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The War on Cocaine Only Strengthens Drug Cartels, Study Finds [FEATURE]

Submitted by Phillip Smith on (Issue #1061)
Consequences of Prohibition

If you've spent nearly a half-century and $250 billion trying to stop the flow of cocaine into the US and the white powder is now cheaper and more plentiful than ever, maybe it's time to rethink. That's the implicit lesson lurking behind a new study on the impact of drug interdiction efforts on drug trafficking organizations.

cocaine interdicted by US Customs (
Interdiction is the supply side approach to reducing drug use. Rather than reducing demand through education, prevention, and treatment, interdiction seeks to reduce the supply of drugs available domestically by blocking them en route to the US or at the border.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and conducted by scientists from a half-dozen American universities, the study relied on a computer model called NarcoLogic that shows how drug traffickers respond to interdiction strategies and tactics. More sophisticated than previous attempts to simulate the drug trade, NarcoLogic models local- and network-level trafficking dynamics at the same time.

"Our team consists of researchers who worked in different parts of Central America during the 2000s and witnessed a massive surge of drugs into the region that coincided with a reinvigoration of the war on drugs," David Wrathall of Oregon State University's College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences said in a press release announcing the research results. "We asked ourselves: did drug interdiction push drug traffickers into these places?"

The short answer is yes, and that has implications that go far beyond drug policy. The Central American migrants who are at the center of the current "border crisis" are fleeing not only poverty but also high levels of violence generated by the movement of Mexican drug trafficking groups into the region a decade ago as they faced increasing interdiction efforts at home and from US authorities.

In fact, although it is not addressed in this new research, it was earlier interdiction efforts aimed at Colombian cocaine trafficking groups in the 1980s that led directly to the transformation of formerly small-scale Mexican cross-border smuggling organizations into the Frankenstein's monster of drug prohibition that the cartels are today. With the Colombians under intense pressure, Mexican traffickers rose to the occasion and have been making billions of dollars a year ever since.

This despite five decades of US interdiction efforts with an average annual expenditure of $5 billion. Instead of curbing the flow of cocaine into the United States, all that has been accomplished is making the drug trafficking operations more widespread and harder to eradicate. Putting pressure on one route or location simply leads traffickers to scatter and regroup. This is the "balloon effect," where suppressing traffic or production in one area prompts it to pop up elsewhere, and the "cockroach effect," where traffickers simply decentralize their operations.

"Between 1996 and 2017, the Western Hemisphere transit zone grew from 2 million to 7 million square miles, making it more difficult and costly for law enforcement to track and disrupt trafficking networks," Wrathall said. "But as trafficking spread, it triggered a host of smuggling-related collateral damages: violence, corruption, proliferation of weapons, and extensive and rapid environmental destruction."

And for all that effort, the impact on cocaine price and availability has been negligible -- or even perverse.

"Wholesale cocaine prices in the United States have actually dropped significantly since 1980, deaths from cocaine overdose are rising, and counterdrug forces intercept cocaine shipments at a low rate. More cocaine entered the United States in 2015 than in any other year," Wrathall said. "And one thing people who support interdiction and those who don't can agree on is that change is needed. This model can help determine what that change should look like."

The main takeaway from the study is not that drug trafficking became more widespread and resilient because of ineffective interdiction efforts, but because of interdiction itself. The policy aimed at suppressing the drug trade has only made it stronger and wealthier.

"The study is a victory for observation and theory. This model successfully recreates the dynamic our team had observed," Wrathall said. "It tells us that increased interdiction will continue to push traffickers into new areas, spreading networks, and allowing them to continue to move drugs north."

Maybe it is time to try something different.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Permission to Reprint: This content is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Content of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.


Dain Bramage (not verified)

Try something different?  How about Freedom as a concept?

We could start with basic civil and human rights.  We could start with the basic right of human consumption.  We can start with autonomy over our own bodies.

I assert that my right to live takes precedence over your right to money.

What about the opioid crisis, you say?  Yes.  Agreed, this issue must be addressed.  So should deaths from tobacco use -- the number one killer drug.  So should deaths from alcohol.  So should deaths from automobiles!   So should deaths from sedentary lifestyle.   Hey -- how about getting the goddamn lead out of our fucking drinking water, while we're at it?  How about climate change?  The nuclear football in a crazy, terrorist, criminal, orange man's stumpy hands?  

We must solve ALL THESE PROBLEMS SIMULTANEOUSLY.   We must climb out of our political silos, and fight as if our very existence as a species is on the line, because it is.

Guess what?  There are people addressing these things.  There are people desperate to get our attention, desperate to get started on SOLUTIONS if only we will help by not letting the money grubbers block them at every turn.  These problem solvers are using harm reduction, compassion, and real data from real science (as opposed to judgmentalism and violence) to address all of these problems.

For example, legalizing marijuana is an obvious place to start with the opioid epidemic, since legal cannabis has been shown to be associated with a dramatic reduction in opioid abuse.  This is not a belief, it is a summary of evidence; you don't have to take my word for it, and I wouldn't want you to.  What matters here is not whether I am right, but whether WE GET IT RIGHT.  WE must get it right.

The War on Poverty was surreptitiously replaced with the War on Drugs.  Why?  Profit.

WAR is the wrong metaphor, because we don't take it as a metaphor -- we use real bullets.

Let's try HARM REDUCTION instead -- because it works better!!

Let's use facts, and dispense with bullshit!!

Marijuana legalization must be fact based, not faith based.

Maybe we should listen to those people who actually know what they are talking about, instead of those who have a financial or political stake in the outcomes!  Now there's an idea!

Thu, 04/11/2019 - 6:29am Permalink
Dain Bramage (not verified)

In reply to by Rita Shryock (not verified)

Rita, I agree. The reason to start legalization of drugs with marijuana is because of safety, both public safety and personal safety. A drug user understands safety better than the prohibitionist, because we don't judge. The goal is freedom AND safety.
Sat, 04/13/2019 - 7:30pm Permalink
Dain Bramage (not verified)

The Absurdity: Can it break your mind?  Yes, if it gets down in the gears too far.

An anecdote: I'm home from work, I'm getting high on legal marijuana, and I'm watching the news.  Mad King George -- er, I mean Trump, is threatening to shut down the Mexican border over the flow of "drugs."

Trump looks and sounds like Hitler, with his invective tirade of racist hate; this is true profanity.  I stop listening, and my mind wanders.  I am tired, and I feel sleepiness sneaking up on me.

On the tube, Corporate America cuts to THEIR agenda, via THEIR broadcast: a commercial break.

It's a high-production ad for a pharmaceutical drug.  It's a long ad, almost a short film.  It's about a woman who is moving through her life as if in a dream.  Events transpire around her in fluid slow-mo, as she tends to her routines -- feeding the baby, directing the kids, organizing the backyard barbecue, fucking her husband.

But beneath it all, there is an ominous subtext.  She is depressed.  Despite her white suburban neighborhood, and despite her nice car and well-manicured lawn, she wants to kill herself.

But, thank god, there is this drug -- this miracle of modern science, and (ahem) us, your everpresent Corporate Overlords, a drug that she can get from her very serious and trustworthy doctor -- that can put her right!!

Now, she may be just a dream inside a dream, but at least she isn't about to overdose on Valium! 

So, yeah, the ad suggests, this is you.  We see you.  We see inside you, and we see your malfunction; but that's okay, because we can fix you, just like we fixed her.

The curtain comes up, and I feel disorientation as the ad kicks into the legal disclaimer, boilerplate backpedaling.    There are risks associated with the drug.  The list of potential health problems associated with use of this drug is long and horrifying.  There is, I am advised, a risk of suicide associated with taking this drug.

What?  But I though the young woman in the movie... Wasn't that her problem to begin with?  Suicidal tendencies?  My mind struggles to come to attention to resolve the contradiction, but I am tired.   I think of people in my past, people I have lost, people I loved who just couldn't handle life anymore, and checked out...  I think about the pharmaceuticals they tried, in good faith, to stave off their despair...

I am nearly asleep.  Trump is on the TV again, lying through his fake face, and he looks like a demon to me.

I fall asleep.  When I wake up again, I recall those moments as if they were a dream sequence.

It's hard to know what's real here, and what isn't. 

Okay, get a grip.  It's time to get ready for work.  And so, off I go.

Fri, 04/12/2019 - 6:31am Permalink
Rita Shryock (not verified)

"Instead of reducing demand through blah blah blah"  I've never understood, and no one's ever been able to explain, why people think they have any right or obligation to keep other people from using drugs.  Why every article about the obvious harms of prohibition must necessarily start with some platitude about better ways to reduce drug use.  I mean, I get it why if it's someone you care about, or rely on, or have hopes for, but random strangers?  I honestly don't get it.   

Sat, 04/13/2019 - 2:35pm Permalink
Dain Bramage (not verified)

In reply to by Rita Shryock (not verified)


I think it's just people being judgmental.  There are those who believe something because they truly find it to be true, and then there are those who will believe whatever set of beliefs pays the best!

Mon, 04/15/2019 - 3:36pm Permalink

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