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close this bookIllicit Drugs: Social Impacts and Policy Responses (UNRISD, 1994, 19 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentPRODUCTION
View the documentTRAFFICKING
View the documentCONSUMPTION


Two or three decades ago, much illegal drug distribution was akin to a cottage industry - small-time traffickers, including tourists, picked up a few hundred grams of heroin or cocaine or a kilogram of marijuana from a producer and distributed the product directly to casual but trusted contacts and personal friends. They in turn passed along small amounts, some of it for financial gain. Although a proportion of the trade in drugs is still carried out in this way, trafficking is increasingly organized, particularly at the wholesale and intermediary levels and for cocaine or heroin (less so for marijuana). A few large, vertically integrated, multinational illicit drug distribution organizations existed as early as the 1930s; such trafficking is now increasingly facilitated by sophisticated organization and distribution techniques able to counter the technology currently available to law enforcement agencies. Evidence of substantial organized production and marketing networks exists not only for the principal consuming countries, but also for many of the processing and transit regions.

The illegal drug economy may at times act as a safety-valve to compensate for the shortcomings of the formal economy. In Bolivia in the mid-1980s, for instance, the dollars brought in by drug traffickers were welcomed by the central bank in order to ease the foreign exchange shortage in the country. However, the adverse effects of drug trafficking can undermine any economic benefits in producing and transit countries: traffickers infiltrate bureaucracies, buy public decisions, and conduct business through violence and intimidation. They create an anti-state outside any rule of law or central government control, necessitating the expenditure of millions of dollars for law enforcement activities. In the social sphere, traffickers corrupt a significant proportion of the population by attracting new generations to the drug trade, glamorizing gangs and glorifying the role model of the conspicuously consuming new rich. They thereby contribute to social disorganization and disintegration.

There is a straightforward connection between drug trafficking and crime. Traffickers’ activities are linked to what is termed “systemic violence”, by which the drug syndicates, gangs and smugglers who secure, launder and guard money attempt to obtain and preserve positions of power by whatever means necessary. Traffickers, not consumers, commit most drug-related homicides. They are able to use the billions of dollars at their command to attempt to corrupt, subvert or eliminate institutions and people who stand in their way.

What Has Helped Traffickers To Succeed?

Traffickers have been aided by three phenomena. First, raw materials are easy to obtain because, as noted above, rural poverty and the failure of rural development have attracted many poor farmers to drug crops. Second, the low salaries paid to the local, national and international officials involved in fighting drugs, at least compared to the amount of money traffickers are able to offer as bribes, have increased the ability of traffickers to corrupt such officials. Third, drug processing is facilitated by lack of effective controls over the necessary chemicals - both on the part of local governments, and on the part of the North American and European countries where the chemicals originate. In addition, weak communication and transportation infrastructure allows drug production and processing to be sited in very remote areas relatively outside the control of the state.

Where political institutions are relatively strong, traffickers appear to be a troubling but not strongly disrupting influence on national life - although they may cause considerable local disruption, as in inner cities in the United States. In institutionally weak countries, however, drug traffickers engage in a struggle for the nation’s institutional life, for territory and for control over the lives of many citizens. This can be seen, for example, in Afghanistan, Colombia, Myanmar and Peru.

When international markets are tightened, traffickers work to improve the quality of their products, and modern technology has aided them in this process. They are mainly interested in reducing the detectability and weight-to-price ratio of their products in order to ease smuggling. Such processing concentrates alkaloids and frequently heightens the addiction rate among local populations (as in Pakistan, for instance).

Traffickers are highly mobile and unrestricted by national boundaries. They shift their laboratories and trade routes virtually at will, preferring to go where national governments are least in control. Thus in the Golden Triangle (Laos, Myanmar, Thailand), for example, traffickers’ border operations concentrate at points of least resistance and change from year to year. When the Colombian government cracks down on its drug operators, they take up temporary residence in Bolivia, Miami, Panama or Peru and direct their operations from there.