The Global Initiative For Drug Policy Reform


Deriving vast profits from the trafficking and selling of illicit substances, the illegal drug trade has been, and continues to be, regarded as the biggest threat to security, stability and safety in many countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.

The production, trafficking and sale of illicit drugs are closely linked to the high-levels of violence and endemic corruption that many countries continue to fight (officials from border guards to police officers to politicians and judges have all been found guilty of corruption). Whilst US citizens continue to present a demand for a range of illegal substances, international anti-narcotics efforts will do little to deter traffickers from producing and shipping drugs. Supplying drugs to a large, rich market will always be attractive.

Producing drugs does not cost a vast amount and those at the low-end of the drug chain do not receive much of the overall profits. The vast amount of profit is taken by those further up the chain who are given more and more money for the higher risk endeavours, such as cross-border smuggling. The addictive nature of many drugs means that users will often buy no matter the price. Therefore huge incentives are present to engage in illegal drug production and trafficking.

Those involved in the illegal drugs business cannot ask the police to protect their assets from competitors or governmental anti-narcotics efforts. Instead they must protect their supply chain from production until the drug is bought. The vast profits from the trade allow those involved in the drug market to develop sizeable security capabilities (such as private armies) to defend their interests and/or corrupt the political system.

Beheadings, massacres and bombs on passenger airplanes have all been used by traffickers in their efforts to intimidate governments into changing policies and laws to turn a blind eye to their illegal endeavours, attack rival cartels for control of their trafficking routes and intimidate innocent civilians to force them not to co-operate with state forces. Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of this violence; some are often orphaned, others become severely traumatised after witnessing cartel savagery and, perhaps even worse, others become immune to the constant bloodshed around them. This violence is threatening to destroy entire nations. For example, in countries such as Mexico, heavily-armed cartels compete with each other and against the State’s forces for control of trafficking routes into the US. Over 50,000 have died since the drug war began in 2007 [1].

The profits from the drug trade are often received by terrorist groups, paramilitaries, insurgents and organised crime. Organisations as diverse as Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Taliban in Afghanistan, and the FARC in Colombia, benefit from what is by far the most lucrative illicit activity. As one official US report has stated “…many terrorist organizations and some rogue regimes pressed for cash rely on the illicit drug trade as a source of income” [2]. These groups are not just involved with drug sales, but also tax and extort local farmers; cartels also provide security for all levels of production, trade and distribution within the drugs industry. For example, one report to the US Congress stated that “…the [Taliban] regime uses poppy-derived income to arm, train and support fundamentalist groups…” [2]. From British forces in Afghanistan to children in playgrounds caught in the cross-fires in Mexico, the effect of drug-related violence extends globally.

The violence also undermines the economic policies of a country. If a country is viewed as being an increasingly dangerous place to do business in, drug-related violence can be seen to reduce the attractiveness of a country’s potential investments. For example, a country such as Colombia has “…received the lowest amount of net inflows of foreign direct investment in its peer group” due to its long-standing high levels of violence related to the drug trade [3].

[1] ‘Mexico memorial to drug war victims inspires debate’ LA Times August 8 2012 / LA Times Mexican Drug War analysis 

[2] Raphael F. Perl, ‘Taliban and the Drug Trade’,CRS Report for Congress October 5, 2001, p.1

[3] Holmes, J., Gutiérrez de Piñeres, S. & Curtin. K, Guns, Drugs & Development in Colombia, University of Texas Press, 2008