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Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime


Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) continues to be an issue near the top of the international agenda. While crime has always been an issue, criminal organizations have developed increasingly sophisticated methods. Such international crime can be a threat to the peace and stability of even the most developed countries. The newest technologies have much such crime even less restricted by borders. The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series aims to analyze the different forms of organized crime and the mode of operation of different organized groups. This series will further explore the similarities and differences between Transnational Organized Criminal groups.

The Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101 series is divided into six chapters:

1. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime Groups, Structure and Models

2. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Mafia Transplantation

3. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime

4. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime at Sea

5. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Human Trafficking and Smuggling in Africa and Europe

6. Transnational Organized Crime and Security 101: Organized Crime in Eastern Europe and Balkans

Drug trafficking is the most well-known illicit good that organized crime traffics, and over the years it has consistently attracted attention. Three international drug control treaties govern a variety of drug-related activities, including the manufacture, sale, and possession of restricted substances for therapeutic and research purposes (Paoli, 2018). At all stages of Class A drug production and supply, rival organized crime groups compete fiercely, and often fatally (Drug trafficking, n.b.). Corruption exists at every stage of the drug supply chain, including the use of corrupt port and airport officials.

Organized crime syndicates involved in drug trafficking are typically involved in a variety of criminal activities, and profits from illegal drugs are used to fund other types of criminal operations, such as the purchase of illegal firearms and the financing of terrorism (Drug trafficking, n.b.). The term "drug trafficking" refers to import and export activities as well as the wholesale trade of illegal narcotics in countries that are either producing, transiting, or consuming them. Large-scale drug trafficking groups mostly operate in nations that are involved in manufacturing and transit, although some of them are also present in nations that are predominantly consumers, like Italy (Paoli, 2018). Drug trafficking is therefore extremely prominent in South America and Central America (Paoli, 2018).

Drug trafficking organizations are mainly family companies, meaning they are managed by blood relatives, who occasionally turn to a network of unrelated individuals to complete the most hazardous duties (Paoli, 2018). Some are non-kin organizations that were created around a more or less charismatic leader, which later developed a degree of stability and a fairly basic division of labor. Others are transient alliances or collaborations: informal groups of people who form, separate, and then reassemble when the time is right (Paoli, 2018). Numerous dealers work alone, especially at the intermediate and lower levels, to pay for their own drug use or, less frequently, to make quick cash (Werse & Müller 2016). Many of these drug dealers are unassuming folks who are virtually indistinguishable from "regular" people and have no connection to the criminal underworld (Werse & Müller 2016).

Figure 1: Haitian National Police destroys illegal drugs seized in Port-au-O

The violence associated with the trafficking of illicit narcotics and stimulants continues to pique the interest of North American observers and politicians, who use tired terms and phrases like "narco-terrorism", "failed states", and "security" to describe the situation (Hyland, 2011). Illicit drug trafficking is a signature Latin American contribution to our globalized world, with Colombia and Mexico currently playing dominant roles in terms of production and distribution. While cocaine, heroin, and marijuana have long been the most commonly trafficked drugs, drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) have recently increased methamphetamine shipments (Hyland, 2011).

This modern arrangement, however, was not always the case. Drug production, trafficking, and distribution to consumers have shifted several times across Latin America. Organizations for narco-production and narco-distribution, like all successful businesses, have responded quickly and extensively to changing tastes and strong market demands in consumer countries, particularly the United States (Hyland, 2011). According to the US Department of Justice, there are over 18 million drug users in the United States. This is a serious issue because not only illegal drug use can lead to drug trafficking. In fact, prescription drugs have a massive market in the United States (Barkemeyer Law Firm, 2021).

Figure 2: Drug abuse

One of the most serious issues with the US drug market is that there are far too many drug users for a variety of reasons. In fact, over 1 million people in the United States have been diagnosed with opioid addiction. The majority of these people are not abusing or selling drugs but are addicted as a result of doctors overprescribing drugs. When they can no longer obtain legal opioids, these people frequently turn to illegal opioids such as heroin (Barkemeyer Law Firm, 2021). Drug trafficking is one of the most profitable and simple businesses in the world, which means that many people can financially benefit from it.

Drug traffickers make a lot of money, and they can even make more money than they would if they worked a regular job. The money dealers make from drug trafficking allows them to live very comfortably. Drug trafficking is sometimes passed down from generation to generation. Many people with money and power support the drug trade for their own personal gain, and they have many connections and resources to do so (Barkemeyer Law Firm, 2021).

Drug Trafficking in Colombia

In the mid-1970s, drug trafficking became a major economic phenomenon in Colombia (Hartlyn, 2000). It was initially difficult to distinguish it from a plethora of other illegal or questionable economic activities in the country, even though some of its effects, such as the generation of foreign exchange or employment, were frequently viewed positively. Although marijuana cultivation most likely began in Colombia in the mid-to-late 1960s, the Colombian marijuana "boom" did not occur until the mid-1970s (Hartlyn, 2000).

Figure 3: One of the country’s most wanted drug traffickers, Dairo Antonio Usuga, alias “Otoniel,” leader of the violent Clan del Golfo cartel

The Medellin cartel, an organized gang of drug dealers and smugglers based in the Colombian city of Medellin, started doing businesses related to drug trafficking (Becker, 2013). The Colombian police had taken 600 kg of cocaine from a plane in 1975. In retaliation, drug dealers massacred 40 individuals over the course of one weekend, a crime that became known as the "Medellin Massacre". The incident started years of unrest that included assassinations, kidnappings, and raids (Becker, 2013). In the 1980s, the Medellin cartel quickly rose to prominence (Hartlyn, 2000). Before Colombia's marijuana exports began to decline, cocaine trafficking, centered in Medellin, overshadowed them. Colombian traffickers increased their efforts to meet the rising US demand for cocaine in the 1970s.

By the spring of 1976, the United Nations had designated Colombia as the global centre of cocaine trafficking (Hartlyn, 2000). Cocaine transportation shifted from individual carriers or "mules" (whether on commercial airliners or ships) to private planes as exports increased. And, from 1978 to 1981, Medellin drug lords focused on gaining control of wholesale distribution in the United States (Hartlyn, 2000). A few years later, major Medellin drug figures such as Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa were listed among the world's wealthiest people by Forbes (Hartlyn, 2000).

The Colombian economy suffered greatly between the 1970s to 2000s since the majority of its exports were goods for the illegal drug trade. More specifically, in 1987, during the height of the drug trade, Colombia's economy expanded by 5.5% (Muchow et al., 2019). The illicit drug industry generated 2.7% of Colombia's total GDP. It is well known that drug cartels significantly affect the economy because of the enormous amount of revenue they produce (Muchow et al., 2019). The notorious Medellin cartel alone is said to generate between US$2 and $4 billion annually and rival several Fortune 500 corporations in terms of its global reach. Drug exports as a whole likely bring in $2.5 to $3 billion in earnings annually; they have surpassed coffee as Colombia's top source of foreign money ($2-2.5 billion) in recent years (Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, 2010).

Figure 4: Pablo Escobar in 1976 following his arrest

Drug Trafficking in Mexico

Historically, drug organizations in Mexico were primarily involved in the cultivation of marijuana and opium, a precursor to heroin in the past. However, over the last decade, Mexican drug organizations have secured a prominent position in the cocaine market alongside Colombian drug cartels, paving the way for Mexican groups to dominate the drug trafficking market (Finckenauer et al., 2007). Mexican traffickers served as middlemen for Colombian cartels in the late 1980s (Finckenauer et al., 2007). Traffickers would receive cocaine shipments in northern Mexico, smuggle the drugs across the border, and stash them in specific locations where Colombian distributors would retrieve the cocaine and transport it to destinations across the United States (Finckenauer et al., 2007). In 1989, human traffickers were irritated by delinquent service payments from Colombian suppliers and withheld cocaine shipments as extortion until payments were made (Finckenauer et al., 2007).

In the early 1990s, Mexican drug trafficking organizations in the United States transitioned from subcontracted cocaine transporters to urban-based distributors (Finckenauer et al., 2007). Prior to this shift, drug distribution in the United States resembled a cottage industry, with loosely organized "mom and pop" distribution franchises in urban enclaves with large Mexican populations ranging from Los Angeles to Chicago (Finckenauer et al., 2007). When the Colombian cartels were brought down by law enforcement in 1995 and 1996, the void was quickly filled by Mexican traffickers eager to profit from the potential drug profits. Within a few years, Mexican traffickers had emerged as the primary cocaine couriers for the thriving US drug market (Finckenauer et al., 2007).

Figure 5: The Arellano Felix Family and the CAF


Drug trafficking is a massive issue with no end in sight. It is the type of drug charge that necessitates immediate intervention and the services of an experienced criminal defence law firm. Due to causes such as the desire for more money and the high demand for drugs in the United States, drug trafficking is rampant. Illicit drug trafficking is a defining Latin American contribution to our globalized world, with Colombia and Mexico currently dominating production and distribution.

Bibliographical References

Barkemeyer Law Firm. (2021, June 22). What Are The Causes Of Drug Trafficking. Barkemeyer Law Firm.

Beittel, J. S. (2022). Mexico: Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking Organizations. Congressional Research Service.

Drug trafficking. (n.d.). National Crime Agency.

Finckenauer, J. O., Fuentes, J. R., & Ward, G. L. (2007). Mexico and the United States: Neighbors confront drug trafficking. United Nations Activities.

Franz, T. (2016). Plan Colombia: illegal drugs, economic development and counterinsurgency - a political economy analysis of Colombia's failed war. Development Policy Review, 34 (4). pp. 563-591.

Hartlyn, J. (2000). Drug Trafficking and Democracy in Colombia in the 1980s.

Hyland, S. (2011, September). The Shifting Terrain of Latin American Drug Trafficking. Origins.

Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. (2010). United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime.

Paoli, L. (2018, January). What is the link between organized crime and drug trafficking? ResearchGate. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.2.18035.43048

Velasco, M. (2022, May 2). Drug trafficking in Colombia undermines the foundations of Indigenous autonomy. IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

Werse, B. & Müller, D. (2016). Drifting in and out of dealing – results on career dynamics from the TDID project. In: Werse, B. and Bernard, C. (eds.). Friendly Business - International Views on Social Supply, Self-Supply and Small-Scale Drug Dealing. Springer VS, Wiesbaden. pp. 93-120.

Visual Sources

Cover image: Mafia Boss afbeeldingen, beelden en stockfoto’s - iStock. (n.d.). [Photograph].

Figure 1: Rashid, N. M. (2019, February 19). Drug Trafficking. United Nations and the Rule of Law.[Photograph].

Figure 2: Olson, S. (2022, April 25). Education, prevention about opioid misuse is critical in stopping devastating endemic in Idaho. Idaho Capital Sun. [Photograph].

Figure 3: Colombia’s most wanted drug lord captured by special forces in jungle. The times of Israel. [Photograph].

Figure 4: Crime, I. (2021, October 21). Pablo Escobar. InSight Crime. [Photograph].

Figure 5: The Arellano Felix Family and the CAF. (2021). [Photograph].

Author Photo

Edikan Victoria Inemeh-Etete

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