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Causes of Drug Trafficking and Strategies for Reduction

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 5055 words Published: 30th Jul 2019

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Experts have been laying out options for years and it seems as if drugs still flow all over the world on a consistent and steady pace leading to a national and global security threat. This research paper will focus on the best methods for reducing the effectiveness of transnational criminal organizations and their efforts to traffic narcotics with analysis on how to implement those methods. One option proposed is legalizing these dangerous illicit drugs. We could also engage in international information sharing with regards to financial intelligence in order to thwart threat finance. To reduce the effectiveness of transnational criminal organizations (TCO’s), the United States Government needs to interdict drug transportation routes. This will help prevent drug trafficking organizations from infecting and spreading throughout America and nations abroad. This is the best and most effective long-term solution to drowning out these organizations and preventing them from exploiting the communities they operate and thrive in forever.

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Drug trafficking and distribution are two felonious activities that are carried out by organized crime affiliations. Nearly every drug transaction that takes place in the world is the result of drug trafficking and distribution stemming from some type of transnational organized crime organization. Estimated profits from some of these organizations, such as the Colombian Medellin Cartel of the 1980’s and 1990’s, range anywhere from tens of billions to hundreds of billions of dollars per year. According to the FBI (2016), “The vast sums of money and harsh violence involved can compromise legitimate economies and have a direct impact on governments through the corruption of public officials” (para.1). If these organizations can rake in this much money every year, how do we stop them? What’s the best course of action to take?


I believe the reason this issue has become a topic of conversation again is due to the deadly opioid epidemic plaguing the United States. The number of overdose related deaths has steadily increased since 2012. Now people are starting to question where the drugs are coming from and how they are getting into the hands of Americans. To me, the answer is simple; transnational organized crime is to blame. These crime organizations understand the demand for illicit drugs and make a hefty profit smuggling them around the world and distributing. From the Italian Mob of the 1950’s to Pablo Escobar’s Medellin Cartel in the 1970’s, these crime organizations have been profiting off of selling illegal drugs to people for decades. It is a global business that affects almost every country in the world.

Drug trafficking in the United States creates a huge black market industry. It is estimated that $200-$750 billion per year is spent on these illegal substances, with the current decade seeing the largest per person drug usage per year in American history (Adinolfi, 2013). According to the United States Sentencing Commission (2013), “Over 30 percent of all offenses in 2013 were related to drug trafficking, and 22,215 cases of drug trafficking were reported to the USSC in the 2013 fiscal year” (para. 3). It is believed that most drug traffickers belong to an organized crime enterprise and get their product into the United States along the 2,000 mile border with Mexico.

The border with Mexico is not the most secure border on Earth and there are numerous soft spots that allow traffickers to smuggle their product into the United States illegally. Millions of trucks cross the border into the United States each and every year from Mexico. It is impossible for the authorities to thoroughly check each and every one of those trucks. Traffickers also have marine containers or cargo containers that they use at their disposal. As well as the sea and land, these organizations also sneak their drugs into the United States through the air. “Smugglers use a vast number of both air and sea trafficking routes to transport cocaine from South America to the United States. The most commonly travelled routes are through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, through the Yucatan Channel between Mexico and Cuba, and through the Mona Passage, bordered by the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico” (America’s Habit, 1986). It’s clearly a very sophisticated operation with financial backing. With all the technology the United States has at its disposal (X-ray machines, drug sniffing dogs, metal detectors, body scanners, etc), it seems almost impossible to get anything past our borders we did not want to cross, but it does happen more frequently than it should.

According to Quinones (2017) “A lot of heroin trafficking happens a kilo or two at a time. Other ranchers told me they used hollow hammers, toothpaste tubes, a woman’s hair, backpacks or the carburetor of a truck. No wall stops that kind of trafficking” (para. 9). We can’t expect our customs agents to open toothpaste tubes and dismantle cars on the spot for every vehicle that tries to cross into the United States. It’s just not a plausible solution. Granted, the amounts being smuggled in are smaller, they have become more frequent, which is just as dangerous. There needs to be a solution to stop this madness from happening, not only in the United States, but across the world.


It’s clear to see from the recent trends of drug abuse in the United States that this problem is not going away any time soon and requires some type of immediate action to remedy the situation. The problem lies with transnational organized crime enterprises that continuously and successfully traffic narcotics around the world for huge profits. There is a strong need to impede these illegal operations. Three of the top options available that could solve that problem are legalization of drugs, information sharing with regards to threat financing by using financial intelligence and finally, enhancing border security and route interdiction.

Legalizing drugs in the United States is a solution that people believe will solve America’s drug problem. From a neutral point of view, it has its benefits and its drawbacks. Marijuana has essentially become “legal” in the United States in the sense that it has been decriminalized in many states and approved for recreational use. Each state has separate rules and statutes for marijuana offenses, but the way things are heading it looks as if marijuana is on its way to becoming a legalized drug in the United States. There are even medical marijuana cards that allow people to smoke marijuana for medical purposes, such as to help with the effects of chemotherapy or radiation treatments for cancer. Of course, there are still rules and laws that prevent operating vehicles while under the influence of marijuana, just like alcohol, because it is still a mind-altering substance that can impair your ability to operate a vehicle or heavy machinery in a safe manner. By having the same restrictions or laws on marijuana that we have on alcohol, experts believe that the United States could profit from the taxes put on legalizing marijuana, thus taking away money from some of these organized crime enterprises that traffic and distribute marijuana in the United States. There have been studies that show an overdose from marijuana is extremely unlikely and has not ever been documented in the academic world. According to Blaszczak-Boxe (2014), “The risk of a person suffering a fatal overdose from marijuana is “extremely small,” and there are no reports of fatal overdoses in the scientific literature, according to the review” (para.6). The United States could control the distribution and sale of marijuana which would essentially take the money away from illegal drug trafficking organizations.

The negative aspect of legalizing marijuana is that it is considered a gateway drug and more often than not, young kids start out smoking marijuana at a young age and move on to other more harsh drugs (heroin, cocaine, prescription pills, etc.). A study found that “regular cannabis users also double their risk of experiencing psychotic symptoms and disorders such as disordered thinking, hallucinations and delusions” (Blaszczak-Boxe, 2014, para.9). That seems like a significant problem that could be detrimental to the youth of the country if it were to be fully legalized.

Some of these other drugs such as heroin, cocaine or prescription pills pose a little bit of a tougher problem compared to marijuana. Let’s start with some positives of legalizing these other types of drugs. Some people make the argument that if we legalize all of these drugs it will cripple the organized crime stranglehold on the drug trafficking market. If TCO’s can’t traffic drugs, because drugs are legal, and make money, then they will fall apart and disappear. Other sources believe the United States can make money from the legalization and taxation of these types of drugs. If the United States were to control and regulate these classes of drugs, then there would be no “black market” for them, which would take business and money away from transnational organized crime enterprises. Some researchers also argue that some of these people currently incarcerated need medical and psychiatric care and should not be incarcerated. The costs of keeping people incarcerated is exorbitant and it comes out of the taxpayers’ pockets. According to Adinolfi (2013), “About 330,000 of the U.S.’s 1.6 million prison inmates in 2012 were doing time for drug offenses, at an average annual cost of $25,000 per inmate — a total of $8.2 billion” (para.5). So, $8.2 billion dollars per year is being spent to house inmates for drug related offenses. The argument is that $8.2 billion dollars could be going back into the economy as opposed to housing people for these types of drug related offenses. Building even further off of that, some experts believe the estimated yearly tax receipts from legalizing drugs could amount to about $8.7 billion (Adinolfi, 2013). Roughly, a total of $17 billion dollars could be generated from legalization and cutting down on incarceration costs as a result of this legalization process. That does sound awfully nice on paper, but when there are pros there are also cons to every argument.

Heroin, cocaine (crack and powdered), methamphetamine and prescription pills (Oxycodone, OxyContin) account for five of the top six trafficked drugs into the United States. That means that organized crime makes a lot of money from these drugs. When governments try to get in the way of them making money, they get angry and retaliate. The problem not only lies with the dangers of drug trafficking and drug use, but rather with the violence associated with these drugs and crime organizations. For example, “in 1975, the Colombian police seized 600 kilos of cocaine from a plane destined for the United States. Colombian drug traffickers retaliated by killing 40 people during one weekend in what became known as the Medellin Massacre. The event triggered years of violence that led to assassinations, kidnappings and raids all over Colombia” (History.com, 2017, para. 9). According to Felbab-Brown (2012), “Organized crime groups who stand to be displaced from the drug trade by legalization can hardly be expected to take the change lying down. Rather, they may intensify their violent power struggles over remaining illegal economies, such as the smuggling of other contraband or migrants, prostitution, extortion, and kidnapping” (para. 12). This is a major drawback experts bring up when legalization talks arise. By affecting organized crime revenue streams with legalization they could react by being more violent and cause bigger problems by getting involved with other violent illegal activities previously mentioned.

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Since 2012 there have been steady increases on the amounts of these drugs entering the country illegally. Not only do these drugs enter the country illegally, but they are highly addictive and threaten the well-being of our youth. There has been a steady increase of overdose deaths from these drugs (opioids and heroin in particular) since 2002. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (2017) reports that overdose deaths from heroin and illicit opioid-based drugs increased by six times from 2002 to 2015. The rates at which people are overdosing and dying is alarming at best. The solution of legalization seems less and less attractive the more you look at the rising numbers of overdose deaths, which are disturbing.

Threat finance is a term that is not very well-known to the public. According to Boyle (2012), “Threat finance encompasses the means and methods used by organizations to finance illicit operations and activities that pose a threat to U.S. national security.” These criminal enterprises use a myriad of illegal methods to fund their operations such as money-laundering (underlying method of threat finance), extortion, fraud, kidnapping, tax evasion or shell organizations. Employing these methods is essential for continuing their operations without detection from governmental authorities. This process creates the appearance that large amounts of money obtained from serious crimes, such as drug trafficking or terrorist activity, originated from a legitimate source, which makes it difficult to track and thwart (Spiro, 2017). Financing for these transnational organized crime (TOC) enterprises is required for safe haven, paying bribes, recruitment, operational expenses (materials and overhead), payment of operatives and good will contributions (donations) (Boyle, 2012). A perfect example of using threat finance to enhance his operation is Pablo Escobar. Donations and good will, provided by Escobar, proved to be useful throughout his reign in Colombia. Escobar built communities and soccer fields with his own capital in order to gain the loyalty of the people. The people looked at Escobar as if he was their family and would even tip him off if raids were coming or any type of police were around. Escobar successfully used good will in return for information from people all over Colombia.

The only real way to deter or stop threat finance from jeopardizing global stability is something called financial intelligence. Basically, financial intelligence is just the methods used by the U.S. government and international authorities to discover these financial threats and deter or stop them permanently. It’s not as easy as it sounds due to the sophistication and integration of global financial systems. Two methods of financial intelligence used to disrupt these organizations’ financial operations is the Anti-Money Laundering (AML) and Counter Threat Finance (CTF) policies and regulations. The U.S. government has developed many of these policies in order to enhance transparency and by requiring financial services providers to collect, maintain and report information that supports law enforcement investigations and helps to deter illicit financing (Spiro, 2017). These policies are aimed at permanently disrupting financial operations, which would interrupt transnational criminal activity as a collateral effect (Boyle, 2012).

These policies are a way to combat threat finance used by these transnational organized crime enterprises. However, in the world today there is an increasing integration of the global financial system due to the lower barriers to trade and movement of capital. Globalization has led to financial dealings all over the world. International commerce and trade has become a common occurrence and does not justify an inquiry if a large sum of money is transferred or received through international means. Technological innovations have also made it easier to launder money while at the same time increasing the difficulty of detecting and stopping illicit operations by law enforcement and federal agencies (Spiro, 2017). The evolution of technology and technological advancements in combination with a multitude of tactics (money laundering, shell companies, online gambling, counterfeiting, etc.) makes it increasingly more difficult for these federal agencies to have a major effect on threat finance. Preventing drug traffickers from gaining capital or having access to that capital is a pliable option, but much easier in ideology and theory than in practice.

Border security is one of the most widely discussed topics going on in the United States today. It’s also one of the most controversial issues. It is estimated that 70-90% of illegal drugs enter the United States along the 2000-mile border with Mexico (Snow, 2013, p.348). On the face of it, this may seem like a domestic security threat, but it does have strong indirect national security implications. “The deleterious effect of drug usage on Americans, and thus American society, and the political devastation to other countries (especially but not limited to Mexico) created by the actions of drug traffickers” (Snow, 2013, p.348) render this a national security threat. Drugs entering America from a foreign country or foreign organization (TCO) that have a direct impact upon United States citizens classifies the issue of border security as a national security threat.

Border security is a more complex problem than one may assume. To put into perspective, the magnitude of the issue, “According to Stephen Flynn, one of the country’s leading experts in border and port security issues, in 2000, 489 million people, 127 million passenger vehicles, 11 million trucks, 2.2 million railroad cars, 829,000 planes and 211,000 vessels passed through American border inspection systems” (Snow, 2013, p.345). We can’t rationally believe that each person, car, truck, plane or vessel was thoroughly searched for illegal contraband. It’s just not possible given the resources or number of border guards. Illegal drugs are the foundation of much crime and put a strain on the criminal justice and penal system. According to Snow (2013), “the country would be stronger if drug use were sharply curtailed or eliminated” (p.348). The best way to eliminate these drugs is stronger security along the Mexican border through increased route interdiction.

Marguerite Cawley, contributor to insightcrime.org, has a negative opinion about drug route interdiction. According to Cawley (2014), “interdiction programs have failed to halt supply in consumer states and instead appear to have facilitated the migration of organized crime — a phenomenon with important implications for drug policy.” Cawley also believes “The migration of drug trafficking operations is often put down to the “balloon effect,” a theory touted by many academics and proponents of drug policy change that states anti-narcotics efforts and increased interdiction in one area leads criminals to shift operations to another, rather than having the intended impact of cutting profits and increasing costs to drug traffickers” (2014). Ms. Cawley believes that interrupting one drug route will lead to the opening of another drug route. That may be true, but is the government supposed to allow known drug routes to remain open when they can be stopped? Not taking action out of fear of reaction from TCO’s is a dangerous precedent to set and sends the wrong message to the American people.

Significant improvements have been made at the southern border since 2000. There is currently 700 miles of fencing compared to the 77 miles of fencing in 2000. “The border is patrolled by 107 aircraft and 84 vessels; in 2000, there were 56 aircraft and 2 vessels. Border Patrol also utilizes 8 unmanned aerial systems, compared to zero in 2000 and has 18,000 border patrol agents compared to 8,600 in 2000” (DeLuca, 2016). It shows that the government is putting an increased amount of resources at the border and looking for increased security in return. The benefit of these extra resources is an increased interdiction of drug transportation routes. According to DeLuca (2016), “In 2012 alone, Border Patrol agents on the southern border seized more than 5,900 pounds of cocaine and more than 2.2 million pounds of marijuana.” This shows that interdiction efforts have been working with the extra resources. DeLuca (2016) even claims that TCO’s have shifted operations and are starting to use the Caribbean corridor to transport and ship drugs because of the increased security measures at the southern border. Cawley is essentially right that interdiction leads to other routes opening up, but I contest that these interdiction results mean it’s working. TCO’s use innovative methods and various routes to transport drugs, but the US Government needs to try to stay one step ahead and keep sending resources to the southern border in an attempt to interdict transportation routes.

Recommendation & Summary:

“In some important ways, the security of national borders is the oldest and most fundamental of all national security issues. Protecting and defending national, sovereign territory is, arguably, the most important and vital priority and task of government” (Snow, 2013). That quote is the basis for my recommendation. Interdicting drug transportation routes is an instrumental part of defending our borders and securing our safety. It won’t be easy, but it should be the focus of the US Government. With the opioid epidemic flourishing, it’s evident that the US Government needs to contain the flow of illegal drugs into the country. The factors that will be critical to successfully implement drug interdiction are finance, resources and intelligence gathering. The government will need to dedicate a significant portion of the budget to the southern border. With strong financial backing, the government can hire an appropriate amount of border agents and increase the resources (thermal imaging, UAV’s) available for them to do their jobs. “Many of these tunnels are extremely intricate. They include ventilation systems, electrical lighting, support beams, and might even include a rail system to transport the contraband” (DeLuca, 2016). These TCO’s use ingenious methods to get their products into the US and we need to use all the resources available to thwart their efforts. The final factor is intelligence gathering. The US needs to emphasize capturing these individuals and retrieving information from them. The threat of long-term imprisonment could force someone to reveal trade secrets or other valuable information for a reduced sentence. Capturing a high ranking member of one of these TCO’s that has vital information could lead to greater interdiction. The value of intelligence is sometimes overlooked, but in this case, gathering intelligence could prove invaluable and give us insight to how these organizations have been so successful in the past. “National security is, at its most elemental level, about protecting the citizenry from hostile others who might breach those borders and do harm to the citizens” (Snow, 2013). TCO’s that traffic drugs into the United States are hostile, breach our borders and intend do harm to our citizens. That is why interdicting transportation routes is the most effective way to reduce the effectiveness of TCO’s in America and abroad.


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