Solution to Stop Drug Trafficking and Terrorism

Solution to Stop Drug Trafficking and Terrorism in the United States and Abroad

Drug trafficking and terrorism in the U.S. And abroad

Simply put, illegal drugs appear to be one of, if not the most lucrative sources of funds for terrorist activities. Mainstream media, scholars, policymakers, and even the general public commonly believe that terrorist activity is funded by global sales and/or trade in illegal drugs. It has been suggested that terrorist groups use the funds generated from the lucrative drug trade for bribery, communication networks, safe houses, and weapons purchases (DEA, 2014). Furthermore, if true, these funds from sale of illicit drugs also enable planning and execution of even more attacks. Advantages of the illicit drug market to terrorists might include ease of entry into the drug trade, minimal infrastructure investment needed, and insignificant transportation costs relative to immense profit (Ballentine 2003; Cornell 2005). Other factors may include the fact that increased monitoring of terrorist groups following the 9/11 terrorist event in the United States has removed many of their former support systems, inducing a shift towards income that is less easy to trace (Dolar and Shughart 2007; Lipitz 2007; Ortiz 2002; Sanderson 2004). While once some terrorist groups were actually ‘state-sponsored’, the presence of such sponsorship has begun to seriously decline, increasing the need for these groups to generate other revenues.

This paper examines the inter-relationship between terrorism and the illicit drugs. In particular, a correlation is made between artificially inflated drug prices (perhaps even caused by the very interdictment that is intended to stem the flow of drugs) and enhanced terrorism activities. Indeed, if such a correlation is valid, it is only logical that efforts directed towards minimizing the illicit drug market will concomitantly decrease terrorism by cutting off their most lucrative source of funding (Piazza, 2011).

Drugs, Counter Narcotics Policies and Terrorism

In certain countries, there is a ‘vicious cycle’ between a destabilized government, the illicit drug trade, and terrorists taking advantage of both (Piazza, 2011). It consistently appears that the more the governments are destabilized the more that both drug trade and terrorist activities are enhanced (Kleiman 2004). The list of terrorists believed to be involved in the illegal drug trade is large, and includes many countries around the globe. These include: Hezbollah; the Filipino Abu Sayyaf movement; the Indian separatist United Liberation Front of Assam; IS or ISIL/ISIL, presently in Iran and Syria; the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK); the Peruvian Sendero Luminoso; Protestant para-military organizations in Northern Ireland; the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia or FARC; the Real Irish Republican Army (RIRA) dissidents in Northern Ireland; and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Baruah 1994; Bibes 2001; Filler 2002; Makarenko 2004; Roth and Sever 2007; West 2014).

For FARC alone, it has been estimated that as much as 50% of their operational base funds are derived from cocaine trafficking and coca production (Rangel 1998). This example relates to the link between the illegal drug trade and the terrorist activity within one country; however, it is also the case that funds derived from the drug trade may have a trans-national effect on terrorism. Drug trafficking and production in one country may finance terrorism not only locally, aka domestic terrorism, but also terrorism at a considerable remove within a given continent or even internationally (Piazza, 2011).

One aspect of counter-terrorism policy is based upon the presumption of a connection between terrorism and the illegal drug trade. ‘Fighting terrorism’ has increasingly become a rationale for policies that are counter-narcotics by the United Nations via its Office for Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) as well as within Western Europe and the United States (Felbab-Brown 2009). Some of the ‘terrorist hot spots’ in Latin America, East Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia are, in particular, the focus of anti-terrorism activities. In the fight against terrorism, interdictment of cocaine, heroin, and opium shipments is being consistently used, as well as attempts to eradicate both coca and poppy crops. Such actions in the Philippines, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, while controversial, are based upon methods used during the 1980s in Columbia as part of the successful strategy used against the Medellin illicit drug cartel (Kenney (2003). Thus, successful methods for stemming narcotics have become a routine part of policy and methodology against terrorism, based on recognition of the unfortunate symbiosis between the two.

There are two separate issues here: the international drug trade, and terrorist activity. However, by showing that they are linked, it is possible also to consider means by which attacking, diminishing or eliminating one issue may have a significant impact upon the other. Kleiman (2004) describes the relationship between the two as ‘cash’ and ‘chaos’. First, there is unquestionably a large illegal profit from the sale of illicit drugs; as well, this presupposes a large market for such drugs. In addition to direct sales, ‘taxes’ placed on each of the various steps in the drug ‘pipeline’ of traffickers, refiners, drug storage ‘houses’, intermediaries and drug cultivators produce additional income streams. This rich cash source is now the income for terrorists, who use their profits to launch even more terrorist attacks (Peters 2009). Based on this idea that drugs equal cash, and cash equals increased terrorism, approaches to decrease terrorism have begun to specifically focus on the drug aspect. Steps involved have included destruction of drug crops, destruction of drug production sites, and interdiction of drug products to stop the cash flow; this is now common counter-terrorism policy for many countries (Biersteker and Eckert 2007; Kleiman 2004; Steinitz 2002; Winer and Roule, 2002).

Kleiman (2004) also describes ‘chaos’ with respect to drugs and terrorism: in this example the drug market results in unstable governments, deterioration of the security of a country, and a loss of civil order. Once this happens, an increase in terrorism continues to occur, while the drug market concomitantly expands, bringing about more chaos and again increasing both drug markets and terrorism activities. The chaos argument is perhaps slightly more complex than the ‘cash’ argument and is used less frequently by media and/or policy makers; however studies have shown that there are correlations between weak political entities and both strong terrorism and strong drug markets (Lai 2007; Piazza, 2011).

In general, it appears that it is consumer demand for illicit drugs, especially the opiates, which results in an inelastic price, meaning that consumers will buy no matter what the cost.

While there may be a few variations, on the whole those who purchase illegal drugs for themselves want the drugs regardless of cost. Furthermore, they will not accept a substitute or a less expensive product, even with price hikes; this is most likely a correlate of addiction and concomitant addictive behavior. This behavior includes as well the need for a regularly scheduled and/or steady stream of purchases whenever possible. Inelastic drug prices are to the benefit of the seller and the terrorist, while negative for the consumer, who must now raise the funds for his/her drugs. If the buyer has a limited or fixed income, higher drug prices may result in higher domestic crime to pay for the illicit drugs. Higher drug prices bring more funds and profits to the sellers, the terrorists, and increased drug revenues lead to a more active terrorist force (Godwin 1983; Wagstaff and Maynard 1988). Every price increase provides the terrorists with more revenue, so that terrorists who are involved in drug trafficking can be more active; higher drug prices would seem to correlate with increased terrorist attacks.

While there have been no detailed empirical studies on terrorist groups and drug revenues, it is known that in the case of Mexican drug trafficking gangs, decreasing drug profits decreases the extent of violence (Kilmer et al. 2010). While it is obvious that an increase in drug crops will lead to an increase in drug production and an increase in drug sales, it should also be the case that more crops are associated with lower prices, and potentially a decrease in profits. This may be a fine line between how much crop can be produced without resulting in a drastically lowered price and profit. Regardless, it appears that in each case the terrorists only make more money and engage in more terrorist activities (Piazza, 2011).

A General Approach to the Concept of Organized Crime

According to Flores (2007), organized crime can be viewed from at least three orientations: [1] that of the illegal enterprise and the multiple layers involved; [2] that of the client, who may be limited in whom he can deal with; and [3] that of the interrelationship between the two. Criminal organizations are said to operate from a tripod of ‘obstruction of justice, violence, and corruption’, where violence is a means of control, and both obstruction of justice and corruption are used for expansion, (Herran et al., 2007). Unfortunately, in the case of Mexico, the known corruption has led to a distrust of the rule of law among the populace (Otero, 2011). Crime is no longer a local or even regional matter, but has grown beyond even national borders. The bottom line for much of organized crime is to obtain profits (Otero, 2011). In the United States, more strength could be given to the ‘war on drugs’ by increasing, and/or more fully enforcing monetary aspects through the IRS, Internal Revenue Service, and its Narcotics-Related Financial Investigations (IRS, 2014).

Dispersion and Fragmentations of Criminal Drug Trafficking Organizations (The Cockroach Effect)

There are many countries involved in the production of illegal drugs, usually beginning with an economically disadvantaged, or peasant, grower. The Bolivian associations of coca growers work together to deter criminal organizations, with the help of the military as well (Bagley, 2012). Since the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario, also known as the MNR or National Revolutionary Movement, the coca growers/peasant cooperatives also succeeded in blocking the rise of guerrilla movements as drug intermediaries, although at times there have been cases where the Bolivian Military was involved in such (Bagley, 2012). In contrast, Peru’s lack of connections between peasant growers leads to the rise of traffickers. Peru’s intelligence chief Valdimiro Montesinos and his military apparatus have been involved in drug trafficking and/or acting as drug intermediaries; similarly the Sendero Luminoso, a guerrilla organization has also been known to participate in drug intermediary roles and/or drug trafficking. Columbia is known for its strong criminal arm, such as the Cali and Medellin cartels, and the Nortedel Valle cartel, which were then supplanted by paramilitary organizations and the FARC; these organizations learned that even successful criminals could not openly confront the state (Bagley, 2012).

The story is slightly murkier in Mexico and Central America where police and/or military have both fought against and aided the drug trade. Columbia was ultimately a success story, in terms of the ‘war on drugs’ as the cartels were defeated when they attempted to rise to power and directly go against the state (Bagley, 2012).

Cocaine profits appear to be very dominant criminal market in the Mexico of today, similarly with Colombia of the 1980’s and 1990’s, including an increase in violence. While the present situation in Mexico is very brutal, it would appear that drug-trafficking is going the way of the Colombian organizations, and perhaps set up to fail. Several different Mexican cartels have been active: the Juarez cartel, which involves the Carrillo Fuentes family, and the Arrellano Felix family (the Tijuana cartel) were the strongest and largest illicit drug organizations in Mexico in 2000. Mexico still to the present has several large drug trafficking organizations; however, as they grow and disperse they become weaker (Bagley, 2012). At present the drug cartels are not themselves directly involved in terrorism, although it is clear that terrorists seek a foothold in Mexico (West, 2014).

Strategies to Combat Trafficking

The United States has had a ‘war on drugs’ since the term of President Nixon. This war on domestic drug abuse soon shifted to a fight against drug trafficking as well. By 1982, the foreign policy of President Reagan was established to ‘interdict and eradicate illegal drugs’ regardless of locale of cultivation, national origin or place of processing, and method of transportation. Reagan’s approach was adopted by other countries, and has become a worldwide endeavor to eliminate drugs. However, despite well over forty years of effort, there is little to no evidence of a decrease in the global drug industry. Indeed, there are many, including United States government officials, who consider the ‘war on drugs’ to be a total failure (Jenner, 2011). The attempts to use the ‘war on drugs’ to halt domestic use have apparently been a lesser focus of interest; one hears very little about attempts to help heroin addicts, with say a program parallel to the methadone program once renowned for its successes in the United Kingdom. Drug abuse in the United States, particularly the aspect of ‘dirty needles’ seems to have shifted towards prevention of HIV / AIDS, while the larger focus is now on deterrent efforts to halt illicit drug arrival into the United States.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND), a commission of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) is an important policy-maker for the United Nations (UN). CND and its members provide advice to the U.N. General Assembly, as well as monitoring international illicit drug control. Three conventions on drug control include: the U.N. Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (1961), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances (1971), the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. The 1971 convention focuses on illicit trafficking, which addresses both drug distribution and drug markets; this convention also recognizes that there are considerable financial profits involved in drug trafficking, which enable criminals to corrupt and contaminate society. The intent of these conventions is to strengthen and improve cooperation at an international level by directly targeting drug production as well as drug profits (Jenner, 2011).

Interdiction efforts by the United States have become increasingly stronger. The idea of ‘interdiction’ is based on the military concept of disrupting an enemy’s supply line. Thus, the U.S. has used the Coast Guard to patrol bodies of water likely to have ongoing trafficking, and other U.S. military arms work to intercept drugs that may be crossing land borders. However, it is rather ‘common knowledge’ that if one drug delivery route is successfully halted, another springs up quickly elsewhere. The yearly Drug Report from the U.N. Office of Drugs and crime indicates approximately 150 thousand kilos of cocaine were seized in the U.S. In 2007, which represents a 50% rise from the year 2002. Obviously, interdiction is not successful in its attempts to deter the illicit drug industry. Jenner (2011) suggests that at least 70% of drug production must be seized in order to act effectively as a deterrent. It is also obvious that attempts to provide estimates of the proportion of global drug production seized are unlikely to represent a true assessment. The present U.S. expenditure on drug programs globally is on the order of $50 billion, and it is estimated that at least double this would be needed to seriously affect drug production and even drug transport (Jenner, 2011).

Some policy makers and fact-checkers say that interdiction is more likely to raise prices and increase profits of the drug industry, by making the product scarcer. This scarcity is often accompanied by an increase in violent activities. While some suggest that causing a price increase for drugs will result in decreased consumption, they may not be considering the inelasticity of drug consumption, and the fact that buyers will buy regardless of price due to the addictive nature of the drugs. This means the decrease in consumption may not be significant, but the increase in profits may be considerable, with a concomitant increase in the associated violence and terrorism. Indeed, some would argue that interdiction actually rewards traffickers (Jenner, 2011).


In the opinion of some, the country of Mexico currently faces the worst drug trafficking issues at present. As of 2009, Mexico has a new ‘Law Against Small Drug Traffickers’, which decriminalizes personal use of narcotic drugs, cocaine, and marijuana. The intent is to use resources for work directed towards elimination of traffickers and cartels. Drug policy discussions may not always clearly distinguish between decriminalization, the act whereby modest possession of a drug is not illegal (but the drug production chain remains illegal), and legalization, in which all drugs are not only legal but the entire chain from drug production to sales is allowed. Decriminalization, as in Mexico’s new law, continues to hold selling, production, and trafficking of drugs to be illegal, with small scale use/possession being considered ‘legal’. In stark contrast, legalization results in legalization of all stages of the present drug market, from growth through use and possession (Jenner, 2011). The 1976 decriminalization of marijuana in the Netherlands has been positive for that country, within specific guidelines.

If drugs were to be legalized, that would not render violent crimes involved in the drug trade legal. It would result in each country establishing their own regulations and market system. It may not be commonly known, but Paraguay, Uraguay and even Colombia (to a limited extent) permit possession of small quantities of formerly illegal drugs. The Colombian decision is controversial, with U.S. pressure to block the decriminalization of said small amounts. The Supreme Court in Argentina has recently found possession of small amounts of marijuana to not be illegal. These changes in Central and South America are being watched by many to see if they do indeed result in a decrease in violence, and perhaps in associated criminal activity (Jenner, 2011).

Mexico is an extreme case at present with outrageous and horrendously bloody violence occurring between the cartels and spreading to the innocent public. It is unclear what effect the new decriminalization act by the Mexican government will have on the situation, but some fear it will be insufficient. Some say that Mexico’s policy is essentially just a mixture of the Plan Colombia and the United States work on interdiction; others are more hopeful that this act may indeed deter traffickers and cartels (Jenner, 2011).

Universal Legalization

If one accepts the premise that prohibition of drugs, interdiction, and all of the ongoing elements of the ‘war on drugs’ only serve to raise the price and provide lucrative support for terrorists, then one solution might simply be to legalize drugs, changing the entire global market.

It is suggested here that removal of the link between international terrorism and international drug trade could seriously undermine terrorism by universal legalization. Small steps towards legalization are occurring in a variety of different venues. There is a growing demand for what are presently called psychotropic drugs, such as ayahuasca, that are said to be ‘entheogens’, leading to a spiritualization of the individual and with some surprisingly strong statistics in terms of ‘curing’ heroin addiction and alcoholism. This is a growing ‘spiritual tourist market’ in South American countries. As mentioned, the Netherlands have decriminalized marijuana, and several of the United States have also taken this step, even though marijuana is still technically illegal federally in the U.S.

Legalization would remove the profit motive from the drug trade; this would remove a considerable portion of the funds used by international terrorists, and thus legalization could end both the drug trade and seriously weaken terrorists, particularly if legalization is viewed not as a domestic, but as a global issue (Jenner, 2011). The idea of global legalization would require a nation-by-nation cost-benefit analysis. In order for legalization to be effective, all steps in the drug process would need to be legalized, nearly simultaneously, on a global basis. This would be expected to immediately decrease violence, as the drug market would no longer be profitable.

The United States went through a serious period of lawlessness during the time that alcohol was criminalized by the 21st amendment to the Constitution. Following the repeal of the 21st amendment, the illegal alcohol market all but disappeared, and alcohol sales no longer included ‘bootleg whiskey’. Subsequently, the alcohol market changed and laws came into place concerning sales of alcohol to minors, and various state and local laws concerning hours of alcohol availability in various markets. Thus it is possible that legalization of drugs could create markets that were legitimate, rather than illicit, and positive market forces might enter in, perhaps analogous to what happened in the United States when the 21st amendment was overturned. This is, in part, being modeled in the United States at present, with the legalization of marijuana in states such as Colorado and Washington. So far, the states’ revenues have soared, and there has been both a decrease in the local black markets, and a concomitant decrease in local crime. Others predict that a marijuana black market is likely to return, because buyers feel that state-mandated prices in Colorado and Washington States are too high. As well there has been a rash of newspaper accounts of young innocents unsuspectingly eating marijuana-laced cookies with consequent ill health effects. The legal systems are struggling to define ‘driving high’ and what constitutes a dangerous excess where the individual should not be behind the wheel, especially as tests for marijuana levels are not as straight-forward as an alcohol breath-analyzer test. Since these changes are only a year or so old, it is unclear what long-term ramifications may be, but perhaps these states represent ‘test cases’ for the rest of the nation, with respect to marijuana, and potentially as models for what might occur upon legalization of ‘hard drugs’ such as heroin and cocaine.

Of course, it is obvious that those using drug trafficking to support their terrorist activities will not suddenly ‘become angels’. However, undercutting their easy access to large funding is likely to have a significantly negative effect on their activities as funding dries up. While there would remain other income sources for terrorists, such as human trafficking and the arms trade, the loss of their major income could also decrease other activities (Jenner, 2011).

In summary, this report has shown the clear correlation between the illicit drug trade and local, regional, national, and international terrorism. The links between the two, and the dependence of terrorism on drug income suggests that the results of more direct action against the drug trade can logically be expected to undercut terrorism. Several options to decrease and/or halt the drug trade are explored, including global legalization. While legalization may be a surprising approach to many, and controversial, it is one direction by which the high prices and large income funding of terrorism could be destroyed.


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