Overview of the Latin American Drug Trade, 1970s-Present

David Smith

Today, people in the United States consume at least $100 billion in illicit drugs per year, making it easily the largest drug market in the world. The staples of the illicit drug economy have historically been marijuana, cocaine, heroin, with methamphetamine, fentanyl, and other prescription pills joining more recently. Drug culture and the drug trade in the United States has existed at least since the mid-nineteenth century, but the episode most relevant to today’s circumstances involves the drug revolution of the 1960’s in which some US citizens increasingly consumed massive amounts of illicit substances, and their government responded by fighting a war against it. As the War on Drugs has played out, it has become increasingly apparent that governments across the hemisphere are losing this war (or unwilling to win it), as the demand has never been higher for illicit substances. Tracking how the drug trade has evolved and why it has been so difficult to stop are necessary considerations to understanding the current conflicts that exist in the US, Mexico, and Central America today.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the foreign actors who most capitalized on the potential of United States’ drug markets were the notorious Colombian cartels. Mexican smugglers, especially those from Sinaloa, had been smuggling contraband into the United States for decades. But when the United States targeted Sinaloa with crop eradication programs, production and distribution shifted to Colombia. The emergence of the Colombian cartels with their cocaine and marijuana signaled a significant development in the global drug trade, and the illicit cocaine trade to the United States exploded as organizations like the Medellin cartel started investing in mass coca production in the Andes during the 1970s and 1980s. As the Colombian cartels consolidated their trafficking operations, people in the United States were developing an insatiable demand for cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Most people know the basics of Pablo Escobar and the rise of the Medellin cartel as they pumped drugs into the United States through Miami and made untold amounts of money, and many people know about his downfall and the dismantling of the Medellin cartel. The United States and the Colombian government worked in tandem to take down Escobar and his cartel as a part of the War on Drugs, but even as they took down the major cocaine kingpins in Colombia, the trade never ceased. In fact, despite spending billions of dollars trying to fight these cartels in an intensely violent chapter of Colombia, the cocaine trade from the Andes only increased over time. Instead of disappearing, the cocaine trade, as well as the marijuana and the heroin trade, evolved and adapted by moving drugs through the US-Mexico border as opposed to the coast of Florida. People who traded it became savvier and less traceable in their activities, and, ultimately,  the bulk of the drug trade was inherited by Mexican organizations after the fall of the Colombian cartels. This shift in power and profits from Colombians to Mexicans in the late 1980s- early 1990s is critical to understanding the modern drug trade.

Mexican families in Sinaloa have had a long history of trafficking marijuana and opium into the United States, but the formation of the modern cartel structure we see today did not begin until the Colombian kingpins had fallen, making drug profits up-for-grabs. As a result of US interference in the Colombian trade to the coast of Miami, Mexicans had picked up considerable influence in trafficking drugs across the expansive land border. As consumers in the United States continued buying drugs, drug trafficking corridors between the US and Mexico became priceless. Eventually, various cartels would fight for territory in a series of wars that has rocked Mexico since 2006, conflicts responsible for at least 160,000 deaths and tens of thousands of more disappearances.

A critical turn in the conflict was with the 2006 election of Felipe Calderón to the Mexican presidency. He declared that the government would fight the drug cartels, but this decision sparked an escalation in violence that has developed into the wars we’ve seen over the last decade-and-a-half. Despite all the efforts against it, violence continues to erupt around the drug trade, and the entire hemisphere is facing a series of crises related to drugs. Heroin, and now fentanyl, have never been more widely used in the United States. The cocaine trade remains one of the most profitable in the world. Mexican cartels still control the vast majority of the trade, but these cartels have fractured and splintered into more elusive, localized entities in response to conflict amongst each other and the governments of the US and Mexico. There is also some evidence that some of the profits from the trade might be flowing more towards central American gangs, but the relationship and differences between Mexican Cartels and Central American gangs is incredibly complex and ever-evolving.

Traditionally, Central America has played the transportista role in the cocaine trade from the Andes to the United States. When smuggling routes shifted from coastal routes to the US/Mexico land border, drug traffickers needed places and people in Central America to stash and move their drugs North. While the vast majority of profits went to the cartels responsible for transporting the drugs across the US border, the profits from these transportista networks were incentives enough for everyone from poor farmers to wealthy elite families to become involved with trafficking cocaine through Central America. Central American gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have a limited role in trafficking drugs. These organizations can serve as muscle for drug trafficking operations and can accumulate localized power, but the majority of the drug trade through Central America is run through well-connected, elite families who have operatives throughout the insidiously corrupt governments and are often tied to the former military regimes of these countries. For example, the Honduran president’s brother was arrested in Miami on drug trafficking charges.

As has been historically demonstrated, by the time there enough information to make conclusions about drug-trafficking organizations, their alliances, and their conflicts, the situations will have changed. Cartels and gangs who traffic drugs have embedded themselves in national political and economic structures across the region. Corruption and drug money in the Mexican federal government, police, and military is astoundingly profound. Central American governments are notoriously corrupted by the drug trade. US Customs and Border Patrol has also experienced serious problems with corruption. While there is emerging hope for a profound shift in US drug policy, efforts to pursue alternative approaches to the prohibitionist model remain quagmired. As it stands now, the drug trade and the violence that accompanies everyone and everywhere it encounters remains one of the most serious national security threats to nations across the Western Hemisphere, but it is clear that this problem can not be completely or even partially solved by the construction of a wall when the fact that around 80% of the drugs imported into the United States happens through legal US border checkpoints.

Sources: Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Benjamin, T. Smith. “The Rise and Fall of Narcopopulism: Drugs, Politics, and Society in Sinaloa, 1930-1980.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7, no. 2 (2013): 125-65. (JSTOR)

Linton, Magnus. “Pablo’s Party: The State Gets Cancer.” Translated by John Eason. In Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It, 107-59. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2014.

Further Reading:

  1. For brief estimates of how much the US spends on drugs, see https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_briefs/RB9700/RB9770/RAND_RB9770.pdf
  2. For useful graphs that display trends in global drug use, see https://www.unodc.org/wdr2017/field/WDR_2017_presentation_lauch_version.pdf
  3. For more information about the history and development of the Sinaloa cartel, see https://www.insightcrime.org/mexico-organized-crime-news/sinaloa-cartel-profile/
  4. To read more about Colombia’s cocaine production in the present day, see https://www.nytimes.com/2018/09/20/world/americas/cocaine-colombia.html
  5. For a brief timeline with facts about the drug wars in Mexico, see https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/02/world/americas/mexico-drug-war-fast-facts/index.html.
  6. For a detailed report on Mexican trafficking organizations and the present situation in Mexico’s Drug War, see June Beittels’s Congressional report https://fas.org/sgp/crs/row/R41576.pdf
  7. For more information on Mexico’s Drug war with helpful maps, graphs, and explanations, see the Council on Foreign Relation’s report https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/mexicos-drug-war

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