Drug Traffickers

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Drug Traffickers

Drug trafficking is the movement of illegal drugs from one location to a final destination where they will be sold to users. A drug-transit country is one through which drug shipments travel to reach local dealers and users. Most of the illegal drugs used in the United States start out in other countries, including all of the heroin and cocaine and much of the marijuana. These drugs may travel through several other countries before they reach their final destination. As a result, the U.S. government's policy to fight illegal drugs targets not only the countries where they are grown or produced, but also those through which they are transported.

The Majors List

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 requires the president to identify nations that are major illegal drug-producing or drug-transit countries. The president must submit a list of these countries, nick- named the majors list, to Congress each year. The act severely limits the foreign aid that can be provided to any country on the list. In 2001 twenty-three countries made the list: Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma (Myanmar), China, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Thailand, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

That year, President George W. Bush also identified several regions of concern. These regions were being watched closely because they either had been trouble spots in the past or looked as if they might be in the future. The regions on the watch list included Belize, Central America, Central Asia, Cuba, the Eastern Caribbean, Hong Kong, Iran, Malaysia, North Korea, Syria and Lebanon, Taiwan, and Turkey and other Balkan Route countries. In addition, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, the Philippines, and South Africa were singled out as major sources of marijuana. However, these countries were not included on either list, because they were not shipping drugs to the United States. The only country dropped from the majors list in 2001 was Cambodia, which had been added in 1996 as a transit country for heroin. In recent years, however, the flow of this heroin into the United States seems to have stopped.

A quick glance at the countries named shows the worldwide scope of the problem. However, historically there are certain key hot spots. In the early 1990s, the U.S. National Narcotics Intelligence Consumer Committee estimated that Latin American countries supplied about 25 to 30 percent of the heroin reaching the United States, about 60 to 80 percent of the marijuana, and all of the cocaine. Southeast Asian and Middle Eastern countries supplied the remaining 70 to 75 percent of the heroin.

Traffic in the Americas

The routes taken by drug traffickers to carry drugs from South America to the United States show the extent of the problem. These drugs pass through a 6-million-square-mile transit zone that is about the size of the mainland United States. This zone stretches from the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico to the eastern Pacific Ocean. It might seem that Central America's position as a land bridge between North and South America would make it a natural thoroughfare for the drug traffickers. However, the bulk of the drug traffic in the early twenty-first century has shifted to sea routes, thanks to stronger law enforcement on land. As a result, only Guatemala and Panama currently are identified as major drug-transit countries in Central America. Belize and the region as a whole, however, have a place on the president's watch list.

On the other hand, Mexico and several Caribbean nations remain big concerns. The U.S. strategy for drying up the steady flow of drugs from these countries focuses on both ends of the supply chain. Take the example of cocaine. At one end of the chain are the major producing countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. At the other end are the major transit countries, such as Mexico, the Bahamas, and Jamaica. Because of its location atop the main drug route, Cuba might seem to be a logical transit point too. Yet, while there have been scattered reports of traffickers moving drugs across Cuban turf, the amount reaching the United States seems to be small. Also, in recent years, much of the suspicious air traffic that once crossed Cuban airspace now is flying over Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The U.S. policy in all these countries is similar. One aim is to strengthen the willingness and ability of their governments to tackle the illegal drug problem. A second aim is to help the countries increase the effectiveness of their law enforcement and military activities that affect the drug trade. A third aim is to work with the governments to fight directly against the major drug-trafficking organizations. In the transit countries, efforts go beyond just stopping drug shipments at sea or in the air. The U.S. stance is that these countries also need to deny safe haven to the traffickers and clean up corruption within their governments. In addition, banks within these countries should not allow money laundering—the transfer of illegally obtained money through an outside party to conceal its true source.

A Tale of Two Countries

Two Caribbean countries, the Bahamas and the Dominican Republic, offer a glimpse at the strengths and weaknesses of the U.S. policy. Both are still major transit routes. Yet drug trafficking is down in the Bahamas, while it is on the upswing in the Dominican Republic.

The Bahamas is composed of a string of islands, including hundreds of small, deserted islands that make ideal hiding spots for drug storage and shipment. The country is located on the air and sea routes between Colombia and the southeastern United States. At its closest point, it is only forty miles from southern Florida. It is not surprising, then, that the Bahamas is a major transit country for cocaine and marijuana. In addition, drug traffickers have begun to use the country as a transit point for ecstasy (MDMA) made in Europe. Much of the drug traffic bound for the United States travels by boat. In addition, drug couriers often are arrested at the airports, which offer frequent international flights.

Since 1982, the United States has run Operation Bahamas and Turks and Caicos Islands (OPBAT) in cooperation with local governments. OPBAT uses radar and intelligence gathering to detect and watch drug smuggling activities. A joint strike force, flying out of U.S. funded–helicopter bases, also conducts drug-fighting patrols and missions. In addition, members of the Royal Bahamas Police Force are assigned to several U.S. Coast Guard cutters that work to stop drug shipments at sea. As a result, drug flow through the Bahamas has dropped dramatically since the peak years of the late 1980s. Of course, there is still much room for improvement. One recent focus of U.S. efforts has been money laundering there. In 2000 the government of the Bahamas enacted several important laws aimed at further stemming the tide of money laundering and drug trafficking in that country.

The Dominican Republic is another transit country in the Caribbean. Cocaine is the main drug smuggled there, although heroin smuggling also is on the rise. In addition, Dominican traffickers seem to be spearheading ecstasy shipments through the region. Drugs are brought into the country by way of small boats, cargo ships, airdrops, and couriers, as well as overland from Haiti. Once in the Dominican Republic, the drugs often travel by boat to Puerto Rico and then shipped from there to the United States. The Dominican government has signed major antidrug agreements and made drug-related money laundering a crime. Nevertheless, cooperative efforts with the United States have been comparatively weak. As a result, the Dominican Republic is fast becoming a drug trafficking command and control center.

The Mexican Connection

Mexico is another major trouble spot. While some cocaine is shipped to the United States by way of the Caribbean Islands, about two-thirds of it travels by boat through the eastern Pacific Ocean to the west coast of Mexico. From there, it is typically transported to the border and smuggled into the southwestern United States. Other drugs smuggled into the country from Mexico include South American and Mexican heroin, Mexican methamphetamine, and Dutch ecstasy.

In addition, marijuana brought into the country from Mexico remains a huge problem. In 1998, marijuana seizures along the southwestern U.S. border totaled 743 metric tons—a massive 700 percent increase over 1991. Organized crime groups with far-reaching networks often smuggle the marijuana along with other drugs. Typically, the drugs are concealed in vehicles driven through border ports of entry or hidden in shipments of legitimate products. Marijuana also is moved across the border by rail, horse, or raft. Smaller shipments are carried by pedestrians who enter through border check- points or by backpackers who cross the border at remote locations. Some marijuana also is carried by boat up the coast to ports or isolated drop-off sites.

The drug trafficking networks in Mexico are deeply entrenched, and routing them out has proved to be a daunting task. The biggest obstacle is long-standing weakness and corruption within the Mexican government. Nevertheless, there have been some successes in recent years, including the arrests of several drug kingpins. There also has been increased cooperation with U.S. antidrug efforts. One example is a U.S. Custom Service (USCS) program called Operation HALCON. Since 1990, this joint effort has used aircraft based in Mexico to monitor drug trafficking. In 2000 alone, the program led to the seizure of more than 5,000 pounds of cocaine, over 18,000 pounds of marijuana, twenty-seven aircraft, two boats, and two vehicles. A second joint venture, this one involving the U.S. Coast Guard and the Mexican Navy, led to the seizure of another 30,000 pounds of cocaine that same year.

Traffic Around the World

Elsewhere in the world, drug trafficking is also a pressing issue. In Southeast Asia, heroin traffickers have been operating for centuries. Heroin processed there travels through China, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, or South Korea on its way to the United States. Chinese criminal groups with sophisticated trafficking networks control much of this drug trade. In recent years, crime groups in Nigeria, Africa, also have been active in smuggling South- east Asian heroin.

In the Middle East, drug traffickers smuggle Southwest Asian heroin into the United States mainly by way of immigrant communities of the same ethnic background. Criminal groups composed of Lebanese, Pakistanis, Turks, and Afghans all have been involved. Nigerian crime groups also deal in Southwest Asian heroin.

Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, increasing attention has been focused on the drug trade in Afghanistan. In 2000 that country produced 70 percent of the world's illegal opium, from which heroin is derived. Much Afghan heroin is smuggled through Central Asian countries into Russia. Some of it is used there, but some also moves on to other countries. Afghan heroin also is smuggled through Pakistan and India on the way to other markets. However, the amount reaching the United States is relatively small.

In the Netherlands and Belgium, the illegal production of ecstasy is thriving, despite government efforts to curtail it. This ecstasy is smuggled into the United States by couriers flying on commercial airlines or shipped in express delivery packages. Some of it also reaches this country by way of Canada, Mexico, or the Caribbean Islands. Israeli and Russian crime networks traffic in MDMA worldwide as well.

The illegal drug market in the United States is one of the most profitable in the world. Not surprisingly, then, drug traffickers from around the globe are drawn here. The sheer length of the U.S. borders, and the volume of traffic across them, makes the task of stopping drug smugglers very difficult indeed. Consider that 60 million people enter the United States each year on 675,000 commercial and private flights, according to the Customs Service. Another 6 million come by sea and 370 million by land. In addition, 116 million vehicles drive across the borders from Mexico and Canada. More than 90,000 ships dock at U.S. ports, and another 157,000 smaller vessels visit this country's coastal towns.

Amidst all this traffic, it is little wonder that so many illegal drugs slip through. The current U.S. policy is to encourage drug-transit countries to update their laws, strengthen their law enforcement and legal systems, and tighten the net around drug trafficking, money laundering, and government corruption. Critics argue that the drug supply can never be fully stopped, however, and money spent on this effort is largely wasted. They contend that the money could be better spent on programs aimed at reducing the demand for illegal drugs. Still, U.S. policy remains firmly committed to decreasing the flow of drugs through transit countries. Some progress has been made, but there is much more to be done. To build on its successes, the United States will have to work closely with these other nations.

see also Drug Producers; Law and Policy: Controls on Drug Trafficking; Law and Policy: Foreign Policy and Drugs.

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