Transit Countries for Illicit Drugs

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Transit countries are those through which drug shipments travel to reach local dealers and users. Drugs that come to the United States from South America pass through a six million square-mile transit zone that is approximately the size of the continental United States. This zone includes the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean, and the eastern Pacific Ocean. U.S. strategy to deal with the cocaine problem, for example, might best be described as a series of concentric circles around the source and trafficking countries of the Andes, through (1) the surrounding countries in South America (2) the transit countries of Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, to (3) the major consumer countries. Since the 1990s, the United States has similar objectives for dealing with both source and transit countriesnamely, to strengthen their governments' political will and capability; to increase their effectiveness in terms of military and law-enforcement activities; and to help inflict significant damage on drug-trafficking organizations.

Since 1990, the U.S. government has developed detailed implementation plans for expanded drug-control activities on a regional and country-specific basis. The strategy emphasizes the major choke points at either end of the international chain: The three source countries of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia at one end and the primary transit countries of Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Cuba at the other end. In addition to the source countries, only Ecuador, Venezuela, and Brazil in South America have the potential for profitable cultivation of Coca leaf, but the U.S. government believes that only small-scale cultivation and involvement in drug-transit activities exist in these countries. Consequently, only modest drug-control assistance has been made available to themlargely in the form of training, technical assistance, and commoditiesto encourage them to take their own actions against high-value elements, such as money flows and essential and precursor chemicals. Brazil and Venezuela, for example, manufacture essential chemicals used in Cocaine production.

The success in the late 1990s of efforts by the governments of Bolivia and Peru to reduce coca cultivation led to increased coca cultivation and cocaine production in Colombia. In 2000, the U.S. Congress approved $1.3 billion of emergency aid to Colombia to help fight the increasingly powerful drug trafficking organizations. U.S. military assistance and equipment has also flowed into Colombia. As more success was achieved against cocaine source countries in the 1990s, and as pressure built against trafficking through Mexico and the Bahamas, drug traffickers dispersed their growing and processing operations and developed new smuggling routes, many in the Caribbean.


The intermediate transit countries in the Caribbean and South America have played an increasing important part in drug trafficking, as opportunities for drug interdiction are more difficult. The small Caribbean states lack resources to perform adequate law enforcement; air drops of drugs to waiting boats have become common, because no Caribbean nation has a marine or security force capable of completely controlling territorial waters. However, operations by the U.S., Jamaica and the Bahamas in the late 1990s led to a decline in cocaine trafficking, while drug trafficking increased in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

Stopping the flow of drugs in these transit countries goes beyond intercepting drug shipments at sea or in the air. Countries must deny traffickers safe haven and prevent the corruption of political institutions. Moreover, the financial systems in these countries must not be used to launder drug profits. The U.S. government has helped Caribbean and Central American countries implement drug control policies that include the strengthening of law enforcement and judicial institutions, the modernization of laws, the strengthening of anti-corruption measures, and the operation of joint interdiction efforts.

The key to successful drug control in the surrounding and transit countries lies in U.S. ability to develop and use effective intelligence networks. The U.S. Department of Defense uses its intelligence resources, including powerful communications equipment, to assist in the interdiction effort.


The success of the U.S. strategy for potential source and transit countries is predicated on building long-term institutions in these countries that work with the United States. However, the political destabilization of Colombia in the late 1990s is a potent reminder that policies can produce unintended consequences; the success of Bolivia and Peru in reducing coca cultivation triggered changes in Colombia that dwarf the problems of the previous decade.

To be successful, U.S. agencies must expand their efforts in the Pacific and the Caribbean to (1) collect and process intelligence; (2) help the transit countries develop their own intelligence collection, sharing, and dissemination capabilities; (3) help these countries take action on their own to apprehend traffickers and seize drug shipments; and (4) direct bilateral and multilateral efforts against drug trafficking Money Laundering, asset forfeiture, chemical diversion, and drug shipments. However, critics point out that the drug supply can never be stopped and that interdiction efforts are largely a waste of money. They argue for demand-reduction programs in the U.S. However, U.S. policy remains firmly committed to reducing the passage of drugs through transit countries.

(See also: Crop Control Policies ; Drug Interdiction ; International Drug Supply Systems ; U.S. Government )


Bureau of International Narcotics Matters, U.S. De-partment of State. (1992). International narcotics control strategy report (INCSR). Washington, DC: Author.

White House Office of National Drug Control Pol-icy. (2000). National drug control strategy: 2000 annual report. Washington, D.C.

James Van Wert

Revised by Frederick K. Grittner

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Transit Countries for Illicit Drugs

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