Drug Trafficking, Illegal

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DRUG TRAFFICKING, ILLEGAL. The black market for illegal drugs accounts for 8 percent of the world's trade revenue, according to United Nations estimates. Enormous profits can be had for those who successfully smuggle narcotics from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and other parts of the globe into the world's largest black market for illegal drugs: the United States. Successfully smuggling cocaine into the United States in the 1990s brought profits between 700 to 900 percent over origina product costs. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) officials estimate that a drug organization could have 70 to 80 percent of its product confiscated before sale and still turn a profit. Because of the economics of the black market, efforts to stanch the flow of illegal drugs have mostly been frustrated. Best estimates conclude that government interdiction captures one-third of the illegal drugs that smugglers try to bring into the United States; the two-thirds of the narcotics that do cross U.S. borders supplied an estimated $60-billion-a-year retail market in 2000.

From the passage of the first major piece of federal drug control legislation, the Harrison Act, in 1914, until the late 1960s, efforts to interdict illegal drugs were organized by drug enforcement divisions within the Treasury Department. During the same period most of the drug trade was controlled by U.S.-based Mafia organizations. The rise in drug use in the late 1960s prompted President Richard Nixon to declare a "War on Drugs," and efforts to stop smuggling were stepped up. In 1973 the DEA was created as part of the Justice Department to coordinate drug interdiction and drug trafficking intelligence gathering among federal agencies. Other agencies involved in stopping drug trafficking include the State Department, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Customs Service, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The federal government spent approximately $1.5 billion on drug interdiction efforts in 1997.

Among the more prominent operations to stop drug traffic into the United States occurred in the 1970s with the breakup of the "French Connection," the name given to a heroin-smuggling route that began in Turkey, passed through the port of Marseilles, and ended up in New York. The 1980s and 1990s saw further major operations resulting in the destruction of leading international drug traffic organizations, such as the Medellin and Cali cartels in Latin America. In 2000 U.S. Customs seized 1.3 million pounds of marijuana, 150,000 pounds of cocaine, and 2,550 pounds of heroin. Important single-case seizures include the capture of 1,071 pounds of heroin on the cargo ship President Truman in 1991 and the capture of 13 tons of cocaine from the cargo ship Svesda Maru in 2001. Both ship seizures took place off the coast of California.


Bertram, Eva, et al. Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Meier, Kenneth J. The Politics of Sin: Drugs, Alcohol, and Public Policy. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1994.

Musto, David. The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control.3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Richard M.Flanagan

See alsoCrime, Organized ; Narcotics Trade and Legislation ; Substance Abuse .