Skip to content


Andrea Garfia

Drug trafficking in Latin America

- It is estimated that half of South America's total cocaine production destined for world markets moves through the Caribbean.

Drug trafficking in Latin America

Drug trafficking is a global illicit trade that includes the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of substances that are subject to laws prohibiting their trade. In the Declaration on the Rule of Law, Member States recognized the importance of strengthening international cooperation in the fight against the world drug problem. The General Assembly has recognized that: despite the fact that States, competent organizations, civil society and non-governmental organizations continue to intensify their efforts, the world drug problem undermines the socioeconomic and political stability of nations. (United Nations Organization, s.f)

In relation to the production of these substances, Latin America produces many of those considered the most consumed in the world. The Andean region is the world's largest producer of coca and the largest supplier of cocaine products. According to the United Nations, in recent years, coca crops in Colombia and Peru increased between 3 and 5%, respectively, while crops in Bolivia decreased by 12%. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000).

The poppy plant (where opium and heroin are produced) is found primarily in Asia, but is also cultivated and produced on a small scale in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Peru. On the other hand, according to the World Drug Report, the main cannabis producers in Latin America are Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay.

In countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, drug traffickers use the indigenous and peasant population to grow coca, marijuana, and poppies. The 3 countries mentioned are the main producers of coca leaf in the world with an estimated annual production of 550 tons of cocaine per year. It is worth mentioning that Colombia is the only one of the 3 Andean countries that presents the characteristic of being a producer and exporter of three of the main narcotic substances. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)


The main problem affecting Latin America in terms of drug trafficking is the export of cocaine, given that all of this product is produced in the region. It is estimated that half of the total production of cocaine from South America destined for world markets passes through the Caribbean, of this total around 35% goes to the United States, while 65% to Europe, but in In both cases, the drug transits through the Caribbean, either by sea or air.

In the Caribbean area there is extensive maritime and air trade between Puerto Rico and a whole geographical chain where traffickers of different nationalities converge. In addition, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are the closest ports to the United States, thus the Caribbean continues to be the most significant route for transporting drugs from South America to the United States. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

Cocaine enters the markets of the United States clandestinely; sometimes it is taken first to Mexico or Canada, from where it is easier to transport it to different destinations. From Colombia, cocaine is sent by air and sea, mainly to European and African countries (for its subsequent distribution in Europe and the Mediterranean), to Russia and to countries in the Pacific area such as Australia and Japan. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

With regard to Colombia, given its bioceanic condition and its proximity to the maritime communication lines of the Caribbean and the Pacific Ocean, it meets conditions that are conducive to drug trafficking. Finally, Brazil has been exploited as a transit country, given its large Amazon river network, the size of the territory and, with it, the availability of poorly controlled transit spaces.

Marijuana is the only drug cultivated in the Caribbean region, and in the last five years seizures of both cocaine and marijuana have increased in the Central American region, with the exception of El Salvador. Haiti, which has a semi-open border with the Dominican Republic, has become the most important transit point after Puerto Rico. Cocaine arrives through two main routes: directly from Colombia or through Panama. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

In recent years, a modification of the routes followed by drug traffickers has been verified, including Colombians have sought a way to settle in Haiti with the aim of establishing a command and control center that operates jointly with the Republic Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, as centers for importing, storing and exporting drugs to the United States, Haitians and Dominicans have become important transporters and manage their operations in the Caribbean region from there.

The increase in demand for these substances has created the need to develop new and better export routes, with the main objective of expediting trade and reducing risks. Causing countries like Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile to gain a greater presence and importance in the drug trafficking market.

The economic power of drug trafficking

The illicit drug economy in the region is especially difficult to suppress because it is very lucrative for its agents, since it generates a significant amount of direct employment in related activities and indirect employment in money laundering, and it has no competition in terms of the remuneration obtained by the people who participate in these activities.

The economic consequences of the drug problem range from employment in illegal activities linked to the illicit drug economy, to the loss of productivity and schooling due to drug use and, therefore, are important for development in the region. .

Drug trafficking is by far the illegal activity that represents the greatest economic power internationally, which makes it the financial engine of the main criminal organizations in the world. It is there where the enormous economic power and influence in the social, political and economic structures of the countries affected by such organizations are based. (Pontoon, 2013: 137)

Although the trade in illicit substances contributes, in effect, to the generation and expansion of employment and income, and to a certain relative improvement in the way of life and standard of living, for a certain considerable number of groups and sectors, due to the activities , investments and consumption that drug traffickers carry out in their legal and illegal activities.

The main groups for whom drug trafficking creates or improves -directly and indirectly- the possibilities and levels of employment, income and way of life, are the following: a) Peasants; b) Laboratory technicians; c) Carriers; d) Traqueteros (representatives of drug traffickers in the United States and other export markets); e) "Mules" or "donkeys" (men and women couriers, who carry drugs on commercial flights between cities and countries); f) Hitmen, professionals of violence (security, defense, attack); g) Young people available for everything; h) Lawyers for legal representation and advice in problems and conflicts caused by clandestine trafficking and legal investments; i) Accountants for registration and control of income, financial experts; j) Intellectuals, communicators, journalists, writers, professionals in the human and social sciences, experts in public relations, for the defense and apology of drug trafficking and its bosses; k) Employees in the networks of investments, properties and legal companies of the drug traffickers; l) Employees in commercial and professional activities that satisfy the demand for consumer goods and services of drug traffickers, v. gr., architects, decorators, doctors, veterinarians, drivers, models, athletes, etc.; m) Jobs and complementary income, provided by a drug trafficker that captures and corrupts consciences and wills, to politicians, governors, administrators, legislators, judges, customs and fiscal officials, police, military,

involved by their responsibilities and tasks in actions and decisions related to drug trafficking; n) Personnel involved in activities for the prevention and rehabilitation of drug addicts and in the repression of dealers and consumers. (National Autonomous University of Mexico, 2016).

Despite the sustained increase in drug seizures, the arrest of drug traffickers, the fumigation of crops and the destruction of large international networks, the price of drugs for users remains stable or low, the problems associated with drug use have not decreased, and the availability of illicit drugs in the markets has not decreased. In the United States, the largest national market for illicit drug consumption, although the number of occasional users has decreased, the number of chronic users has increased, which implies a deterioration in the health dimension of the problem. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

In the estimates regarding the drug economy, transactions are calculated for around 500 to 600,000 million dollars a year. The control and criminalization of the laundering of this money is part of the control policies of national governments, but to date the achievements in this field have been limited. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

Social Vulnerability

As regards social vulnerability, the main problem of drug use is that it mainly affects the youth population in all the countries of the region, at any socioeconomic level, it has even been observed a greater participation of men than of women in its consumption. And although it affects any sector of the population without measure, it has been observed that urban youth from low-income sectors are the most vulnerable to the damage generated.

At the local level of drug trafficking, there has been a growing participation of low-income women and minors, which generates unprecedented judicial and criminal problems. In areas with low State presence or control, the trade in illicit substances easily constitutes a survival strategy adopted by women heads of household and even by elderly people with limited resources. Even low-income people end up leaving their previous occupations as the illegal drug trade provides them with substantially more income. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

The use and abuse of addictive substances constitutes a complex phenomenon that has adverse consequences for individual health, family integration, and social development and stability. Among the problems caused by its consumption we can mention a strong deterioration of self-esteem, serious sociability problems, affectation in school or work performance, leading to desertion and abandonment of employment, which leads to problems in the family environment causing its disintegration. .

In the international political context, the issue of drug trafficking has been gaining weight and presence, causing greater government agreements on this matter. Governments have taken measures and formulated national plans to reduce both demand and supply, placing special emphasis on the control of drug production and trafficking, communication and prevention campaigns, legal and institutional strengthening, and greater cooperation. for the control of drug trafficking and money laundering.

In the international context, historically, regional drug policies have been dictated and imposed by the United States, particularly in the Andean region and in Mexico, and have focused on prohibition, militarization, and the obstruction of transit flows. Regarding the social and political consequences of the production, trafficking and consumption of drugs in Latin America, what stands out the most in the press are acts of violence and corruption that account for 88% of news broadcasts. As far as violence is concerned, the greatest coverage is devoted to the issue of gangs associated with the production and trafficking of drugs, Colombia and Mexico are the main news sources. (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

In second place of coverage, it appears in the confrontations between alleged drug traffickers and United States agents and the investigation of the so-called narco tombs, both acts of violence in which the relationship with United States agents stands out.

Coverage in the field of corruption and impunity refers mainly to situations faced by Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. On this subject, the greatest coverage is devoted to political institutions where greater journalistic coverage is observed, in the police and military legal field, coverage is reduced, without a doubt the most emblematic case and therefore with the highest level of coverage is the one that affects the Argentine Government in relation to the presence of the family of the late Pablo Escobar in said territory and its possible link to money laundering . (Arriagada and Hopenhayn, 2000)

As observed in this article, drug trafficking began to develop in the world at least two centuries ago, it has been settling and advancing in Latin America in the last two or three decades. It has done so starting from and through the pioneering and paradigmatic experience of the Andean countries, to later extend to the Caribbean, Central and South America.

Constituted and initially centered in Colombia, but later and increasingly with bases and ramifications in Peru and Bolivia, in other Central and South American and Caribbean countries, including Mexico, its high demand has caused governments to take measures and formulate national plans. to reduce both demand and supply, placing special emphasis on the control of drug production and trafficking, communication and prevention campaigns, legal and institutional strengthening, and greater international cooperation to control drug trafficking and laundering of money.

The greater focus of prevention and treatment on groups of greater social vulnerability, better legislation that allows greater effectiveness of control actions on the supply of drugs and related crimes are some of the actions that the Government has carried out to control limit and prohibit the use of illicit substances. In the same way, international agencies and public organizations from different countries have taken a leading role as promoters and main promoters of the fight against drugs.


    Organización de las Naciones Unidas. s.f. “Trafico de drogas”. Disponible en: Fecha de consulta: 22 de abril del 2022.

    Pontón, Daniel. (2013). “La economía del narcotráfico y su dinámica en América Latina”. Disponible en: Dialnet-LaEconomiaDelNarcotraficoYSuDinamicaEnAmericaLatin 4473554.pdf. Fecha de consulta: 22 de abril del 2022.

    Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. (2016). “Economía criminal y lavado de dinero”. Disponible en: comparado/article/view/3410/3983. Fecha de consulta: 22 de abril del 2022.

The best content in your inbox

Join our newsletter with the best of CEMERI

Related articles

Garfia, Andrea. “El tráfico de Drogas en América Latina.” CEMERI, 9 sept. 2022,