Drugs and Drug Trade

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Drugs and Drug Trade

Latin America is home to several important native drugs. The coca shrub (Erythroxylon coca), the basis for cocaine, grows in the Andean region. A variety of cactus, including the peyote cactus (Lophophora williamsii) and the San Pedro cactus (Trichocereus pachanoi), grown primarily in Mexico and on the west coast of South America respectively, have mescaline as their active principle. Various mushrooms, members of the Stropharia and Psilocybe genera, are found in Mexico and Central America and have psilocybin as their base.

The female hemp plant (Cannabis sativa), whose dried leaves and flowers are known as cannabis or marijuana, was introduced to North and South America in the sixteenth century by the Spanish and Portuguese, and to the Caribbean in the early eighteenth century by immigrants from India. The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), from which heroin is distilled, was first planted in Latin America in Mexico in the early twentieth century.


The use of drugs by traditional Latin American societies can be traced to 3000 bce. They were used in diverse cultural and religious activities, such as divination, meditation, and curing, and for relief from hunger and discomfort. Archaeological evidence suggests that the coca shrub originated on the eastern slopes of the Andes and spread by 500 ce to Panama. Once the mild stimulant and medical properties of the leaves were known, they were collected, dried in the sun, and masticated and held in the mouth as a quid. An alkaline substance (usually ash from vegetables) was added to facilitate the release of their chemical properties. During the Tiwanaku Empire (600–1200 ce) coca was integrated into cultural and religious activities such as ritual nocturnal intoxication. Coca chewing was widespread during the Inca Empire from about 1400 to 1532 at all levels of society.

During Spanish colonial rule (1532–1825) in the Andean region, coca production and use by Indians continued, and the coca leaf was also chewed by the Spanish, primarily for medical reasons, despite attempts by the colonial administration at eradication and prohibition. The prohibition of the growth and trade of coca in the Spanish American Empire for political and humanitarian reasons was not successful, although the use of coca in shamanic activities was seen as fostering resistance to Spanish rule and the miserable conditions and high death rate of the workers in coca fields were condemned by Bartolomé de Las Casas.

In the late sixteenth century the crown accepted the fact that coca was an integral part of the Indian workforce and Viceroy Toledo regulated all aspects of the production and trade of the coca leaf in the ordenanzas de la coca. Production increased over time because of more widespread consumption in highlands farming communities and in mining areas. The cycles of boom and bust that afflicted the mining industry affected the coca industry as miners depended on coca because of their difficult and demanding working conditions. The symbiotic relationship between coca production and mineral exportation continued after independence from Spain primarily in large haciendas in the Yungas region of Bolivia, one of the main coca-growing areas in the Andes until the boom in the 1970s.

After the Conquest, the coca leaf continued to play an important role in the cultural identity of Aymara and Quechua Indians in the Andean highlands, or Altiplano. Coca is still essential in many religious and nonreligious ceremonies for 3 million Andean Indians who, for example, use coca leaves in ritual exchanges between families or groups as part of systems of reciprocal labor or favors. The traditional use of coca continues also in communities of Amazonian Indians in Peru and Ecuador.

In addition to coca, traditional societies in Peru before and after the Conquest used a variety of different drugs. Archaeological evidence allows us to reconstruct the use of the San Pedro cactus, various nightshade plants, and the willka shrub by the Mochica (100 bce–700 ce) and by the Nazca (100–800 ce). In both cultures psychotropic plants played an important part in shamanic activities. Their use continued after the Spanish Conquest despite attempts at prohibition, and Roman Catholic beliefs were eventually syncretized with their traditional use. The San Pedro cactus is still used among traditional societies in northern Peru to treat illness believed to be caused by witchcraft. In Peruvian Amazonian cities today, men and women use the plant hallucinogen ayahuasca in the diagnosis and treatment of witchcraft-related illness. Folk healers assemble groups of patients several times a week and administer the plant potion to allow their clients to obtain visions of the men and women who bewitched them.

Psychoactive substances have been used in Mesoamerica from Preclassic times (1650 bce) until the present. An examination of ancient Maya art from Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize reveals the use of mind-altering mushrooms, toad venom, and the rhizomes of the common water lily. These substances, some of which are referred to in the Popol Vuh, influenced the ancient Maya religion, especially in divination and healing. The hallucinogenic mushrooms of pre-Columbian Mexico were called "god's flesh" by the Aztecs, who used at least four major hallucinogenic plants for ceremonies connected with human sacrifice, entertainment of guests at ceremonial feasts, and payment of tribute. The drugs were also used by the Aztecs for medical purposes and to give warriors courage to fight. The use of hallucinogens in Mexico and Central America continued despite their prohibition by the Inquisition, which declared in 1620 that the use of the peyote cactus was the work of the devil, and peyotism eventually became fused with Christianity.

Marijuana is a relatively unimportant drug in most traditional Latin American cultures. Only in Jamaica and other Caribbean nations does the drug, usually referred to as ganja, have a significant role with certain societal groups, such as the Rastafarians.


The Latin American drug trade is dominated by cocaine and to a lesser extent by marijuana and heroin. Since the rapid increase in demand in the 1970s, the production, refining, and trafficking of these drugs in a growing number of nations in the region have affected the economy, politics, social fabric, and relations with the United States, which is the primary market for drugs produced in Latin America.

Cocaine, one of thirteen alkaloids distilled from the coca plant, is produced exclusively in Latin America. While about 80 percent of the coca grows in the Bolivian Chaparé and the upper Huallaga Valley in Peru, coca production has spread to all neighboring countries, where it had not been planted traditionally and where the cocaine content is often lower. A small percentage of the coca production is exported legally to the United States for use in manufacturing Coca Cola, which requires de-cocainized leaves, and for pharmaceutical companies. Colombia has a dominant role in the cocaine trade, primarily because it has many processing laboratories and because it is strategically located between the main coca-producing nations and the routes through the Caribbean and Central America that lead to the lucrative U.S. and European markets. Brazil has also become an increasingly significant route for cocaine transshipment.

Marijuana has been exported to the United States since the nineteenth century, most of it coming from Latin America. While Mexico decreased its supply of the drug in the 1970s, Colombia and nations in Central America and the Caribbean increased production. Today, marijuana is most likely the largest cash crop in Jamaica and Belize.

During the 1980s Latin America became a significant source of heroin, supplying 40 percent of the U.S. market. Mexico's share of the U.S. market has increased from 10 to 15 percent in the 1980s to 30 percent in the 1990s. Production is increasing in Mexico and has spread to Guatemala and to the Cauca Valley in Colombia.

Drug production and processing have affected the economies of Latin American nations. Especially in the crisis decade of the 1980s, dollars earned in the drug trade became an important source of foreign exchange in the region's economies. It is probable that the difficult position of the Mexican economy became a major impetus for the drug trade, and it is alleged that the marijuana trade in Jamaica kept that economy afloat in 1980 when the country was exceedingly short of foreign exchange. In the Andean region, coca dollars helped to weaken the impact of the decline in mineral prices. Estimates of annual profits made by cocaine traffickers range from $5 billion to $6 billion, and the reflow of coca money to producing countries ranges from approximately 10 to 20 percent. The drug industry is also an important source of employment in producing nations. In Bolivia, for example, it is estimated that cultivating coca, initial processing of coca paste, and refining and smuggling cocaine provide jobs for 10 percent of the economically active population.

The drug trade influences the politics of the region. In the absence of strong political support for the war on drugs weak central governments are only partially successful in implementing programs of drug eradication and interdiction. Some governments have demonstrated the political will to acknowledge and strike out against corruption, but strong criminal syndicates threaten national sovereignty and institutions. In Colombia, where the Medellín cartel was weakened by the death of its leader, Pablo Escobar, in 1993, the Cali cartel emerged as the largest in the world in refining, smuggling, and distributing cocaine—until it, too, was weakened by the arrest of its leaders in 1995. The huge profits involved in the drug trade contribute to the weakening of the juridical system in some countries and have corrupted segments of the police and the armed forces. In some instances, narco-traffickers have been linked to terrorist activities. They threaten governments with occasional acts of terrorism and have reached agreements with the Shining Path in Peru and Colombian guerrillas to provide arms and money in exchange for protection of drug production and trade. Powerful political constituencies, such as the coca farmers in Bolivia and Peru, are well-organized pressure groups opposed to government programs of coca eradication and cocaine interdiction. Most Latin American nations have become involved in the transit of illegal drugs and are vulnerable to money laundering because of strict bank secrecy regulations and weak banking and criminal laws.

The social costs of the expanding drug production and trade in the region are reflected, for example, in the addiction to coca paste by a rapidly increasing number of abandoned children in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia. Domestic demand-reduction programs in most Latin American countries indicate a growing awareness of drug abuse.

National and international efforts to deal with the drug crisis have had mixed results. Latin American governments have faced a dilemma pitting the economic benefits of the drug trade against its political and social costs. Most governments have favored demand-side solutions, such as treatment of addicts, education, and prevention programs. But the National Drug Control Strategy of successive U.S. governments has emphasized supply-side measures, such as border interdiction and suppression programs in the source countries. These efforts have had only limited success. For example, crop-eradication and crop-substitution programs in Bolivia and Peru have failed to significantly slow coca production because the income from coca, which has a high and stable rate of return, is far greater than the income from substitute crops, such as citrus fruit or macadamia nuts, and the programs have been violently resisted by coca growers. As part of President George H. W. Bush's Andean Strategy, a multifaceted effort to reduce the flow of cocaine into the United States announced in 1989, Andean countries have promised to cooperate with the United States in enhancing their drug-fighting capabilities by training special police forces and getting the Latin American armed forces more involved in the drug war. However, because of the military's history of intervention into politics, Peruvian and Bolivian leaders have been reluctant to accept the militarization of the drug war and have called for a more economic approach to the problem. In the antidrug accord reached between the United States and six Latin American nations in San Antonio, Texas, in February 1992, the expanded role by South American militaries was shifted to the police. International organizations such as the Organization of American States and the United Nations favor a more equal distribution of supply and demand reduction. They provide a juridical framework for dealing with illegal drugs, but their authority is limited because international cooperation remains voluntary. In 1998, Colombia's President Andrés Pastrana Arango proposed legislation known as Plan Colombia to combat the drug trade. This plan, which received extensive input and funding from the Unites States during the presidency of Bill Clinton, focused on bolstering economic programs, strengthening the military, and aerial fumigation of drug crops. While the U.S. and Colombian governments have claimed that this effort has reduced cocaine production, these figures have been disputed. The plan continued to receive funding from the United States under President George W. Bush.

Ever since the beginning of large-scale drug trade in the 1970s, the Latin American traffickers have adjusted to antinarcotic efforts by spreading production and smuggling over the entire region, opening new markets, and recruiting new allies. Because of a wide range of political, social, and economic factors, the fight against drugs remains an extremely complex and difficult issue.

See alsoCriminal Justice; Medicinal Plants; Rastafarians; United States-Latin American Relations.


A good analysis of the use of drugs by pre-Columbian cultures and traditional societies is in Marlene Dobkin De Rios, Hallucinogens: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (1989). Coca and Cocaine: Effects on People and Policy in Latin America (1966), edited by Deborah Pacini and Christine Franquemont, deals with coca from an interdisciplinary perspective. On drug production and trade in Latin America and the relations between drugs and terrorism, see Scott B. MacDonald, Dancing on a Volcano: The Latin American Drug Trade (1988). A good survey of the dilemma of Latin American nations in their fight against drugs is Rensselaer W. Lee, The White Labyrinth: Cocaine and Political Power (1990). On the socioeconomic and political impact of illicit drugs, see James Painter, Bolivia and Coca: A Study in Dependency (1994), part of a new series from the U.N. Research Institute for Social Development. For a critical assessment of U.S. policies, see Raphael Perl, ed., Drugs and Foreign Policy: A Critical Review (1994). For U.S. government views, see U.S. Department Of State, Bureau Of International Narcotic Matters, International Drug Control Strategy Report (annual).

Additional Bibliography

Crandall, Russell. Driven by Drugs: U.S. Policy toward Colombia. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002.

Gootenberg, Paul. "Between Coca and Cocaine: A Century or More of U.S.-Peruvian Drug Paradoxes, 1860–1980." The Hispanic American Historical Review 83:1 (February 2003), 119-150.

Joyce, Elizabeth, and Carlos Malamud, eds. Latin America and the Multinational Drug Trade. Basingstoke, U.K.: Macmillan; New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Recio, Gabriela. "Drugs and Alcohol: US Prohibition and the Origins of the Drug Trade in Mexico 1910–1930." Journal of Latin American Studies 34:1 (February 2002), 21-42.

Thoumi, Francisco E. Illegal Drugs, Economy and Society in the Andes. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

                                   Maria Luise Wagner