Image credit: Brookings Institution - Photo: 2023

Cocaine Trade is Flourishing Again in South America

By Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury*

DHAKA. 24 September 2023 (IDN) — The cocaine trade is experiencing a resurgence in South America, bouncing back from a downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the intriguing positions of several regional countries, Latin America has yet to seriously discuss its drug policy, instead clinging to the prohibitionist and militaristic approaches advocated by the United States, its primary consumer.

One of the main catalysts for this alarming trend in our continent is pervasive social inequality. In many peripheral regions, people with limited prospects for legal employment turn to drug trafficking as a way out. This illegal trade is a massive business, with a ton of cocaine fetching a mere thousand US dollars in Bolivia and selling for a staggering 35,000 in European ports.

The issues tied to drug production, trafficking, and consumption in Latin America have dire consequences for the population’s quality of life. In some countries, these problems are intricately linked to social exclusion, institutional fragility, increased insecurity, violence, and governance erosion. A recent report by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) underscores these concerns.

In terms of production, Latin America holds a global monopoly on coca leaf, cocaine base paste, and cocaine hydrochloride. Additionally, the region has seen an expansion in marijuana production, intended for domestic consumption and export, and an emerging production of poppy, opium, and heroin.

Regarding trafficking, while the Caribbean remains a prominent route for drug trafficking to the United States, the non-violent path through Central America has gained relative importance. Recently, river transport from coca-cocaine-producing countries via Brazil has also grown significantly.

The issue of drug consumption primarily affects young people, particularly males, and marijuana, followed by cocaine base paste, crack, and cocaine hydrochloride, are the most commonly consumed illicit drugs in the region. This exacerbates problems among young individuals with high social vulnerability.

Militarized response

The historical approach of prohibitionism, which started over a century ago to control dangerous substances through militarization, police action, repression, and imprisonment, is increasingly viewed as ineffective.

The militarized response has become more problematic than the substances themselves.

The United States’ vision of waging a war on drugs has persisted in the region for at least four decades, yielding little progress while consuming substantial resources. The beneficiaries of these policies seem to be the arms industries and the labor force in the drug trade, who view it as a means of securing their livelihoods.

In South America, two major drug trafficking routes dominate. The southern route comprises Paraguay, central-southern Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. This route’s importance lies in its larger urban centers and extensive airport and port infrastructure, including a well-developed road network facilitating cocaine export to Europe. The second route is the Amazonian route, originating in Peru and Colombia, focusing more on the non-violent path through Central America, primarily aimed at the United States.

Uruguay, while having sound laws to combat trafficking and money laundering, faces challenges in enforcing controls. It has become increasingly significant in the international drug distribution market due to its strategic location for shipping large drug consignments to Europe.

Weaknesses in monitoring and detecting illicit shipments also persist.

The evolving nature of the drug trade emphasizes the need for drug lords to distance themselves from direct involvement and employ compartmentalization within their organizations. Horizontal structures and compartmentalization protect the leadership of criminal groups, ensuring continuity even if top leaders are apprehended.

In Brazil, the First Capital Command (PCC) exemplifies this approach with its horizontalized structure and organized divisions for various functions like legal representation, transport, finance, and communication, including message encryption. The PCC primarily controls and regulates crime in São Paulo, while Rio grapples with the presence of militias, the Comando Vermelho, and the Terceiro Comando Puro.

The PCC emerged as a response to the dire conditions within Brazilian prisons. It evolved into a powerful entity that expanded its influence to border regions, specifically Paraguay and Bolivia, solidifying its control over the cocaine production and export chain.

Another prominent player in the drug trade, Cabeça Branca, adopted a different business model by focusing on cocaine wholesaling. Cabeça Branca’s success was built on a robust logistical scheme in transit countries like Brazil and Uruguay. By purchasing cocaine and managing its transportation to exit points, these wholesalers gain more power with an expanded network of routes.

Ecuador one of the world’s largest drug exporter

Ecuador’s transformation into one of the world’s largest drug exporters relates to criminal gangs in Ecuador, which have spread from the coast to the highlands and the Amazon, transporting drugs from borders to the high seas or via small planes, which partners in Mexico and Europe then receive.

Ecuador’s adoption of the US dollar as its national currency facilitated the introduction of drug money into the financial system. Over the past two decades, Ecuador’s modernization has made it more accessible to criminal gangs, who exploit the improved infrastructure for their operations. 

The alarming collaboration between politicians and drug traffickers in Ecuador and allegations of politicians collaborating with drug traffickers and facilitating illegal activities, such as clandestine airstrips and docks, are increasingly common. The situation escalated with the rise of President Lenin Moreno in 2017, who shifted Ecuador’s stance towards the United States and intensified the war on drugs. 

However, the efficacy of the US-backed war on drugs remains questionable, given its track record in countries like Colombia and Mexico. Recent accusations of police generals in Ecuador collaborating with drug traffickers further underscore the situation’s complexity.

The murder of journalist and politician Fernando Villavicencio has intensified concerns about the pervasive influence of drug cartels and their connections with politicians in Ecuador. The lack of effective law enforcement and protection measures for individuals challenging criminal gangs adds to the sense of impunity.

It is asked if drug legalization should be considered as a potential solution. Some argue that criminal organizations prefer to keep the drug trade clandestine to evade legal consequences and maintain control. In such a scenario, ongoing violence and instability offer these groups opportunities to gain power that eluded them through conventional politics.

There is an intriguing possibility that Fernando Villavicencio may have been a CIA agent, a claim made by former President Rafael Correa and reported by Telesur. If true, it could implicate local politicians, governments in the region, and potentially external powers in his assassination. [IDN-InDepthNews]

*Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research scholar, and Editor, Blitz, a newspaper publishing from Bangladesh since 2003. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers. Follow him on X @Salah_Shoaib

Image credit: Brookings Institution

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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