¿CÓMO FUNCIONA EL TRÁFICO DE COCAÍNA EN AMÉRICA LATINA?
Por: Alvaro Castillo Lima
Presidente y Fundador de ESPACIOH
Licenciado en Ciencias Políticas-Salve Regina University
Estudiante de Maestría en Seguridad Global y Estudios Estratégicos-Johns Hopkins University
Today, more cocaine is trafficked across the Americas as a result of a legacy of decades-long failed strategies to dismantle the coca supply chain in this region. Although there have been various efforts led by different Latin American countries to halt cocaine trafficking with the support of the United States, none of these actions have proven to be effective. As cocaine is produced in South America and trafficked up north, its value increases exponentially, leaving high-profit margins for drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), as well as piles of murdered or overdosed corpses across Central and North America. The inter-cartel and inter-gang drug wars have turned Latin America into the most dangerous region in the world. Countries like Colombia and Mexico have launched initiatives to stop cocaine trafficking; however, the coca supply chain continues to destabilize the entire continent, its governments, and its collective security. A comprehensive plan, tailored-made for each country, taking into consideration the production, transshipment, and consumption stages, is necessary to reduce cocaine trafficking in the Americas.
Recent Colombian strategies implemented to counter cocaine cultivation, such as the Crop Substitution Program, have failed and reverted previous advances in anti-drug policies. Since the demise of the Medellín and Cali Cartel towards the end of the twentieth century, American authorities have developed a consistent cooperation bond with Colombian security forces in its aim to weaken the coca supply chain. American security agencies, like the DEA, succeeded in dismantling one of the most lucrative cocaine empires by taking down Pablo Escobar in 1993. Since then, security initiatives to finance operations against drug trafficking have been implemented, such as Plan Colombia in 1999. However, coca is still produced in Colombian mountains, as well as in Peru and Bolivia, by low-wage workers who pick coca leaves and mulch them in nearby laboratories where water, cement, gasoline, sulfuric acid, ammonia, and sodium permanganate are mixed and dried to create coca paste. Poor farmers recur to this illicit activity as the Colombian government has failed to provide them with proper development opportunities. In 2016 President Juan Manuel Santos led a plan to convince 100,000 Colombian families to substitute cocaine production for other crops. This was part of Colombia’s Peace Process, which aimed to put an end to a 52-year conflict with the FARC, who have controlled vast coca producing lands. The peace deal has not been completely successful; the spike in cocaine production is just one of its various flaws. This political decision, which is an alternative to aerial fumigation, had severe consequences; “The United Nations shows that land under coca cultivation has soared ever since the 2016 peace agreement, ascending from 146,000 in 2016 to 171,000 in 2017” (Tomaselli, 2020). The cocaine trade has been so lucrative for Colombian DTOs that they are even expanding to wealthy Asian markets besides North America. A kilo of cocaine is sold by farmers in Colombia for $900, U.S. dealers buy it for approximately $20,000 to then sell it to rich American consumers for “the equivalent of about $150,000” (Woody, 2016). Cocaine is the “champagne of narcotics, the drug of the wealthy” (Muse, 2020). Colombia and other Andean countries are just part of the cultivation side of the supply chain. Cocaine is then transshipped to Mesoamerica, mainly through aerial and maritime routes, both through the Atlantic and Pacific. Once light aircrafts, narco-boats, and even homemade semi-submersible submarines reach countries like Panama, Honduras, and El Salvador, gangs, farmers in rural areas, smugglers, migrants, and even corrupt law enforcement help move the drugs to Mexico. Clearly, “Each cell has a fixed role or function it must perform that is integral to the overall success of the network” (Miklaucic & Brewer, 2013, p. 66). Finally, inter-cartel brutality has been unleashed by savage groups whose rivalry spike homicide rates.
The battle between Mexican drug cartels over the control of cocaine distribution routes, or plazas, has unleashed a wave of uncontrollable drug trafficking-related violence across this country. Since 2007 President Felipe Calderón pushed for profound changes in Mexico’s national security, extraditing kingpins to dismantle drug cartels form the top down. In 2008 The United States and Mexico signed the Plan Merida initiative, providing $2.4 billion to Mexican authorities to purchase security equipment and finance police and judicial reforms. Positive results were achieved over time and continued with Peña Nieto; “ total homicides in Mexico fell by close to 14% in 2014 from the level in 2013, which also had fallen by “approximately 15%” from the prior year” (Beittel, 2013, p. 1). Regardless of these efforts, violence in Mexico increased throughout the second half of Peña Nieto´s tenure and during these first years of Lopez Obrador´s administration, reaching record-breaking homicide levels in 2019. Mexico has become a lawless country, where drug cartels, such as Los Zetas, the Sinaloa, and the Jalisco New Generation Cartels, have taken complete control of some cities and even entire regions. Back in 2004, there were only four DTOs in this country. Today, Mexico has 20 splintered gangs fighting for control over territory and cocaine distribution channels, among other drugs, leading to increasing violence; “The majority of drug-related murders stem from conflicts over control of smuggling routes” (Miklaucic & Brewer, 2013, p. 68). Although since 2012 Mexico started to perceive a downward trend in murder rates, violence has resurged and spread in Mexico because of cocaine trafficking and cartel disputes. The coca supply chain has led to bloodshed across the Americas.
Cocaine trafficking has metastasized through the entire continent, thus a comprehensive strategy is required to tackle the coca supply chain through the region. The U.S. has also suffered its share of the principal and most profitable destiny for cocaine, consumers´ lives are ruined and thousands have died, leading not only to a health issue but damaging the social fabric of this nation. Today, the cocaine “epidemic” is still one of the greatest problems in America; “The damage inflicted by illicit networks can extend far beyond the borders of the state in which their main operations or headquarters are located” (Miklaucic & Brewer, 2013, p. 68). In fact, the Northern Triangle, which serves as a transshipment point, has suffered the most from the cocaine supply chain as micro trafficking gangs. The MS13 and La 18 fight each other to control and secure a safe passage for coca shipments in their goal of gradually transitioning from microtrafficking organizations to replace recently extradited kingpins that left a power vacuum for drug transshipment routes in Central America. The homicide rate in this region has been the highest in the world outside war zones. Cocaine trafficking has created a security and governance catastrophe in South, Central, and North America.
The efforts led to dismantling the cocaine supply chain in the Americas have repeatedly failed, generating violence and instability throughout this continent. The cocaine American market continues to boom as demand only increases over time and “criminal activities will likely continue as long as the market and its incentives remain intact” (Miklaucic & Brewer, 2013, p. 64). Moreover, the coca supply channel has spread havoc and violence everywhere it passes through. Public officials facilitate the journey of cocaine shipments towards the north, undermining the rule of law and promoting impunity by “infiltrating and corrupting the government itself” (Miklaucic & Brewer, 2013, p. 68). DTOs in charge of coca trafficking have even diversified operations at the expense of vulnerable populations, extorting and kidnapping people. Despite various attempts to block cocaine trafficking, none of them has managed to put an end to the vicious coca trafficking cycle in the Americas.
Beittel, June S. Mexico’s Drug Trafficking Organizations: Source and Scope of the Violence Congressional Research Service, 15 April 2013.
Friedersdorf, C. (2020, June 21). Why the War on Cocaine Still Isn't Working. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from https://amp.theatlantic.com/amp/article/613297/
Miklaucic, Michael and Jacqueline Brewer eds., Convergence: Illicit Networks in the Age of Globalization (Washington, D.C.: NDU Center for Complex Operations), 2013.
Muse, T. (2020, April 2). I Followed a Kilo of Cocaine From Field to Street. Retrieved October 08, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/5dmezq/i-followed-a-kilo-of-cocaine-from-field-to-street
Tomaselli, W. M. (2020, October 7). Why Brutal Massacres Are Rocking Colombia Years After it Agreed to Peace. Retrieved October 09, 2020, from https://www.vice.com/en/article/dyznkx/why-brutal-massacres-are-rocking-colombia-years-after-it-signed-a-peace-deal-with-rebels
Woody, C. (2016, October 13). Cocaine prices in the US have barely moved in decades - here's how cartels distort the market. Retrieved October 11, 2020, from https://www.businessinsider.com/how-much-does-cocaine-cost-in-the-us-2016-10