Drug Trafficking

The Butcher’s Bill: Cocaine trafficking in North Africa

As routes used by cocaine traffickers shift to North Africa, a large cocaine shipment intercepted in Algeria has roiled the country’s security services and Algerian politics. This analysis delves into the Oran seizure, highlights the rise of cocaine trafficking through North Africa, and discusses the likely impact of the trend. Published by The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, the full article can be found here.

A Review of "Middle East Drugs Bazaar: Production, Prevention, and Consumption" by Philip Robins

Two 4×4s burned along Algeria’s desert border with Mauritania, destroyed by Algerian attack helicopters. Three heavily armed men were dead. The incident itself was unremarkable. The Algerian military routinely engages in clashes with terrorist groups along its borders—often taking a particularly kinetic approach.

But the men in the 4×4s were not terrorists. Instead they were drug traffickers, part of a flourishing narco-economy in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The quantities of narcotics produced, moved, and consumed are large and increasing. Algerian authorities seized 190 tons of cannabis in the first eleven months of 2015, a sharp increase over previous years. In 2016 Iran alone accounted for “75 per cent of global opium seizures, 61 per cent of global morphine seizures and 17 per cent of global heroin seizures.” Lebanon, long a production point for cannabis and opiates, has become an amphetamine manufacturing hotspot—catering to growing consumer demand for such drugs in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Drug consumption has also spiked in regional conflict zones like Libya, where combatants stave off boredom with Tramadol and Captagon trafficked from Turkey and Lebanon.

Despite the dynamism of the region’s narco-economy, it has received little academic attention. In his new book, Middle East Drugs Bazaar: Production, Prevention, and Consumption, Philip Robins addresses this, providing a cross-regional snapshot of narcotics production, trafficking, and use in the Middle East and North Africa. Robins lays out three goals for his work: First, to fill the gap in scholarly literature on the geopolitics of narcotics in the Middle East and North Africa; second, to investigate how narcotics impact the region; and finally, the book investigates the “state in action,” looking both at how states develop and implement counternarcotics policy and, conversely, how nonstate groups intersect, engage, and profit from the narco-economy. Robins structures his investigation into ten country case studies divided into three sections—production spaces, consumption spaces, and transit spaces. He draws on an eclectic set of data sources, including inter-views, government documents, media reports, and literature, film, and art. Through these, he paints an encompassing picture of the region’s rapidly growing narco-economy.

The full review can be accessed on the JSTOR link here.

How does your garden grow? The Tuxtla Gutiérrez Cocaine Experiment

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

The find was unexpected and troubling. On September 9th, in the small Mexican town of Tuxtla Gutiérrez—located in Chiapas state—authorities uncovered the first evidence of large-scale efforts to grow coca in the country. Acting on the tip, members of the Mexican security services raided a property and found over 1,600 coca plants. The plantation was reportedly closely connected to a series of arrests in the nearby city of Tapachula, which involved the seizure of 180 kilos of coca leaf—the organic precursor for cocaine. The plantation in Tuxtla Gutiérrez is reportedly Mexico’s first evidence of coca growing in the country, and presents key questions: why in Mexico, why now, and where is this likely to lead?

The modern cocaine business is rooted in coca growth in South America—primarily in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Once grown, coca is transformed—step-by-step—into cocaine. Several hundred tons of dried coca leaves are required for the production of a single ton of cocaine, requiring mass cultivation—and thus a large production area—to cater to the cocaine consumer markets in North America, Europe, and increasingly East Asia. In the modern era of cocaine, this cultivation has occurred almost exclusively in the South American nations listed above. However, this monopoly on production is rooted in social, political, and (illicit) economic rational, not horticultural necessities.

In the early 20th century the Dutch and Japanese developed thriving coca plantations in East Asia, while the British and French experimented with its growth in their African colonies and in other areas around the world. World War II and the gradual prohibition of cocaine that followed curtailed coca’s industrial-scale production in these disparate areas of the world. Only in South America—where the shrub was first domesticated and still home to a thriving indigenous market in coca (though not cocaine)—did growing continue. Efforts by South American states to eradicate production have had little success, and have more often than not resulted in alienated farmers and empowered insurgents. Until now, drug trafficking organizations have had little impetus to relocate production outside of the Andean region.

While only its creators know the rational for developing the plantation in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, an examination of the current situation in Central American transport countries and the Caribbean provide hints. First, violence and instability in Central America has worsened over the last several years. Drug trafficking organizations are popularly viewed as thriving in—and actively seeking to create—chaotic situations and failing states, however this is only true to a degree. For both licit and illicit businesses, societal chaos and the absence of state services impede financial and logistical planning, and generally increase the cost of doing business. While illicit businesses may have tools—such as paramilitary protection units—that enable them to weather chaotic situations better than most, such situations are far from ideal for them. In Central America street gangs, tumbadores (groups specializing in the theft of narcotic shipments), and local drug trafficking groups have gained power in recent years, increasing the risks—and hence the cost—that Mexican DTOs face in transporting narcotics through the area.

Apart from Central America, the other main route between South American cocaine production zones and North American markets is through the Caribbean—a route that was heavily favored in the 1970s and 1980s, before being largely abandoned due to aggressive U.S. maritime and air interdiction efforts. There have been some attempts to reinvigorate trafficking through this area, though U.S. military and law enforcement focus on the area make smuggling efforts complicated and risky. There are few easy—and economical—transport options for Mexican cocaine traffickers in the present day. Attempts to grow the drug in Mexico may thus be an experiment in shortening their supply chain, decreasing their exposure to chaos in Central America and U.S. interdiction efforts in the Caribbean. An additional benefit for Mexican cartels is that domestic production of coca cuts Colombian DTOs out of the equation, and increasing their own profits.

As an experiment, the Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation may have succeeded even though it was uncovered. Over 1,600 plants were grown, existing long enough for at least 180 kilograms of coca leaf to be harvested. The problem with the Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation was, mainly, that the effort took place in Tuxtla Gutiérez. While Mexico’s security services have been buffeted by the drug trafficking wars of the 2000s, they are far better trained, well equipped, and more numerous than their counterparts in Central America. Had the Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation been created on the other side of the Mexico-Guatemala border—a few kilometers from the town—it is far less likely the endeavor would have been uncovered. This raises the question of whether other coca production experiments are occurring in Guatemala or other Central American countries? If so, already weakened Central American countries could face a significant new and extremely dangerous threat.

The Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation also raises risks outside of Mexico and Central America. The increasing popularity of cocaine in Europe and East Asia have forced DTOs to develop long cocaine supply chains that stretch through often unstable areas of the world and are highly vulnerable to disruption and interdiction. If drug trafficking organizations are experimenting in growing coca closer to one consumption market, it raises the possibility they similarly may try to create plantations closer to their other major markets. As the coca producers of the early 20th century demonstrated, there is little horticultural bar to developing coca production in Asia and Africa. It remains to be seen whether the Tuxtla Gutiérrez experiment is the beginning of a new trend, and if so where it will focus and what the ramifications will be.

It’s Always Sunny in Sinaloa

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

On Saturday, February 22nd, an elite force of Marines in the Mexican city of Mazatlan arrested El Chapo. Joaquin Guzmán-Loera, AKA El Chapo, is a key leader within the Sinaloa Federation, the largest and most entrepreneurially innovative drug trafficking organizations currently operating in Mexico. His arrest is a major coup for the Mexican and US law enforcement against one of the most powerful non-state armed groups in Latin America. Guzmán’s arrest is also a coup for President Enrique Peña Nieto’s administration, and will likely mute recent criticism of the President’s record in combatting drug trafficking organizations (DTOs).

Joaquin “Chapo” Guzmán was born in the rural town of Badiraguato, in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. Like many in the older generation of Mexican drug traffickers, Chapo was introduced to the trade through family connections. He started with the Guadalajara cartel in the 1980s, acting mainly as a logistician and manager. With the breakup of the cartel in 1989, Chapo gained control over a small smuggling plaza in the northern state of Sonora. Chapo proved to be both a charming yet brutal tactician. Partnering with traffickers such as Ignacio Coronel Villareal and Ismael Zambada Garcia, Chapo created the organization that would come to be known as the Sinaloa Federation. Also during this time he engaged in a bloody conflict with Tijuana’s Arellano Félix cartel. In one of the most notorious and bloody spasms of the conflict, a Catholic Cardinal was gunned down at the Guadalajara airport, after reportedly being mistaken for El Chapo. The assassination proved too much for the Mexican government to ignore, and after a short but intense manhunt El Chapo was taken into custody in Guatemala. He spent the next eight years managing his organization from prison, before escaping in 2001.

For the last decade, El Chapo has played an intimate role Mexico’s drug war. His forces initiated the conflict in 2005, when they invaded the border city of Nuevo Laredo, aiming to eject the weakened Gulf Cartel. The multi-year battle that followed was far more violent and paramilitarized than previous drug trafficking disputes in Mexico, with hundreds of gunmen deployed by both sides. While Chapo’s Sinaloa Federation is widely seen has having lost the battle for Nuevo Laredo, it did not dent his expansionist tendencies. In 2008 his forces invaded Ciudad Juarez, another border city that served as a vital conduit for drugs heading north. Chapo’s battle with the Carrillo-Fuentes DTO was bloody, with 3,115 murders in 2010 alone, and barbaric, defined by torture, decapitation, and group massacres. The Sinaloa Federation won the battle for Ciudad Juarez, positioning the cartel as one of the most powerful in Mexico. El Chapo also sought to expand his territory outside of Mexico, dispatching operatives to Central and South America, Europe, Africa, and East Asia. Despite his lack of formal education, Joaquin Guzmán-Loera oversaw the creation of a sprawling multinational illicit organization, with financial interests in a host of illicit and licit activities.

Chapo Guzmán’s arrest is clearly a major victory for President Peña Nieto. The President came to office promising to lessen the drug violence, and roll back the highly militarized strategies of his predecessor. Unsurprisingly, these promises have proven difficult to achieve. While violence has abated in some areas of the country, other areas, such as Michoacán, have become far more complex and dangerous. El Chapo’s capture is an important symbolic win for the President, squelching concerns raised by some in the U.S. and Mexico that Peña Nieto’s strategy is weak on organized crime. It will also squash persistent rumors that the Mexican Government has been purposefully soft on the Sinaloa Federation, instead targeting groups such as the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas DTOs.

However, while Chapo Guzmán’s arrest is a win for the President, it is unlikely to be a game changer for the country for several reasons. First, it is unlikely to significantly hobble the Sinaloa Federation. Mexican drug trafficking organizations in general, and the Sinaloa Federation specifically, are resilient and adaptive entities. The elimination of a leader rarely leads to the disintegration of the organization, though it may prompt a violent contention for power amongst key lieutenants. Occasionally these schisms have lead to one or more factions breaking away from the original cartel, and forming their own drug trafficking organization. Chapo was one of several key leaders in the loose confederation of drug cartels that constitute the Sinaloa Federation. It is likely that one of the remaining leaders in the group, such as Ismael Zambada Garcia, will either directly take over Chapo’s faction or intercede in the succession process to minimize violence and instability. Second, Mexico’s drug conflict is a multi-sided fight between DTOs, and is not predominately a fight between individual DTOs and the Government. In Mexico, successes by the Government against a cartel often prompt more violence, as rival cartels seek to capitalize on the momentary weakness of their adversary. The coming months are likely to be bloody.

Nonetheless, President Peña Nieto and those in the Mexican and U.S. Law Enforcement communities should be commended for finding and arresting Chapo Guzmán. While his detention may not be a game changer for Mexico, it is a demonstration that drug trafficking and murder have repercussions, even for one of the world’s richest men.