Narcotrafficking is a transnational crime with drugs, weapons, money, and people crossing international borders for illicit purposes. Generally, narcotrafficking involves at least three countries: the source country, the one where the drugs originate from; the transit country, a country through which the drugs are moved; and the user country, the final destination where the drugs are sold and consumed. People flow, willingly or unwillingly, from the source country or transit country to the user country, where they will often work in the distribution or enforcement end of the business. Money will generally flow back to the source country, with some cash remaining in the transit country. Often weapons will also flow back to the source country and transit country, where they will be used by the narcotraffickers to strengthen their position.
Fourth nations can also be involved in the sense that the organizations committing these crimes may not be from any of the three countries involved. An example would be the Taliban or Hezbollah, which have extensive trafficking operations in Latin America. This article, however, will limit itself to a three-actor scenario, examining the impact of cocaine trafficking on the source country, transit country or countries, and user country. Roughly, 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States country crosses the U.S./Mexico land border, while 70 percent of the cocaine leaves Colombia via the Pacific. Colombia is the source country, Mexico is the transit country, and the U.S. is the user country.
Colombia is the world’s largest producer of cocaine. Colombia’s homicide rate of 25.34 per 100,000 is more than five times that of the United States (4.96 per 100,000). The government of Colombia blames Colombia’s murder rate on the drug trade. One reason why the situation is so dangerous and nearly unresolvable in Colombia is because cocaine production is closely tied to heavily-armed terrorist insurrection groups with decades of combat experience. Historically, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Popular, EPL), and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), have been fighting for control of Catatumbo, a region where large quantities of cocaine are produced. This area is also significant to drug trafficking because it borders Venezuela.
In addition to the violence and political instability, cocaine production is preventing Colombia from developing economically. Cocaine accounts for 2 percent of the country’s GDP and is so profitable that it has removed incentives for local people to engage in other types of business. In 2021, the total area of coca leaf cultivation increased by 43 percent. Now, in some regions, cocaine production is the only economic activity.
As of 2023, the FARC has officially demobilized but has yet to reach a peace agreement with the Colombian government. The ELN is also in a state of temporary cease fire, while conducting peace talks with the government. Colombia’s President Gustavo Petro hopes the talks will end 60 years of violence which have held back his country’s development. On the other hand, eradication programs have been scaled back “in order to avoid confrontation with coca-growing communities and reduce retaliatory actions from the cartels.” Instead, the government is shifting to a series of “voluntary consultations” to convince communities to stop growing cocaine.
Transit countries experience destabilization, high crime rates, and high murder rates. All of the countries between the United States and Colombia have homicide rates higher than the U.S. The rate in Honduras is 38.93; in Guatemala, 22.5; in El Salvador, 52.02; and in Mexico it is 29.07.
Mexico is a classic example of a country where lawmakers are not free to govern. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the domestic policies of Mexico’s presidents have been defined, for decades, by the threats to public security and the rule of law posed by drug cartels. The Brookings Institute similarly posits that Mexico’s two largest cartels — the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva-Generación (CJNG), along with a number of smaller drug trafficking organizations — control local people, economies, and territories.
The term transit is no longer synonymous with couriers. The Mexican cartels are no longer a mere delivery service for the Colombians. Instead, they are wholesalers, earning significant mark-ups on cocaine, money that can be used to purchase public officials. As a result the police are not free to keep order and courts are not free to adjudicate without considering the interests of the cartels. Illegal trafficking enables corruption as officials will be tempted to turn a blind eye in exchange for a share of the illicit profits. Mexico ranks as the 126th least corrupt country. When corruption reaches the extreme levels of Mexico, the very authorities tasked with preventing drug trafficking actively promote it. The narcotraffickers do not wish to topple the government, but rather, to continue earning their money while controlling the actions of public officials. This results in an unstable situation for the civilian population.
The user country suffers increased drug use, drug overdose deaths, and drug related crime. The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) identifies Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) as the greatest drug-trafficking threat to the nation. Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) similarly charged that, “The Mexican drug cartels have killed more Americans than any terrorist group in history — and the death toll is rising every day.”
In the U.S., drug use by persons 12 and older increased by 3.8 percent year-on-year. Over a seven-year period, the exposure of children under five to marijuana increased by 148 percent. The number of overdose deaths has been increasing at a rate of about 4 percent per year. When looking specifically at deaths from synthetic opioids, between 2012 to 2015, the figure increased by 264 percent. It grew an additional 10 percent between 2017 and 2018, with the upward trend continuing. The leading cause of synthetic opioid deaths, and the leading cause of overdose deaths, is fentanyl. It is manufactured in Mexico using precursor chemicals from China, then trafficked into the United States. The latest and growing threat is xylazine, a powerful sedative also called “tranq” which is being laced into the fentanyl by Mexican drug cartels.
In addition to Americans dying of drug overdoses, the cartels are also fueling gang-related violence within the United States. In January 2023, six people, including an infant, were murdered in California, in what the police described as a “cartel style” killing. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 4,000 illegal alien gang members in 2020 alone. In spite of deportations, the DEA reports that the threat of violence from cartel-related street gangs inside of the U.S. is increasing.