US Counter-Narcotics Policy

P.R. Rajeswari, Researcher, IDSA


For the last two decades or so, drug trafficking has emerged as one of the fastest growing industries in the Americas, Southeast Asia and parts of Southwest Asia. This problem has caused serious threats to public health, institutional development, and political stability of the respective regions. If not controlled and put to a halt, the issue is going to have serious implications at the national and international levels.

The end of the Cold War and opening up of the markets has enabled this industry to garner a great share of profiteering. With the ability of nations to control what comes across their borders and what takes place within them having diminished because of declining trade barriers, economic deregulation, and revolutionary advances in information and communications technology, the process of drug trading has become much easier.

Illicit opium cultivation in Southeast and Southwest Asia, particularly in Burma and Afghanistan provides the raw materials for much of the world's heroin. Trafficking patterns have continued to expand through South and East Asia and into the Middle East, the Newly Independent States, Eastern Europe, and Africa, as local drug trafficking organisations prosper and develop world-wide networks. Africa, has been a nurturing ground to one of the widely connected terrorist networks in the world, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) too. The immense profits that are generated from selling drugs not only provides strong incentives for the enlargement of the market but also gives tremendous power to the principal organisations to corrupt and intimidate public officials and institutions1 particularly in areas of weak governance. Countries with poor governance and weak law enforcement infrastructure fall prey to this big menace and hence, the industry flourishes there.

US Agencies and its Anti-drug Initiatives

The Department of State is the lead agency for international narcotics control and anti-crime policy formulation and implementation. The State Department is responsible for coordinating the international narcotics control and anti-crime policies of all the US government agencies operating abroad. As per the recommendations and advice of the secretary of state, the president sends his annual certifications to the Congress, the major illicit drug producing countries and drug transit countries.

The Clinton Administration, as part of its efforts on anti-drug lines, sent its annual report to the Congress on November 10, 1999. President Clinton, in accordance with provisions of section 490 (h) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, as amended, identified some of the major countries involved in either drug producing or drug transit activities. The following are included in this category: Afghanistan, the Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, Hong Kong, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Taiwan, Thailand, Venezuela, and Vietnam.2 In this report, the administration had removed Aruba and Belize from the majors list and added Belize as part of this year's Central America region of concern; added the entire Eastern and Southern Caribbean, including the Leeward and Windward islands, Aruba, and the Netherlands Antilles, as a region of concern, and also added North Korea as a country of concern.3

A country's inclusion in this list does not reflect the government's counter-drug efforts or the extent of cooperation with the US, but just a record of how serious the issue of drug trafficking in these regions or countries is and how even the anti-drug initiatives have not been effective. For example, Hong Kong and Taiwan have been two countries who have excellent counter-drug records and cooperate closely with the United States.

It would be interesting to take a little detailed look into each of the areas. Central America has been one of the most significant trans-shipment points for most of the illicit drugs reaching the United States. Central America, located between South America and Mexico, with its thousands of miles of coastline, several container-handling ports, the Pan-American Highway, and limited law enforcement capability has made the entire region a logical conduit and trans-shipment area for illicit drugs.4

The Leeward and Windward Islands, together with Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles, constitute a broad geographical area through which drugs bound for the United States may pass en route from Latin America.5 Aruba was designated as a transit country in 1997 but has been removed from this year's report, as there has been no proven evidence to show it as a drug transit point.

Iran, in the past, has been a traditional opium producing country, but over the years the Government of Iran has put a halt to the illicit opium poppy cultivation. Whatever little production is still continuing has not made the United States, but Europe, the ultimate destination. This prerequisite for any country to be declared a major in the report prevents Iran from being cited.

The United States remains concerned about the large volume of Southwest Asian heroin moving through Turkey and neighbouring countries to Western Europe along the Balkan route. The heroin transiting countries like Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia-Montenegro, Bosnia, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, or other European countries on the Balkan route significantly affect the United States and may be added in the majors list as and when necessary.

Other major cannabis producing countries like Kazakstan, Kyrgystan, Morocco, the Philippines and South Africa are significantly important, yet they have not been listed out as majors since the illicit cannabis is consumed either locally or transported to countries other than the United States and President Clinton has determined that such illicit production in these countries does not significantly affect the United States.

The Department of Defence (DOD) has been designated as the lead agency for detection and monitoring of aerial and maritime transit of illegal drugs into the Untied States. DOD provides training and technical assistance even to foreign governments in conjunction with the Department of State. Other agencies include the US Coast Guard, which is a principal maritime enforcement agency, the Agency for International Development (AID), the Department of Justice, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the US Information Agency (USIA).

US policy initiatives have been as follows:

l Encourage countries in the region to adopt and implement strong narcotics control legislation, arrest major drug traffickers, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of judicial institutions to bring drug offenders to justice, and develop bilateral and multilateral mutual legal assistance cooperation;

l Strengthen host nation counter-narcotics law enforcement capabilities to deal with drug trafficking and production, money laundering, and other crimes;

l Develop governmental and non-governmental organisation (NGO) institutional capabilities to address the issue of drug abuse and production.6

The President's Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) of the US presents an annual report to the president and the latest one of the year 1998 puts five broad goals in its strategy.

l Educate and enable America's youth to reject illegal drugs as well as alcohol and tobacco;

l Increase the safety of America's citizens by substantially reducing drug-related crime and violence;

l Reduce health and social costs to the public of illegal drug use;

l Shield America's air, land, and sea frontiers from the drug threat; and

l Break foreign and domestic sources of supply.7

The vast majority of the budget for counter-narcotics programs is applied to the first three goals. Out of the overall budget for counter-drug activities, a large amount $26,731 million in 1996 and $35,838 million in 1997—is allocated to research and development, which is primarily tied down to the Counter-drug Technology Assessment Center (CTAC).8 The remaining budget amount is spent on operations, or activities that directly affect the daily lives of millions of US citizens. The overall budget request for counter-narcotics operations for fiscal year 1998 (FY 1998) was $15, 977 million. The total budget amount is split among criminal justice system, drug treatment, drug prevention, international programs, interdiction, research, and intelligence.

The programs undertaken by the US administration have proved to be quite successful. The number of people 12 years and older who regularly use drugs in the United States has dropped from 14 per cent in 1976 to just 6 per cent in 1996. Also the number of cocaine users dropped 70 per cent a decade, from 5.7 million in 1995 to 1.7 million in 1996.9 Drug-related crimes too have declined considerably.

Since the process of illicit drug production, transport, and reloading take place in different countries, international cooperation among the producing countries, transit countries, and the final destined ones should be a very significant component of the international anti-drug policy. It is very important for the US government to work with international organisations and other countries, for the network can be broken only through multilateral actions and through cooperation of the transit countries. Without a proper consensus among all countries, it is difficult to achieve any success in this venture, as the network among illicit drug traffickers is very complex.

Working with the government of Mexico since 1995, targeting the Amado Carillo Fuentes organisation has led to more than 100 indictments in the US, the seizure of 11.5 metric tons of cocaine, 6.9 metric tons of marijuana, and more than $18.5 million in assets.10 The US has also dismantled Colombian, Nigerian, and Jamaican organisations that had resulted in multi-ton shipments of a variety of drugs into the United States, such as heroin, methamphetamines, and marijuana. Operation Millennium, a joint US-Colombian operation had netted 31 drug traffickers in October 1999, including several identified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Colombian police as kingpins who moved more cocaine to the US than Pablo Escobar of Medellin or the Rodriguez Orejuela brothers in Cali.11

International Drug Control Initiatives

The international drug control initiatives began not at the end of the century, but well at the beginning in 1909. The movement particularly took shape from the situation in Eastern Asia, especially from the opium problem in China, and the geopolitical interests there of the western powers. Sale of Indian opium to China was profitable trade and became an integral part of payment for the British government in India. Besides importing from India, the crop was grown in plentiful quantities in China itself. This opium trade caused trouble in China because the use of opium was often cited as the cause for the nation's weakness in the face of western aggression.

Around the same time, Britain also came out with certain groups declaring that the trade was a wrong practice and should be stopped. However, it was only in 1906 that a government came into power in Britain who shared the same view. Simultaneously the Chinese government too set in motion a campaign against opium smoking and opium production in China. These two movements further converged with another one when the US decided to invite relevant nations to meet in Shanghai to discuss ways and means through which the opium trade in China could be controlled. This could be said to be the starting point of the anti-drug programs at an international level. The International Opium Commission initially met at Shanghai in February 1909, which could not conclude in a treaty, but the later meeting that look place at the Hague in December 1912 drafted the Hague Opium Convention, the first treaty to control opium and cocaine through world-wide agreement.12

The League of Nations that took responsibility for the Hague Convention in 1920 did not successfully follow up due to the lack of leadership of the USA. Further, the whole issue of drug production and consumption got entangled into the Cold War politics, with Russia and the US always taking opposing sides.

Anyhow, this was not the time when the US got involved in the issue of drug trafficking. The American interest in international drug control began in 1898 with their acquisition of Philippines. The transportation of opium from Philippines to the US started in the early 1800s and any kind of prohibitionary measure came only by this century when this became a major issue in the domestic legislation of the United States.

However, the major international drug control treaties are the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (further strengthened by the 1972 Protocol amending that Convention), the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances, and the United Nations Conventions against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances which was adopted in 1988.

The UN member states (158 parties) came out with the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to merge all the existing multilateral treaties on the control of drugs, extension of the existing control system so as to include even the cultivation of opium and other raw materials.13 Opium smoking and eating, coca leaf chewing, cannabisresin smoking and the non-medical use of cannabis have been prohibited through control convention.

The 1972 Protocol to the Convention further called for increased efforts to prevent illicit production of, traffic in, and use of narcotics.14

The next significant treaty that came into effect was that of the 1971 Convention on Psychotropic Substances where 146 states became parties to the treaty. This convention in particular looked at the harmful effects of psychotropic substances such as amphetamine-type drugs, sedative-hypnotic agents and hallucinogens like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and mescaline, and stimulants.

The third major treaty on this line is the one where 137 countries signed the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances in 1988. This convention specifically included the issue of money laundering and illicit traffic in precursor and essential chemicals within the ambit of drug trafficking activities and called on parties to introduce these as criminal offences in their national legislation. Its objective was to create and consolidate international cooperation between law enforcement bodies such as customs, police, and judicial authorities and to provide them with legal guidelines: (a) to interdict illicit trafficking effectively; (b) to arrest and try drug traffickers; and (c) to deprive them of their ill-gotten gains.15 It also takes significant steps against the illicit production and manufacture of narcotic and psychotropic drugs by calling for strict monitoring of the chemicals often used in illicit production. This convention also took care of the provisions for tracing, freezing, and confiscating proceeds and property derived from drug trafficking as well as financial and commercial records. In this regard, it called specifically for seven areas of action:

1. Eradicate illicitly cultivated narcotic crops.

2. Monitor chemicals and equipment used in the processing of drugs.

3. Identify, seize, and forfeit illicitly generated proceeds.

4. Improve international legal cooperation by such means as extradition, mutual legal assistance, and exchange of information relating to trafficking activities.

5. Improve "controlled delivery" procedures (a term referring to law enforcement cooperation through which the movement of an illicit drug consignment can be monitored so that arrests are made at the time of ultimate delivery).

6. Require commercial carriers to take reasonable precautions to avoid use of their facilities and means of transport for illicit trafficking.

7. Prevent illicit traffic by sea, through the mails, or by abuse of special rights prevailing in free trade zones and free ports.16

The seven objectives given above, more or less, take care of all aspects of the drug trade.

The last major event has been the creation of the United Nations International Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) by General Assembly resolution 45/179 of December 21, 1990, which integrated all the existing structures and functions of the three former UN drug control units, namely the Division of Narcotic Drugs, the United Nations Fund for Drug Abuse Control and the International Narcotics Control Board Secretariat.17 (UNDCP)18, based in Vienna has been made responsible for coordinating and providing effective leadership to all the other UN drug control programmes.

Other UN agencies that have been associated with the drug control programme are World Health Organisation (WHO), International Labour Office (ILO), United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Division (CPCJD) and so on. The functioning of various organisations and the laws implemented at the national levels have eradicated opium and cocaine to a much lower level (see Fig. 1).

The process of eradication takes place either forcefully or by compensatory means. Eradication of illicitly cultivated drugs can be done through mechanical destruction (slashing or uprooting); by burning; by applying chemical herbicides or by biological (genetic) elimination. Where the eradication is not forcefully done, it can be through compensatory schemes developed on the basis of payments per hectare eradicated.19

Another method of stopping the illicit cultivation of drugs is through substitution. The process of substitution is through introduction of new crops in place of these drugs. In many areas, when the process of eradication takes places, the coca and opium poppy growers have shown resistance and made protests against it as this halts a steady and relatively stable source of income. Compensatory measures do not attract the coca growers much because the relief that they get through these does not sustain them a long time, whereas the market for illicit coca and opium poppy seeds is great and there is no government infrastructure that they need to worry about. This is where state machinery needs to take the issue seriously and implement some measures against it. The wealth that is generated through this means is not accountable to the government's financial accounts and this in turn could create inflation in the market. The running of a parallel economy run by the drug traffickers at the local level may be helpful in the short term but it is going to create long term hazards to the national economy. The losses outweigh the gains in the long run. Money that is gained through the drug industry makes its way even to the capitalisation of banks, investment in real estate business and other legal business too. It has been argued that local investments by these drug industrialists have been mostly in short-term speculative ventures designed more to launder money rather than to promote sustained economic growth. Development of the society or economy has never been their motto.

Apart from the economic costs of the drug industry, it has political and societal costs too. Politically it affects a nation by halting or completely derailing the process of nation-building in most of the developing countries, where this industry has been flourishing and providing the necessary means for it. Countries that are in a "soft state" and have weak governments/ or no stable government at all are most vulnerable because the very presence of the drug traffickers undermines the authority of these governments. Far more dangerous is the situation when corruption by the drug trafficking groups reaches the highest levels of the government and it is hardly differentiable between licit and illicit drug dealings. Many countries in Latin America have been branded as "narco-democracies".20

Another way of cutting down the drug trafficking is through reduction of the supply of illicit drugs in the market. A key component this supply aspect is to prevent diversion of drugs from the licit to illicit market.

As Paul B. Stares correctly puts it, the effectiveness of the drug control policy would depend largely on the international community's ability to address a few other linked up issues of development like overpopulation, poverty, disease, illiteracy, environment degradation, and ethnic conflict. There is a crucial relationship between these broad issues and drug trafficking. Unless the government decides to tackle these problems, the great menace of drug trafficking would continue. The process of eradication has become more difficult to implement due to the inaccessibility of cultivated areas and through the involvement of insurgent and terrorist groups in the protection of these plantations and also the process of trafficking.

Why the drug traffickers' success despite tightening laws?

A news item appearing in the Washington Post reads: A new generation of Colombian drug traffickers, light years ahead of the traditional Medellin and Cali cartels in using the Internet and other modern technology, has sharply increased cocaine production and smuggling in the past two years despite growing budgets for law enforcement, according to senior US and Colombian intelligence officials. What has led to the growth in this industry can provide solutions to cripple it as well.

The whole new generation of drug traffickers and their high-tech gear, the officials say, are reversing the gains of earlier years that had destroyed the old, better known cartels. The new set of traffickers has learnt from past mistakes of the older groups, and carry on in a very intelligent manner. According to General Rosso Jose Serrano, Director of the Colombian National Police who oversaw the dismantling of several major drug cartels, the new groups maintain an extremely low profile, they mix their licit and illicit business, they don't carry out terrorist acts, and they operate in small, autonomous cells.22 They are much harder to fight simply for the reason that they are harder to find.

Unlike in the past, there is no proper integrated structure under the top leadership of an organisation, making the task more difficult for an official to conduct investigations and get the details of the functioning of the organisation. People are specifically called for jobs, taken on a contract basis, and are got rid of at the end of the job, so that if an official wants to bribe any of the lower rank workers and get any information on the working of the organisation, it is not possible. The groups have become far less visible and smarter by having these contract workers who come and go on a temporary basis.

A very interesting new aspect about drug traffickers is their access to the most modern high technology and their proficiency with it. This phenomenon has increasingly become a feature with the terrorist organisations too. The newly emerging phenomenon of narco-terrorism is not to be overlooked at any cost. This new phenomenon combines the two very well—get all the finance through drug trafficking, establish links in various countries with established groups of that country/region, and carry out attacks on the targeted groups without being there physically. The information and high technology that is available with these groups make their task easier and information is passed on within minutes and seconds. The narco-terrorists also use sophisticated cellular phone cloning technology, stealing numbers that were already assigned to legitimate users, using them for a short period of time, then moving on to new numbers, so that they are never permanently on a particular number.

The US and Colombian officials found the traffickers making use of the latest technology to protect and advance their business. One of the most important Colombian groups, Alejandro Bernal's operation kept in touch by using internet chat rooms protected by fire walls that made them impossible to penetrate. The officials reported that besides this, each part of the operation fed its information on the day's sales and drug movements to a computer on a ship off the coast of Mexico, so that if one computer were taken down, it would be impossible to trace the rest of the network. The traffickers also had access to highly sophisticated encryption technology, which even the law enforcement authorities find difficult to decode. One US official pointed out that it took some of their best computers 24 hours to crack a 30-second transmission by the traffickers, making the exercise pointless. These new techniques have helped the traffickers move tons of cocaine before being detected. DEA officials and Colombian authorities have estimated that Bernal's group, working with Mexican organisations led by Valencia, shipped 20 tons to 30 metric tons of cocaine every month to the United States.23

Along with the increasing sophistication in their mode of working, there is a tremendous increase in the cultivation of coca—the raw material for cocaine—in Colombian territory controlled by Marxist-led guerillas or right-wing paramilitary groups. A senior US Justice Department official said the estimate that Colombia produced 165 metric tons of cocaine in 1998 will at least double and may triple in 1999.24 Colombia has been scoring high in this industry. Colombian drug traffickers now have a control on most cocaine production from the raw material to the finished product, which provides more control of the drug-making process and enhances their profits when the finished cocaine is sold to Mexican delivery specialists. There seems to be something very contradictory in the two simultaneous processes that are taking place. On the one hand, the US government has started helping out the Colombian President Andres Pastrana and on the other hand, the drug traffickers have become successful in going undetected by the authorities of either of the countries. This proves the complex and tight network that these groups have established among themselves from country to country at all stages from production to refinement to transportation. In 1999, the United States provided Colombia with $289 million in aid, mostly to the police and military to fight drug trafficking.25

Thus, the ultimate answer to this big menace is for all the countries to cooperate as it involves not just one country but several countries in the multi processes of production, trafficking, and ultimate consumption. International cooperation to fight this issue is very essential in order to find a solution.



1. The idea of the illicit drugs trade flourishing particularly in regions of weak governance has been dealt with by Paul B. Stares, Global Habit: The Drug Problem in a Borderless World (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1996).

2. USIS, "Text: Clinton Reports to Congress on Drug-Producing Countries", Wireless File, November 12, 1999.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. US Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, INL Country Programs—Asia/Africa/Middle East, Fact Sheet released by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, March 30, 1999.

7. US Department of State, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Contending With Illegal Drugs at Home and Abroad, Fact Sheet released by the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, June 4, 1998.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. "New Drug Smugglers Hold Tech Advantage", The Washington Post, November 15, 1999.

12. David F. Musto, "International drug control: historical aspects and future challenges", United Nations International Drug Control Programme, World Drug Report, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 165.

13. Ibid., p, 168.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid., p. 169.

16. Anthony P. Maingot, "The Drug Trade in the Caribbean: Policy Options", Drug Trafficking in the Americas, edited by Bruce M. Bagley, and William O. Walker III (USA: North-South Center Press, University of Miami, 1996), p. 476.

17. Musto, n. 12, p. 169.

18. United Nations International Drug Control Programme, World Drug Report, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 171. The UNDCP established in 1991 has some specific objectives: (1) to coordinate and provide effective leadership for all UN drug control initiatives; (2) to anticipate the development of phenomenon which could create or aggravate illicit drug production, trafficking, and abuse, and to mobilise and support remedial measures in a timely fashion; (3) to be a world-wide centre of expertise and respository of information by collecting, analysing and disseminating data, information and experience in all fields of drug control; (4) to assist CND and INCB in implementing their treaty-based functions and in promoting new instruments as needed; (5) to provide technical assistance through expertise and training to help governments in setting up adequate drug control structures and to elaborate comprehensive national and regional drug control strategies and programmes; (6) to provide technical operation in the different fields of drug control with a view to elaborating methodologies and approaches to be shared; and (7) to assist governments in the developments of subregional initiatives and plans of action with the basic concept of joint operations between concerned countries.

19. Ibid., p. 221.

20. Stanley A. Weiss, "The Global Narcotics Trade: Economic Patterns and Implications", International Herald Tribune, July 1-2, 1995.

21. USIA, Wireless File, December 10, 1999.

22. The Washington Post, November 15, 1999.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.