A report from the Wilson Center charts how prohibitionist policies have caused drug trafficking organizations in the Americas to splinter, though it is worth noting that this process is gathering speed in Mexico and may be slowing in Colombia.

Professor Bruce Bagley’s “Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in the Americas: Major Tends in the Twenty-First Century,” published by the Wilson Center on August 1, explores the transformation of the drug trade over the last 25 years and how criminal organizations have adapted and evolved. Bagley identifies “eight key trends” to have emerged, including:

The “partial victories” of the US “war on drugs” and its unintended consequences.
The proliferation of drug cultivation areas and trafficking routes; the “balloon effect.”
The fragmentation of criminal groups.
The ineffectiveness of regional and international drug policies.
The growing support for decriminalization and policy alternatives.

Unlike in the 1980s, when the United States was the principal consumer nation, drug consumption has now become truly “globalized,” Bagley notes, with the number of cocaine users in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia increasing. Though the US is still the biggest market for cocaine, the shifting dynamics — a fall in US cocaine use and a rise in Europe — could see this change. What’s more, the “globalization of drug consumption” to these new markets has led to a proliferation of trafficking routes, with the increased involvement of new smuggling networks. Examples of this include the increasing importance of Venezuela as a jump-off point for Europe-bound cocaine, and the growing use of West Africa as a transhipment point over the last decade.

Underpinning the proliferation of consumption and trafficking routes is a reactive US strategy which has chased the drug trade from one place to another, rather than successfully eradicating it. First, Bagley examines how US-led eradication efforts have pushed coca cultivation elsewhere, via the so-called “balloon effect.” In 1985, Colombia grew less than 10 percent of the world’s coca, rising to 90 percent by 2000 thanks to the US focus on Bolivia and Peru in the 1980s and 1990s. The reverse appears to be taking place now, with Colombia’s cultivation levels declining and Peru’s and Bolivia’s rising. According to recently released figures from the White House Office on National Drug Policy, Colombia may even now have the smallest cocaine output in the region, despite being responsible for nearly 70 percent of production in 2001.

According to Bagley, speculation is mounting that continuing the policy of all-out eradication in the Andes will only push production elsewhere, possibly into the Amazon basin where farmers could grow epadu, a tropical variety of coca. What’s more, trying to close down gangs’ trafficking routes only shifts them to other parts of the region. The Caribbean was the primary shipping route for US-bound cocaine in the 1980s, until law enforcement pressure there pushed traffickers to Central America and Venezuela. In Bagley’s words, “The traffickers’ constant, successful adaptations to law enforcement … have led to contamination of more and more countries in the region.”

Secondly, increased focus on eliminating trafficking networks has done little to bring about their demise in the region, according to Bagley. The offensive against Colombia’s monolithic Medellin and Cali Cartels of the 1980s and early 1990s may have ensured their disintegration, but also brought about the rise of Mexican trafficking organizations to fill the void. Here it is worth mentioning that Colombian gangs now have increasingly assumed the role of global wholesaler, ceding control of their international networks and taking a more behind-the-scenes role.

In addition, Bagley talks of how the criminal landscape in Colombia has undergone a process of “dispersion and fragmentation.” He argues that Mexico’s groups appear to be doing the same, though he says that the evidence for this is still inconclusive.

It is true that Colombia’s criminal landscape is nothing like it was 20, or indeed 10, years ago. The breakdown of the 1980s cartels and the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary organization from 2003-2006 contributed to the creation of smaller, more loosely knit criminal groups.

However, it is arguable that Colombia’s drug trafficking networks are now more stable than those in Mexico, and may be consolidating around the rival Rastrojos and Urabeños criminal gangs. While these are certainly a far cry from the old hierarchical drug trafficking organizations, operating instead as loose networks — the Urabeños are more organized than the Rastrojos, due to their paramilitary roots — each group has managed to foster alliances with other players in Colombia’s drug trade. The Rastrojos have regional agreements with guerrilla groups the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), while the Urabeños have deals with the FARC in certain areas, and with some of Medellin’s street gangs, or “combos.”

Indeed, the process of fragmentation and splintering in Mexico’s criminal networks may be taking place at a faster rate today than it ever did in Colombia. Numerous smaller organizations have been emerging in recent years, battling over key territories like Juarez and Acapulco. Bagley outlines this process in a table, showing how in 2006 there were only six main organizations while just four years later there were 12. In the last two years, which are not covered by the table, still more splinter groups such as the Cabelleros Templarios and La Barredora have emerged from the old cartels. Some analysts fear that the groups will continue to become smaller and more numerous as the fight over territory progresses.

Of course, the landscape in Colombia is far from stable, particularly with the recent capture/surrender of two of the Rastrojos’ main leaders, though it remains more predictable than Mexico.

Despite these “unintended consequences” of the war on drugs, Bagley notes that a change from the “ultimately ineffective supply-side control strategy” is unlikely in the near future. The US is the biggest shaper of international drug policy and its prohibitionist stance has been “faithfully reproduced” at the multilateral level by the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS), argues Bagley. The failures of this strategy are becoming increasingly obvious, and have helped spawn debate on alternative policies, such as decriminalization, that some leaders in the regions believe could help cut violence. However, a process of global decriminalization would take a long time, and might not significantly lower violence in the region — drug gangs could simply move into other forms of crime. Bagley argues, therefore, that governments in the region must focus on strengthening their institutions to provide greater democratic accountability and security for their citizens.

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