Bricks of cocaine, a form in which it is commonly transported.

The illegal drug trade in Latin America concerns primarily the production and export to the United States and Europe of cocaine, marijuana and heroin. Coca cultivation is concentrated in the Andes of South America, particularly in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia; this is the world's only source region for coca.[1] Colombia also cultivates and exports opium poppy and Jamaica marijuana, while Mexico exports both.[1] Drug consumption in Latin America remains relatively low, but cocaine in particular has increased in recent years in countries along the major smuggling routes.[1] As of 2008, the primary pathway for drugs into the United States is through Central America and then Mexico; 90% of all US cocaine enters via Mexico or its territorial waters.[1] This is a shift from the 1980s and early 90s, when the main smuggling route was via the Caribbean into Florida.[1] The United States is the primary destination, but around 25 to 30% of global cocaine production travels from Latin America to Europe, typically via West Africa.[1]

The major drug trafficking organizations (drug cartels) are Mexican and Colombian, and said to generate a total of $18 to $39bn in wholesale drug proceeds per year.[1] Mexican cartels are currently considered the "greatest organized crime threat" to the United States.[1] Since February 2010, the major Mexican cartels have again aligned in two factions, one integrated by the Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel, Los Zetas and the Beltrán-Leyva Cartel; the other faction integrated by the Gulf Cartel, Sinaloa Cartel and La Familia Cartel.[2] Prior to the Mexican cartels' rise, the Colombian Cali cartel and Medellín cartel dominated in the late 1980s and early 90s;[1] following their demise, the Norte del Valle cartel has filled the Colombian vacuum, along with rightwing paramilitaries (e.g. United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, AUC) and leftwing insurgent groups (FARC, ELN).[1]

As a result of the concentration of drug trafficking, Latin America and the Caribbean has the world's highest crime rates, with murder reaching 32.6 per 100,000 of population in 2008.[1] Violence has surged in Mexico since 2006 when Mexican President Felipe Calderón intensified the Mexican Drug War.[1]

Illegal Drug Productions Effect on Peasant Class[edit | edit source]

The American and Central American drug policies don’t account for the damage inflicted upon the indigenous people and farmers working the land. Powerful herbicide destroys all crops, and could cause health problems. One farmer living in a sprayed area realized the herbicide had got into the well water too and they had all been ill.[3] All crops are destroyed in the area, so farmers will have nothing to sell once their land has been sprayed. Farmers’ only other option to support their family is to join guerrilla groups. And a new group of peasant farmers is beginning to hate the Americans for destroying their livelihoods.[4] Washington is calling on the Colombian government to take tougher action against the insurgents, yet it is America's own policies that are generating recruits for these movements.[5]

Since the economy doesn’t support the growth of legal crops, there won’t be a change in the production of cocaine. The 35,000 producers of coca leaves in the Chapare region can each net up to $9,000 annually from the production of 2.2 acres.[6] The next most profitable crop in this area, citrus, earns producers only $500 from the same size plot.[7] Farmers are encouraged to grow coca as the cash crop is worth a significantly higher price than any other crop. Also, the nature of coca is that it grows well on poor soil, and is generally non-perishable. Its lightweight and non-perishable qualities also make it ideal for low-cost, long-range mountain transport and its production requires no imported petrochemical products or expensive institutional credit.[8]

United States and Latin American drug control[edit | edit source]

For more than ten years, the US has been funding Plan Colombia, which aims to combat illegal drugs production in the country, especially the growing of coca, the plant from which cocaine is produced. President Obama’s top drug policy adviser, R. Gil Kerlikowske, announced a drug plan in May emphasizing prevention and treatment in the United States.[9] But the administration has left financing for eradication projects in the Andes largely unchanged, despite debate over whether such efforts can sharply restrict the supply of cocaine or significantly increase the price in the United States in the long run. American anti-narcotics aid for Peru stands at $71.7 million this year, slightly higher than last year’s $70.7 million.[10] American anti-narcotics officials operate from a newly expanded Peruvian police base here in Tingo María, overseeing Peruvian teams that fan out to nearby valleys to cut down coca bushes by hand.

Debate: Should Drugs be Legalized?[edit | edit source]

Latin American leaders, including the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, have called for debate about legalizing and regulating aspects of drug production, trade or use. Some Latin leaders are discussing the need to experiment further with decriminalizing possession of drugs. Lawmakers are also proposing to scrap jail terms for growing coca and cannabis. Advocates say that softening anti-drug laws would ultimately drive down narcotics prices, which would crimp revenues for the cartels. As some Latin American leaders call for legalization of narcotics, Peru, a leading coca grower, remains opposed.[11]


Plane sprays herbicides over a coca field in Colombia.

Main article: War on Drugs#Foreign policy and covert military activities

State support[edit | edit source]

Several Latin American and Caribbean countries have at times seen governments actively involved in the illegal drug trade in the 1970s and 1980s.[citation needed] 1978 and 1980 saw "cocaine coups" in Honduras and Bolivia which brought such governments to power (see illegal drug trade in Honduras and illegal drug trade in Bolivia). In Panama, Manuel Noriega, a long-term drug trafficker, was President from 1983 to 1989, with CIA support. Chief Minister of the Turks and Caicos Islands, Norman Saunders, was convicted in July 1985 of conspiracy charges relating to giving safe passage to drug flights. Illegal drug trade in the Bahamas led to a 1980s government inquiry which saw five ministers resign or dismissed. Throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, leading members of the Haitian military (including members of the late 1980s and post-1991 military governments), intelligence and police were involved in the illegal drug trade in Haiti, assisting Colombian drug traffickers smuggling drugs into the United States.[citation needed]

At other times, parts of the state apparatus have been co-opted by drug traffickers without clear evidence of endorsement at the highest levels. For example the illegal drug trade in Guatemala is said to be shaped by a reported relationship between the Mexican Los Zetas cartel and the Guatemalan Kaibiles military force.[citation needed] The Colombian parapolitics scandal revealed links between parts of the Colombian establishment and the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary group responsible for killing tens of thousands of Colombian civilians, which controls over 75% of the Colombian cocaine trade. The illegal drug trade in Peru was until 2000 shaped by Vladimiro Montesinos's involvement;[citation needed] he had been head of the country's intelligence service since 1990.

In 2010 it was alleged that the Mexican Sinaloa cartel had used bribery to co-opt the federal government and focus the government's anti-drug efforts on its competitors.[citation needed] According to Peter Dale Scott, "The Guadalajara Cartel, Mexico's most powerful drug-trafficking network in the early 1980s, prospered largely because it enjoyed the protection of the DFS, under its chief Miguel Nazar Haro, a CIA asset."[12]

CIA drug trafficking[edit | edit source]

Main article: CIA drug trafficking

For political reasons the US Central Intelligence Agency has at times used, supported or permitted drug trafficking in Latin America in order to support certain individuals or groups.[citation needed] The most well-known instance is the CIA and Contras cocaine trafficking in the US, which was one aspect of what became the Iran-Contra Affair. The CIA also protected Panama President Manuel Noriega from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, until its connections with him became a liability.[citation needed]

There have also been allegations that the CIA has been involved with the Illegal drug trade in Venezuela[citation needed] and the Illegal drug trade in Haiti.[citation needed]

In culture[edit | edit source]

Scarface (1983), Traffic (2000) (questioning, for the first time in a Hollywood movie, the efficacy of the 'war on drugs') and Blow (2001) have been among the Hollywood films focussing on the Latin American drug trade.[13]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 Ribando Seelke et al (2010), Congressional Research Service, 30 April 2010, Latin America and the Caribbean: Illicit Drug Trafficking and U.S. Counterdrug Programs
  2. "Violence the result of fractured arrangement between Zetas and Gulf Cartel, authorities say". The Brownsville Herald. March 9, 2010. Retrieved 2010-03-12. 
  3. Branford, Sue. "Farmers Losing Columbia's Drug War". 
  4. Branford, Sue. "Farmers Losing Columbia's Drug War". 
  5. Branford, Sue. "Farmers Losing Columbia's Drug War". 
  6. Healy, Kevin. "The Cocaine Industry in Boliva-Its Impact on the Peasantry". 
  7. Healy, Kevin. "The Cocaine Industry in Bolivia-Its Effect on the Peasantry". 
  8. Healy, Kevin. "The Cocaine Industry in Bolivia-Its Effect on the Peasantry". 
  9. Romero, Simon. "Coca Production Makes a Comeback in Peru". New York Times. 
  10. Romero, Simon. "Coca Production Makes a Comeback in Peru". New York Times. 
  11. Leff, Alex. "Latin America's Drug War Evolution". 
  12. Peter Dale Scott (2000), Washington and the politics of drugs, Variant, 2(11)
  13. Shapiro, H. (2002), "From Chaplin to Charlie - Cocaine, Hollywood and the movies", Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 9 (2), pp. 133-141

External Links[edit | edit source]

Template:Latin America topic Template:Caribbean topic Latin America's Drug War Evolution Farmers Losing Columbia's Drug War The Cocaine Industry in Bolivia-Its Impact on the Peasantry Coca Production Makes a Comeback in Peru

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