From Drug Trafficking to Cultivation: A Global “Unchallenged” Nexus
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 07 Oct , 2017

International drug routes

In the light of growing “intense” nexus between transnational organized crime factions, sex traffickers, gun runners and money launderers, today, drug trafficking has become one of the most “complex yet diverse” issue in the world with an ability to seriously cripple socio-politico-economic architecture of a country while seriously damaging its legislative institutions.

Coupled with principle actors including transnational organized crime factions, drug traffickers, corrupt political representatives, corrupt law enforcement officers, gang bangers and low-level street gangs, drug trafficking has become a multi-million-dollar industry which could influence global politics. Higher drug trafficking organized crime factions follow a “trans-national” approach, since their shipments often cross international waters as it passes from one hand of the actor to another.

Moreover, large shipments along with laundered money especially “hard cash” are massively involved in drug trafficking holding significant “importance” on an evidential approach for law enforcement agencies, as their interaction majorly takes place with transnational organized crime factions, which heavily participates in trafficking of all kinds (from women to weaponry to children), corruption and more recently, terrorism. In an effort to effectively combat a systematic “business” modus operandi, inter-agency interaction of the law enforcement agencies are outmost importance. It is important for policy makers to create policies effective and efficient enough to counter a “systematic” organized crime.

Furthermore, policy makers must understand the importance of active inter-agency and intra-agency interaction with other law enforcement agencies, but within the boundations of law and human rights while strengthening border management and respecting jurisdictional limitations.

The situation today

To cultivate drug, organized crime factions, traffickers, drug cultivators use cannabis extensively. For traffickers in South East Asia, Cannabis is quite popular, cheap, readily available, which makes it their principle crop. Between the years 2009-14, law enforcement and intelligence agencies estimated Cannabis plantations in over 149 countries. This figure surpasses the global opium poppy cultivation, which is cultivated in 49 countries, whereas probable nations with coca bush cultivation remains 7 in world today. Although, the information gathered by intelligence agencies on cannabis and its probable cultivation remains “unreliable” as compared to information gathered by agencies on coca bush and opium poppy.

Since 2009, law enforcement agencies report an escalation of opium poppy cultivation to over 51%, according to the agencies the principle reason behind such “escalation” is Afghanistan’s “unchecked and unaccounted” opium drug cultivation and trade. On the contrary, the coca bush cultivation drastically fell to 31% in 1998 which then fell to 19% in 2009. Inspite of vigil law enforcement agencies and strict legislations against drug traffickers and factions involved in production and distribution of opium poppy and coca bush, the total production of opium and cocoa is continuing to rise significantly.

With massive “technological advancements” and efficient“ cocaine-processing” laboratories in distinct jungles of Latin America and the Caribbean, cocaine production has significantly risen to the level it had achieved in the early 1998, despite all efforts taken by global communities including the efforts of United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Today, Afghanistan alone cultivates over two-thirds of illicit opium of the world, slowly limiting its cultivation to over 281,000 hectares in the light of active vigilance from International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and its NATO allies. Opium production in the international markets fell to over 38% in 2015, losing roughly 4,770 tons every day. The users of opium (principally the users of opium, morphine and heroin), has received fewer number of users but continues to affect the lives of over 17 million people and counting.

Intelligence agencies and law enforcement “rigorous” busts points towards a sudden demand in opium especially in reasons where it showed signs of decline, especially the ones in North America. However, inspite of the sudden “resurrection” in drug usage, opium usage in EU countries show sudden “unusual” increment particularly in the opium drug cultivation and distribution. Policy makers must note that, opium drug addicts have phenomenally increased in African countries. Law enforcement agencies deny any sudden “surge” in opium distribution between the period 1998-2014, although Opium distribution has significantly decreased in the Pacific. Although, the usual “Balkan Route”, which is the principle route for organized crime factions to traffic Afghan opiates throughout the Western and Central Europe continues to be the principle channel for trafficking heroin.

Particularly in drug trafficking, the discussion would be incomplete without addressing the “Golden Triangle”. It comprises mostly of North and North-Eastern part of Myanmar, in and around the border of Laos, Thailand and Southern part of China. The drug traffickers also utilise the “natural benefactors” such as steep terrain, mountains, dense forests along with heavy rains which also keeps them from the “emanating “eyes of law enforcement agencies. Inadequate and ineffective law enforcement policies coupled with poor and incomplete legislations limit the access of “aggressive” governments forcing them to leave illicit drug cultivation unpersuadable and tolerable with time.

Rise of Cannabis

Besides the “region specific” drugs such as opium and cocoa, cannabis is literally a drug produced by every other country in the world. At the international market, it is one of the most common drug used, with users as higher as 183 million as of 2015. A drug cultivated by users often in the garage or backyards, in small proportionate, frequently “bartered” or sold through informal trading. Trafficking of Cannabis creates marginal profits, especially due to low quantity and properties that makes it easily detectable. Hence, producers intend to limit their markets to “local” region, preferably with “known individuals”. Most of the production and consumption is domestic, and if organised crime factions traffic Cannabis, it is “strategically” done using region specific factions/players.

North America and Africa are the largest markets of Cannabis herbs, with suppliers comprising principally domestic, or from popular regions of South and Central America. Moreover, factions supplying Cannabis prefer to use the markets of Europe, Middle East and North Africa.

“Un-intercepted” Drug trade

The rampant operations of drug trafficking units, commonly described by law enforcement agencies as “cartels” are defined by the United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), a leading federal agency of the US, as “complex organizations with highly defined command-and-control structures that produce, transport, and/or distribute large quantities of one or more illicit drugs”. Over decades, law enforcement agencies have witnessed significant rise of drug trafficking organizations not only in number but also in its evolution to form a systematic “organized” crime factions, involving crime families particularly where secrecy holds principle importance, to street gang bangers with thousands of followers, in nature a cult.

During a “closed door” meeting of leading law enforcement agencies of US and Europe, important decisions regarding the enforcement and apprehending mechanism of drug traffickers were discussed. During the meeting a “systematic” definition of drug syndicates was created and categorised according to their operations. In accordance to the discussion,

•  “freelance” networks comprised of small scale entrepreneurial “ambitious” individuals;

•  “family businesses” comprised of “systematic” organized crime faction families which had fixed operational mechanism, a hierarchy along with modus operandi particularly relying on trust;

•  “communal businesses” comprised of members of a community which were bound by race, ethnicity, religion, nationality, neighbourhood, or a common cause; and

•  “corporations” which were large “hierarchical” organizations with a formidable leadership or a specific appointment of members in the board along with a ladder to maintain provide specific orders to the “pawns” of the group. It also contained “vacancies” for ambitious individuals and promoted the most loyalists in the group to middle management or upper level.

Crime factions in such “large” capacities were mostly para-military in nature. Using military tactics, they exploited “vulnerable” border regions of specific nations, while taking responsibility to protect the delivery of shipments, either shipped or flown, or smuggled through roads internationally or domestically. On many scenarios, drug trafficking organizations had deep nexus with militant factions and para-military organizations; not limiting their interaction with terror factions.

Drug trafficking factions would then use such militant factions/partnered actors to exploit new markets, guarantee more active suppliers, dealers, launder illicit money and finance other “activities of interests”. Such agencies then appoint forensic accountants commonly called as “cleaners” who then launder the “illicit” money for the factions. Then money is used to finance “non-legitimate” activities and high-income business deals. They then use large funds in off shore accounts to finance “global actors” initiatives while keeping the movement of finances “fluid” i. e. from one bank to another in an effort to make tracking of accounts difficult, which if intercepted would result in a loss of billions.

Besides benefitting from “joint operations”, drug trafficking factions do not limit themselves to restrain from using “excessive violence” against competitors particularly the ones who challenge the authority of these organizations. Furthermore, they use ruthless means to eliminate individuals such as journalists, top law enforcement agents and border patrol heads of organizations, in an effort to prevent any hindrance in their operations. Throughout the world, drug trafficking factions are majorly reasoned behind political assassinations, organized crime and gun running.

Since 9/11, there has been a phenomenal increase in narco-trafficking, an advanced “hybrid” warfare that initiates excessive violence in an already violent drug trafficking arena. Militant factions such as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the Taliban, HAMAS and Hezbollah are active partners in terror activities and principle “benefactors” of drug trade. These narco-traffickers have been responsible for car-bombings, kidnapping, genocides, mass executions, and political assassinations. Throughout its modus operandi, street gang members and gang bangers are “backbone” of their operations, actively distributing drugs to its large scaleconsumerswhile generating large sum of money, while simultaneously instigating a recruitment process for the “delusional” miss-guided youths.

Cultivating drugs and trafficking it through international drug trafficking networks cannot be simply limited within the definition of “crime”, it is an “illicit” business which has “dangerous” outcomes far beyond the “supplier-distributer” relationship. Enormous profits generated through trafficking results in “excessive violence”, which further extends to political killings, corruption a realm which then slowly grows into a “parasite”. They then offer bribe to influence the decisions of individuals and law enforcement officers at regional, local and national level. They, then slowly cripple the justice system and law enforcement institutions by flooding the “once stable system with crooked officers” and instigate a “whirlpool of de-stability”. They not only cripple the governing institution but drastically reduce the effectiveness and efficiency of the government, as the funds generated by trafficking further fuel resentment and discontent which could result in civil war scenarios.

Similarly, drug trafficking factions find “vulnerable” political actors, who could at the time of need, assist them in their acts. These “vulnerable” political actors see this as a moment to fund their campaigns. This then gives opportunities to many non-state actors to actively participate in the drug trade, which seems “lucrative” in the light of aforementioned scenarios. These non-state actors either rebel militant factions or guerrillas, use their partnership to reinforce their fight against the state.

Addressing the “root-cause”

UNODC in its recently published report on drug trafficking have summarised factors which continues to adversely affect the UN designated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are goals which member nations are thriving to achieve by the end of 2030, and in accordance to the active participation of law enforcement agencies in an effort to effectively address the growing drug trade. International organizations along with global communities must actively engage with local and regional law enforcement agencies to ensure effective cooperation, coordination and correlation in an effort to counter the threat aggressively.

“Ignored and Underdeveloped” Socio-economic conditions

Drug addiction and abuse has drastic effects on health. Policy makers must note that, drug trafficking is rampant in nation with poor drug control laws and other legislations on essential medicine, particularly in drug control. Inadequate laws on medicine essentially drives the drug trafficking business which further carries socio-economic problems associated with drug trafficking and hinder the nation’s efforts in achieving sustainable development.

Policy makers must acknowledge the missing link between the socio-economic underdevelopment and drug cultivation and distribution. Poverty and harsh socio-economic conditions force individuals to indulge in drug-related activities. Today, the drug cultivation, production and trafficking have become part of nation’s economy. In the light of aforementioned arguments stated above, it is impossible to drive an economy in the positive direction while bringing “sustainable economic growth” through illicit activities coupled with organized crime factions, their “nature of entanglement”, fuelled with excessive violence and oppression.

Inadequate inter-agency cooperation and coordination

International cooperation depends upon the intensity of crisis rather than the seriousness of the issue or the adverse threat it poses. Moreover, nations in and around the drug trade are often forced to participate in law enforcement joint task force. In the light of intense drug related crimes and its ability to compromise the safety and security of the masses, policy makers must utilise all available resources at hand, including intra-agency or inter-agency assistance in an effort to prevent instability in the region. In cases where the nations are affected by drug trafficking, its law enforcement agencies participate the least, and the chances of compromising covert operations within their territories becomes high, especially when the suspected terrorist is behind political finances and is laundering money for senior political leadership.

Proposed Solutions

Extensive Intelligence sharing and Intra-agency interaction

The international law enforcement institutions, relevant intelligence agencies and law enforcement agencies of the “host” state along with international law enforcement organizations, global financial institutions along with international non-governmental organizations should play an “aggressive” role with sheer responsibility in an effort to effectively and efficiently counter the cultivation and distribution of drugs. In an effort to surgically “eliminate” the actors and further preventing them to shift to a new location, international cooperation and coordination between agencies is a must. This will involve available global strategic units to lay out strategies to counter drug trafficking operations, while liaising with logistical units and putting an end to their operation. This would further assist farmers in acquiring legal assistance, getting access to education, a then a job which could bring drastic change in their lives; preventing an end to further concealing of drugs in shipment containers and cargo bays.

International law enforcement agencies such as INTERPOL or EUROPOL and UNODC can share viable intelligence within their partnered agencies. They can further invite relevant law enforcement agencies particularly regional and local agencies which are the first responders against the drug traffickers. Policy makers must understand that, the focus should not be on drug trafficking/cultivation alone, since this approach could steer law enforcement agencies to a “limited” approach: preventing agencies from investigating the “larger” element in the case, since transnational organized crime operates majorly on “multi-national” level, not only limiting their “relationship” to drug trafficking, but also involving weapon trafficking, smuggling/abduction of women and crimes of all forms. It is important for agencies to interact with multi-dimensional approach in an effort to maximise their knowledge and understanding of scenarios. Regular engaging with experts could reinforce their case against drug trafficking.

It is also important for policy makers to extensively interact with digital experts particularly especially in the domain of “dark net”, the internet age of drug trafficking. Since the nature of the “dark net” remains transnational and so does its activities, law enforcement agencies must liaise with INTERPOL or EUROPOL or agencies with a history with “dark net”.

Strengthening anti-corruption measures

In an effort to counter drug trafficking effectively and efficiently, law enforcement agencies must keep a strict vigil on “in-house” corruption activities. It is quite easy for drug traffickers to interact with political leadership and cripple the system of governance. There have been instances of corrupt legislative and law enforcement officers’ involvement in the drug trafficking ring and the election of certain “suspected” drug traffickers to public offices, law enforcement agencies must “keep their house clean”.

Local legislators are frequently threatened, particularly the regional law enforcement agencies head as bribe is either “forced down their throat”, or are threatened to “execute” their family members on non-compliance. The first step in cracking down these drug traffickers is to prevent local officers from being bribed. It is important for law enforcement agencies to trace the source and the destination of the money along with the “middlemen” tasked to contact politicians and heads of law enforcement agencies. It is important for policy makers and top political leadership to establish a “mechanism” against corruption which could have the power to punish any public officer caught on record, and issue rewards of suspension, dismissal or even imprisonment depending upon the case.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Anant Mishra

is a security analyst with expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations. His policy analysis has featured in national and international journals and conferences on security affairs.

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