Latin American Cocaine Trade Persists Despite Gains Made by U.S. Efforts

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The number of drug players operating in Colombia, the world’s chief supplier of refined cocaine, has not declined. The drug trade also has undermined national stability and security in Mexico, according to the report.

Moreover, while U.S. interdiction has disrupted traditional drug smuggling routes through the Caribbean, syndicates have developed new shipment corridors in the Pacific and the Atlantic.

“American enforcement measures have had notable successes against the Latin American cocaine trade, but the effort has had little impact on the amount of illicit drugs that are reaching the United States,” said Peter Chalk, the study’s author and a senior political scientist at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.

Most of the cocaine headed to the United States is smuggled from Colombia, Peru and Bolivia through the eastern Pacific/Central American corridor. It is shipped in small consignments via a “scatter gun” approach with Mexico as the primary point of entry into the United States.

“Drugs are now being smuggled in smaller shipments, which allows traffickers to spread the risk and creates new challenges for law enforcement,” Chalk said. “In the past, if a big shipment was intercepted, traffickers were out of drugs. Now if one shipment is caught, nine others will still get through.”

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) remains the principal narco-player in Colombia and is believed to earn as much as $300 million annually from the trade, according to the study. Profits have historically funded an insurgent war against the Colombian government, but it appears that elements of the organization now use narcotics as an exclusively economic endeavor.

The impact of the drug trade remains significant, providing financing to insurgent groups in Colombia and Peru, causing social and health problems and street violence in end-user cities, and interacting with other transnational threats such as human smuggling and weapons trafficking, according to Chalk.

The U.S. government should consider refining its approach in source countries by reducing or eliminating aerial spraying that hurts legitimate farmers as well as encourages diversification into hardier, higher-yield plants by those growing drug crops.

“Air fumigation really has had a devastating effect on legitimate farmers, while prompting more-intensive growing methods by producers,” Chalk said. “A lot of legitimate, cash-producing crops are destroyed by air fumigation and the efforts have not really slowed down the production of drugs.”

Chalk makes several recommendations for the U.S. Air Force, which sponsored the study, including improved aerial surveillance over the Pacific-Central American corridor and ensuring protection of existing counter-drug access arrangements in Central America.

The study, “The Latin American Drug Trade: Scope, Dimensions, Impact, and Response,” is available at

The study was prepared by RAND Project AIR FORCE, a federally funded research and development center for studies and analysis aimed at providing independent policy alternatives for the U.S. Air Force.

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