of at least 300,000 South American Andean peasants who supply the regional international markets with raw materials: coca (200,000 hectares), poppies (1,500 hectares) and marijuana (at least 1,000 hectares). The Amazon basin will face increasingly progressive and chaotic colonization motivated by these illicit economies, which will not only quickly destroy it but will also progressively involve traditional rural societies in this crime-related maelstrom.

After 25 years of discussion and debate, the relationship among poverty, marginalization, conflict and drug trafficking are more than evident. As an example, despite Plan Colombia (2000-2005) and the severe blows successive Colombian governments have inflicted on the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the failure to address the problems of land concentration and the existence of local mafias has prevented any resolution of the structural problems enabling and facilitating the FARC’s existence as an alternative for the peasantry. This has led to an intensification of Colombia’s conflict and the involvement of new local and regional players—in this case from Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru—through the “securitizing” and militarizing of the almost 4,000 miles of border between Colombia and its neighboring countries.

Something similar is happenings in Peru. The Shining Light (Sendero Luminoso) terrorist group emerged in 1980 and after 20 years of bloody civil war its leader, Abimael Guzmán, was captured. Eighteen years later, Peru is going through a period of sustained economic growth and financial stability that can be especially felt on the narrow strip of the Peruvian coast (Lima, Trujillo, Arequipa and Piura), while the indigenous and native communities of the Andes and the Selva Alta still have much lower human development levels.

Interestingly, the two wings of Sendera Luminosa have survived in the two main coca-producing valleys associated with drug trafficking and are continuing their confrontation with the neoliberal State represented by the successive administrations of Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), Alan García (2006-2011) and Ollanta Humala (2012-). This war is encapsulated while the social and economic conditions that gave rise to it remain intact and even more polarized by land concentration, the arrival of foreign capital and the presence of monocultures and biofuels, to the detriment of small-scale peasant production.

Is compulsive eradication successful?

As long as the structural problems of the rural poor are not addressed, policies based on compulsory eradication of illegal coca crops are useless and harmful. On August 5, 2010, during my time as the CEO of the National Commission for Development and Life without Drugs, we promoted a unilateral suspension of crop eradication for the first time in Peruvian history. While President García himself supported our action, the press and local pseudo-analysts harshly attacked it. In defending our action, we said we were putting more credence in the concept of crop reduction, which includes abandonment and replacement as well as voluntary and enforced eradication.

In 2000, 30,000 hectares were planted with coca in Peru. A decade later, CORAH, a body of the Ministry of the Interior that answered to the US Embassy’s Narcotics Affairs Section in Peru, eradicated over 100,000 hectares of coca. By 2012, two years later, another 62,000 hectares had been planted with coca. Can this policy be described as successful? These figures will present an enormous challenge in coming evaluations.

An ever more fragmented process
and increasingly fuller prisons

The continual fragmentation/segmentation of each stage in the cocaine production process is a variable that will characterize drug trafficking in the coming years. From the cultivation of prohibited plants to the export of their final products, the process not only keeps state interdiction forces busy but also increasingly involves socially vulnerable groups or those excluded from the global economic model (young people, migrants, women, provincials) in an illegal sphere of operation. This applies to thousands of South American migrants who, in their long journey to the developed North, are blackmailed or threatened by groups of traffickers demanding they carry small quantities of drugs in their bodies.

The most effective and cheapest way for organized crime to carry drugs in the coming years will be in small quantities. It will employ enormous numbers of “workers” and will distract the attention of the scarce resources of state control. This human stream would seem to be unstoppable despite intense efforts to militarily reinforce the US border with Mexico and obstacles to migratory reform in the United States.

The penal system’s inability to focus its attention on the complexity of organized crime has allowed it to expand. This inability includes both legal lethargy and the overcrowding of prisons with the most vulnerable players, as evidenced by an increase in the prison population of drug offenders, especially women, in a new expression of the feminization of crime. Due to indiscriminate police repression, the prison industry will benefit from increased spending on penitentiary construction. Latin American countries are currently experiencing a surge of opinion pushing for prison privatization in order to reduce overcrowding and improve living conditions in prisons. The owners of these private prisons would have a cheap work force... Will the State give up its rehabilitation duties?

New scenarios in which
legal and illegal coexist

There are major geographic areas in the drug economy’s new sociological scenario where the State and modernity have no presence. They are found both in urban areas, such as the slums in all capital and major cities, and in rural areas, especially on borders such as the Amazon trapezium, that part of Colombia that forms a trapezoid corridor between Brazil and Peru, where the Amazon River flows from the Putumayo or Huallaga jungles to Belem do Pará on the Brazilian coast facing western Africa.

The continent’s large urban centers of development and modernity will be surrounded by vast plains of poverty, illegality and violence on the edges of the Amazon basin; the triple border of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay; and the tropical Pacific jungles of Colombia and Ecuador. New conventions will then be formulated where liberal market principles mix and coexist with the rules governing and protecting illegal activities, as is happening among the Comando del Capital or Vermelho Comando organized crime cartels in Río de Janeiro, or in criminal cartels given the name BACRIM (Emerging Criminal Bands) in the Medellín communes.

The illegality and criminality spectrum in today’s Latin America includes gangs, mafias, paramilitary groups, private security groups and others of lesser importance. All tend to interact, respecting their areas of territorial control. This happens in Bogotá where the police believe 500 sale points form a complex micro-trafficking network. Large commercial and transport centers—such as the ports of Buenaventura (Colombia), Paita (Peru) and Guayaquil (Ecuador)—have become places where the legal and illegal mix.

These structures are more evident in the urban shanty towns, such as Medellín’s communes, the Rocinha “favela” in Río de Janeiro, the Bronx in Bogotá, the “villas miseria” in greater Buenos Aires, the city of El Alto which houses workers for Bolivia’s political capital or the barrios sprouting up in the port of Callao in Peru. Given the limited capacity of the police and armed forces to establish appropriate criteria for a rule of law in which all the general principles and human rights truly function, specific criminal interests are confronting each other in these places.

All these experiences aren’t far removed from the failed state concept characterized by North Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq under Saddam Hussein. With the presence of hundreds of small-scale cartels, gangs or other criminal organizations associated with the illegal drug trade, areas “liberated” from the State’s authority in Latin America will only increase. In Colombia they’ve even discussed the idea of using the military and its rules of war to combat the BACRIM. The question is: to what extent can the two regimes—the formal, civilized and legal, and the informal, illegal and violent, to label them in some way—coexist?

The end of a consensus…
and of a senseless war?

Except for specific initiatives such as that of Mérida in Mexico or of Colombia, which emphasize international interdiction and policing, the decrease in the international economic cooperation from Europe, the US and international organizations that sustained the war against drugs for many years in its various forms is becoming increasingly noticeable. Reduced funding is starving to death such formal organizations as the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission against Drug Abuse, which has a mandate to work multilaterally on this issue, and the UNODC, which monopolized the multilateral approach to this issue for many decades even while recreating its problems and contradictions.

There are thus no real possibilities that alternative development efforts can do anything in the Amazonian foothills. As long as international commerce maintains such blatantly differentiated terms of trade, the South’s products, such as coffee, cocoa, palm oil and other products, can’t compete with drug prices which are so high because of the illegality. This is the great paradox that enables illegal crops to succeed in competition with any other basic agricultural crop.

All things considered, this situation represents the final break-up of what was called the Vienna Consensus, which has operated within the framework of international anti-drug treaties since 1912 and in 1961, 1971 and 1988. Over the last century, the international community got used to legitimizing this consensus every year, without debate, preventing any other kind of reform: a reduction in supply or in demand, the treatment given to chemical inputs, a debate about primary or secondary prevention models and even less about treating addictions.

With their vote, the Latin American countries helped keep this consensus intact every year. Only from 2009 on did we begin to see signs of a split by the positions of governments such as Uruguay, Bolivia and Guatemala. Maintaining a consensus that obviously leads to failure forces national States to commit scarce financial resources or abandon local subordinate strategies in favor of more symbolic, less efficient action.

In this context, it’s clear that Latin American countries must review our current intervention model, the available paradigms and strategies and the drug policies and laws based on what’s possible, verifiable and measurable. In recent years we’ve been subjected to analysis and information from one source and one methodology only (UN/US State Department), which no longer squares with the multifaceted reality in Latin America’s valleys and streets.

We must put an end to a “senseless war” engendered from the North and go back to our structural roots; to the real problems of poverty and exclusion in both the countryside and the neighborhoods of our large cities, which are associated with the use and production of illicit substances. We must also redefine the terms of trade and international negotiations with Europe, Asia and the US. The current trade instruments have avoided properly including the drug issue in its relationship with agricultural products that could help compete with cannabis, coca and the poppy.

New consumption patterns
and increasingly extensive routes

Drug use patterns in the latest generations of young people are unpredictable, while government policies are ineffective as preventives and/or as deterrents because they end up denying specific answers to the new generations who are looking for products that enable them to satisfy their needs for tranquilizers or stimulants. The new generations of Latin Americans are living within a model that encourages the exaggerated consumption of a broad range of psychoactive substances available on the market. The price continues to drop and the quality continues to rise: this seems to be an undeniable trend.

The institutional incoherence of States regarding uncontrolled use of alcohol and tobacco, from which they get huge tax revenues, has its effect on the niche of both naturally occurring and synthetically produced illegal substances. The trends on prevalence of alcohol and tobacco consumption show that both exceed the use of illegal substances, yet both have more serious consequences for human health.

Data show increasingly alarming illegal drug abuse in the Southern Cone and in certain mega-cities of Latin America. Recent trends indicate that a strategic corridor is being created, starting in the Río Apurimac valley region— Peru’s main coca producing region—then crossing the jungles of the Cusco and Puno regions (southeastern Peru) and the eastern territories of Bolivia (Beni and Pando), heading to the big cities of Sao Paulo and Río de Janeiro. On the way, they are affecting more than 30 million inhabitants. Networks, convoys of people intermittently cross this immense corridor and are paid, in different ways, to carry drugs (often cocaine paste), weapons and chemical inputs.

Also money laundering

With regard to money laundering, we’re in a situation in which the economic expansion of some developing economies as well as their own crises make possible and less identifiable the existence of multiple mechanisms enabling the flow of dirty or suspicious capital. Money laundering methods have grown more than anticipated by the Financial Action Task Force or the Edmonton Chapter of the Association of Certified Anti-Money Laundering Specialists.

We have secret, unregistered, companies that provide services considered secret even in areas of secrecy within tax havens. Legal activities in Latin America such as the construction boom, the promotion of tourism and the hotel industry as well as the growth of the export sector are often penetrated by drug trafficking today, making the authorities’ work of detection and punishment even tougher.

A change is imperative

Current paradoxes and trends are profiling the new forms that drug trafficking has acquired in Latin America in this second decade of the 21st century. This is a low-intensity war that is weakening democracies, has several contradictions with formal free trade and is affecting the most vulnerable social sectors. New bodies, such as the Union of South American States and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States are obliged to take these characteristics into account when discussing new strategies and policies to address our complex problems.

One of the defined objectives of the South American Council on the World Drug Problem—created on May 4, 2010, within the UNASUR framework—is to contribute to the construction of a South American identity on the issue. If this is truly what it’s about, it’s imperative to change the focus, the paradigm and the operational tools, given the complexity of the challenges, dilemmas and characteristics.

Ricardo Soberón Garrido is a Peruvian lawyer, a drugs and security analyst, director of the Drugs and Human Rights Research Center and former chairman of the National Commission on Life without Drugs. This text appeared in French in Volume 20-2013 of Alternatives Sud, a publication of the Catholic University of Louvain’s Tri-continental Center, and was edited by envío.

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