Terrorism and Drugs

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The term narcoterrorism has entered the popular lexicon as a shorthand to refer to the complex relationship between the illicit drug trade and terrorism. The term, however, has often been used interchangeably to refer to two distinct aspects of this issue.


Narcoterrorism refers, first, to the activities of a number of guerrilla groups worldwide. These groups engage in terrorism and insurgency and also exploit the drug trade for financial gain. In most cases this exploitation involves rural-based guerrillas. Guerrillas and the drug trade (especially cultivation and processing) both tend to thrive in rugged, remote areas where government control is weak and where a nationally integrated economic infrastructure is lacking.

Rural-based guerrillas make money primarily by extorting "war taxes" from growers and traffickers. Thus the relationship between guerrillas, on the one hand, and the growers and the traffickers, on the other, is frequently rooted in coercion and conflict.

Nevertheless, guerrillas, growers, and traffickers sometimes cooperate in a marriage of convenience. The degree of government pressure exerted in an area can at times act as a unifying factor. Local family and/or personal relationships in a drug region can bring guerrillas, growers, and traffickers together, at least for periods of time.

A number of guerrilla groups have used both coercion and cooperation to exploit the drug trade. Examples include the following: The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest and oldest insurgent group, and Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN); Peru's Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the Revolutionary Movement Tupac Amaru (MRTA); and the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) in the Middle East.

In addition to or apart from "taxation" and "protection" arrangements, various groups themselves have been directly involved in the drug trade:

In Colombia, the FARC controls its own coca fields and processing laboratories for Cocaine. FARC may have some drug distribution networks, although evidence for this is fragmentary.

In Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle of Thailand, Burma, and Laos, guerrillas have long been actively involved in every stage of the Opium /Heroin pipeline. They have frequently devolved into warlord trafficking organizations and dominate the drug business in the area.

Some guerrillas in the South Asian subcontinent (the Indian peninsula of Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sikkim, and India), such as the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) and the Sikhs, have used expatriate communities abroad to smuggle heroin.

Lebanon's Hizballah reportedly smuggles drugs as a result of a fatwah (an Islamic religious decree). In 1987, the police uncovered narcotics in a Hizballah terrorist arms cache near Paris, France.


The second aspect covered under the rubric of narcoterrorism has been the drug traffickers' use of the tactics of political terrorismsuch as the car bomb, kidnapping, and selective assassinationto undermine the resolve of various governments at the highest levels to fight the drug trade.

Traffickers usually use members of their own organization to carry out such attacks. Sometimes, however, traffickers have subcontracted to guerrillas. In late 1990, Colombia's Pablo Escobar used the ELN to help conduct kidnappings to pressure the Colombian government into negotiating with him.

Colombia has been hardest hit by the traffickers' use of terrorist tactics. Escobar's Medellín trafficking group was responsible for a string of vicious attacks in the 1980s and early 1990s. Among the victims and targets were a justice minister, an attorney general, Supreme Court justices, the editor of a leading newspaper, several presidential candidates, a commercial airliner, and the headquarters of Colombia's equivalent of the FBI.

Escobar scored a major victory by using narcoterrorism along with bribery to ensure the banning of extradition between Colombia and the United States in 1991. With the aid of corrupt officials, Escobar escaped from a jail in 1992 and continued to carry out sporadic attacks until he was killed by Colombian authorities in December 1993.

Escobar's death, however, did not end the relationship between terrorist groups and drug traffickers. During the 1990s, Peru and Bolivia successfully reduced the amount of coca production, but this led to a dramatic rise in production in rural Colombia. Guerrilla and paramilitary groups control the major drug-producing regions, mostly in southern Colombia. Drug money enables these groups to purchase sophisticated weapons on the black market that are used against government forces. The situation in Columbia continued to deteriorate in the late 1990s, to the point that the U.S. government gave Colombia $1.3 billion in emergency aid in 2000 to help fight the narcoterrorists. However, it remains to be seen whether this funding and additional military aid will turn the tide against narcoterrorism.

Mexico also saw an upsurge of terrorist acts in the 1990s. However, these acts were committed by drug traffickers and were not the product of revolutionary groups. The assassination of political candidates and government officials demonstrated the vulnerability of the government to terrorist acts. For example, in February 2000, the police chief of Tijuana, Alfredo de la Torre, was assassinated as he drove to his office without bodyguards. The assassination came two days after the government announced a new attack on drug trafficking in the state of Baja California, where Tijuana is located.

Italy too has suffered from drug violence. During the 1980s and early 1990s, the Sicilian Mafia retaliated for government crackdowns by killing a number of the country's leading prosecutors and law enforcement officersoften with car bombs, in spectacular fashion.


Narcoterrorism in both its incarnations challenges government efforts to control political violence, organized crime, and the drug trade.

Although involvement in the drug trade may sometimes decrease the revolutionary fervor of a guerrila group, the ability to derive income from this lucrative source strengthens the resources and capabilities of the groups to oppose the central government either as subversives or as a criminal element. Whether or not the guerrillas obtain the funding through coercion or cooperation with growers and traffickers, the result is usually a more formidable foe. Most observers, for example, believe that exploitation of the drug trade is the chief source of funding for Peru's Sendero Luminoso. In general, the presence of guerrillas with an economic stake in the survival of the drug trade makes counternarcotics efforts an even more risky undertaking.

The willingness and ability of drug barons in some countries to use the tactics of terrorism adds a dangerous dimension to the threat posed by the drug trade. In Colombia, narcoterrorism has pushed the country to the brink of civil war and threatens to move the conflict into neighboring countries. In other countries, such as Mexico and some of the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union, there is growing concern about the volatile mix of drugs, violence, and organized crime.

(See also: Crop-Control Policies ; International Drug Supply Systems )

Mark S. Steinitz

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner

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