Lentis/International Drug Trafficking and Law Enforcement

International Drug Trafficking is the process of illegally smuggling drugs between countries. It has caused significant problems including violence and drug abuse and is considered a worldwide crisis by most countries. Common drugs used in trafficking (e.g. cocaine, marijuana, heroine, etc) cause extreme addiction and harm to the human body which is why these products have been deemed illegal in most countries. Because of this addiction there is a never-ending demand which has transpired into a very lucrative business in trafficking and selling large quantities of illegal drugs. Countries fight to mitigate this crisis through policies that implement enforcement. Drug cartels tip the scale of power back in their favor by finding alternative methods of trafficking. This chapter of Lentis aims to give a quick overview of the competing methods used to transport and to stop the transport of illegal drugs between borders and how social and technical aspects are involved.

Confiscated illegal drugs en route to the United States

Since 1971, when President Nixon declared the "War on Drugs[1]," there has been a boost in anti-drug policy and enforcement in an attempt to quell this growing crisis. The United States allocated $15.1 billion in 2010 towards this war[2]. A major portion of this money is used for interdiction and international counterdrug support. The U.S. battles drug trafficking primarily through international enforcement and border control, particularly focusing on the supply chain originating in Columbia or Mexico. Sometimes innocent people fall victim to this war between governments and drug cartels.

Trafficking between Colombia and the United States


In 2008 it was estimated that 450 metric tons of cocaine were produced in Colombia[3]. While this number has decreased, it is still the highest cocaine production in Latin America. These drugs are transported in a variety of ways to the United States and these methods have changed and advanced over time as law enforcement adapts to reduce the supply of drugs to the United States.

Methods of Transportation and Enforcement

Drug trade map depiction

Drug traffickers in Colombia have implemented different technologies over the past few decades in order to circumvent law enforcement and to produce more revenue with fewer shipments of drugs, typically through Mexico. Traffickers transportation methods consider quantity, efficiency, and reliability.

Carlos Lehder, of the Medellin Cartel in Colombia, introduced the use of small aircraft to transport drugs directly from Colombia to the United States[4]. Switch from people and mules to aircraft impacted the quantity the drugs cartels could transport. Over time, different plane designs were used to avoid increased surveillance by law enforcement. One example is the switch from double engine to single engine airplanes with higher wings which are able to land on rougher terrain in more remote locations[5].

For law enforcement, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) currently uses a variety of surveillance aircraft, with specially trained pilots. This force has expanded and improved as needed since the first surveillance aircraft introduced by the Bureau of Narcotic and Dangerous Drugs in 1971[6].

Submersible used by drug cartels

The use of transport by sea further increases the quantity of drugs Colombian cartels can transport. Fishing Vessels are implemented in transport to Mexico via the Pacific as well as to Florida via different parts of the Caribbean[7]. Traffickers also use a variety of small high-speed ships and commercial cargo carriers. Carriers are able to transport the high quantities of drugs, but tend to be more expensive with larger crews and specialized electronics[8]. More recently, semi-submersibles, or Narco Submarines, have been implemented as a more discrete method of transportation[9]. This was countered by the Drug Trafficking Vessel Interdiction Act of 2008 which says it is a federal felony for anyone to embark or operate submersible or semi-submersible vessels of no nationality on international waters[10]. This creates a legal method for law enforcement to apprehend these vessels, so the need for an even more stealthy method was required. From 2009 to 2010 the Columbian government seized fewer semi-submersibles and in the summer of 2010 a fully submersible vessel was uncovered by the DEA. This conveys how smugglers adapt to law enforcement tactics in their attempt to successfully avoid law enforcement[11].

Trafficking between Mexico and the United States


History of Drug Trade between U.S. and Mexico and Mexican Drug Cartels


The father of Mexican drug trafficking is Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. In the 1980s, he was the first man to link Mexico with the Colombian cartels. He made Mexico the primary middle man for trafficking drugs between Colombia and the U.S. As his notoriety grew though, he realized he would need to dissolve his power. When he was finally arrested in 1989 he distributed his power to families and groups in different parts of Mexico, giving them control of particular regions, effectively creating the Mexican drug cartel system in place today[12].

Currently there are four major cartels in Mexico who control different sections of the border for illegal trafficking.

Estimated drug cartel territories as of 2008

Their territories are at constant threat by the government and competing cartels. In the last decade, as efforts by both the U.S. and Mexican government to squash these cartels has increased, violence has also increased. The cartels will bribe, intimidate, and kill government officials in order to make sure they have power and protection. NPR has done this analysis on Mexican drug cartel bribes. As the cartels become more bold with their actions, the violence has spilled over to the innocent Mexican population.

People in the middle


Victims span a wide range of people. It is estimated that around 28,000 people have been killed since Mexican President Felipe Calderon declared his war on drugs in late 2006 and that Mexico has a murder rate of 8.7 per 100,000 people.[13] This is almost twice the U.S. rate of 5 per 100,000 people[14]. The victims include political officials like Rodolfo Torre Cantu, who was gunned down days before the gubernatorial election in the Tamaulipas. He was the expected winner. Others include police officers trying to catch the smugglers and innocent bystanders like the 14 people killed at a teenager’s birthday party in Ciudad de Juarez in October 2010.[15] Americans have been affected as well. In the first six months of 2010, 47 Americans were killed in Mexico. This number was on pace to pass the 74 killed in 2009.[16] The number of killings is increasing and starting to spread to areas previously untouched. Foreign tourists are now warned to be careful in the resort towns as the drug wars are beginning to cross those borders. These groups of individuals caught in the middle of this war have a profound impact on the United States and Mexican government's evolving policies that lead to increased enforcement.

The U.S. and Mexican governments have begun working together to crack down on the cartels in Mexico. The "Merida Initiative" is legislation passed by congress in June 2008 to provide Mexico with $1.4 billion over a three-year period. The money is directed towards providing Mexico with technology for improved telecommunication systems, air surveillance such as transport helicopters and aircraft, inspection equipment, and training for Mexican Government officials involved with the drug trade. So far $1.3 billion of the pledged $1.4 billion have been appropriated by congress.

U.S. Law Enforcement Against Mexican Drug Trafficking


The U.S. war on drugs is run by the DEA, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. While completely halting the drug trade is difficult, these agencies have taken major steps to decrease the amount of drugs entering the U.S. In the last decade, the border patrol has doubled its number of agents from 10,000 to 20,000.[17] Additionally, the DEA has begun undertaking major stings to crack down on drug trade in the U.S. In 2010, “Project Deliverance” was an operation aimed at the Mexican Drug Cartel transportation system of drugs inside the U.S. The operation led to over 2,000 arrests and the seizure of 2.5 tons of cocaine, 1,400 pounds of heroin, and 69 tons of marijuana.

Unmanned drones used for counter drug surveillance

Canine units have been traditionally used to find these drugs yet cartels have devised a way to overcome them. Smugglers believe that putting coffee grounds mixed in with drugs will throw a dog off the drug's scent[17]. The U.S. government has now begun investing in more advanced technology. In September 2010, unmanned drones like the one shown here began patrolling the borders. These drones are equipped with day and night vision that help operators detect drug and human traffickers. The drones can stay in continuous operation for 30 hours at a time. Additionally, the use of gamma ray and x-ray scanning has begun at the border[17]. It is non-intrusive way to inspect cars and trucks crossing the border.

Transportation into the U.S.


The Mexican drug cartels continue to devise ways to transport drugs into the U.S. by land, sea, and air despite the increase in enforcement. The primary and most effective way is by land. According to Officer Harold Sander, Arizona Department of Public Safety, different transportation methods are digging tunnels under the border, sending mass shipments in mac trucks, or lining the panels of private vehicles with drugs[18]. The tunnels have been used to traffic both drugs and humans. The drug cartels will help smuggle illegal aliens across the border in exchange for the illegal aliens carrying drugs with them. They also will set up train tracks in the tunnels so carts can transport the drugs across the border[19]. The[American Free Trade Agreement] took effect at the beginning of 1994 and has changed the landscape of the drug trade ever since. Previously, thousands of trucks transporting trade goods would be turned away by border patrol. But since NAFTA, those trucks are now allowed to cross the border. In 2008, 3 million trucks crossed the U.S. Mexico border. It is estimated only 5% of those trucks were inspected[20]. The Mexican Drug Cartels use this weakness in the border patrol to transports mass amounts of drugs. With the quantity of drugs and variety of methods that the smugglers use to transport them into the U.S., the border patrol does not have the capacity to inspect every car so there is a high probability the drugs and cars will cross the border safely.



The ever-changing tactics to transport illegal drugs and new policy to counter these tactics create a never ending loop of leveling the playing field between both sides of the War on Drugs. Technologies are used efficiently on either side; however, innocent people are caught in the middle of this crisis. This unceasing battle has shaped into a growing crisis as governments continue to find solutions by response to violence to innocent individuals. Drug cartels remain to create alternate transporting strategies. The United States has many programs within its borders to help educate youth and treat drug addicts. Future research to improve this chapter should be how the primary focus on suppressing the supply is beginning to shift to demand reduction so the drug cartels have fewer customers. Other research can focus on how other governments deal with the international crisis.


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