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Thursday, May 30, 2024

Overt connections of states with drug cartels

Ever since the beginning of war in Ukraine in February 2022, Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has been actively cooperating with Ukrainian intelligence in increasing drug trade within East European countries while Iran and Turkey are facing accusations of running drug trade by joining hands with South American drug cartels.

According to the United Nations office of drugs and crime, drug trafficking is a global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution and sale of substances which are subject to drug prohibition laws. UNODC is continuously monitoring and researching global illicit drug markets in order to gain a more comprehensive understanding of their dynamics. Drug trafficking is a key part of this research.

At current levels, world heroin consumption (340 tons) and seizures represent an annual flow of 430-450 tons of heroin into the global heroin market. Of that total, opium from Myanmar and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic yields some 50 tons, while the rest, some 380 tons of heroin and morphine, is produced exclusively from Afghan opium. While approximately 5 tons are consumed and seized in Afghanistan, the remaining bulk of 375 tons is trafficked worldwide via routes flowing into and through the countries neighboring Afghanistan.

The Balkan and northern routes are the main heroin trafficking corridors linking Afghanistan to the huge markets of the Russian Federation and Western Europe. The Balkan route traverses the Islamic Republic of Iran (often via Pakistan), Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria across South-East Europe to the Western European market, with an annual market value of some US$20 billion. The northern route runs mainly through Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan (or Uzbekistan or Turkmenistan) to Kazakhstan and the Russian Federation. The size of that market is estimated to total US$13 billion per year.

According to experts, narcotics trafficking under the authoritarian regimes existing before the Arab Spring can be classified into three general models. The first model involved direct state participation in the trade as a means of directly benefiting the regime, as exemplified by Syria in the 1980s and 1990s.  The second model involved the indirect participation of the state in the trade as a means of benefiting state clients, as in Libya in the mid-1990s.  Finally, some states tolerated, and still tolerate, drug trafficking because of the considerable economic benefits it provides their economies, as in Morocco. Thus, in Syria and Libya the drug trade was controlled more directly as a side-line to support the regime or the regime’s clients, while in Morocco, the drug trade constitutes a broader economic phenomenon, tolerated and tacitly supported because it benefits Moroccan society. 

State involvement in the drug trade occurs for a variety of reasons. The allure of profiteering can entice state actors to produce and transport drugs, particularly if their country is under financial duress. Producing drugs or merely taxing drug routes can bring in much-needed funds to balance budgets, create sources of “black cash” or enrich elites. Allowing the drug trade may also be deemed necessary to ensure regional economic stability and can prevent criminal groups from confronting the state.

In other instances, government agencies and institutions might be “captured” by criminal elements that have gained extreme influence over political, military, and judicial systems through corruption and violence.

Government entities also often become too weak or compromised to stop criminal groups, which “have never before managed to acquire the degree of political influence now enjoyed by criminals in a wide range of African, [Eastern] European, and Latin American countries”.

The Balkans are also a key gateway for drugs entering Europe. In Bulgaria, corruption has seen high-level politicians implicated in drug smuggling, in addition to officials in Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. The Council of Europe, meanwhile, accused Hashim Thaçi, the former prime minister and president of Kosovo, as well as his political allies, of exerting “violent control over the trade in heroin and other narcotics” “and [occupying] important positions in ‘Kosovo’s mafia-like structures of organized crime’” in 2010. Kosovan politicians continue to face allegations of corruption.

Morocco’s government has largely accepted drug networks to support national economic livelihood, which serves “as the basis of a parallel economy,” while this relationship is reinforced by corruption in the country.

Libya had more of a state-backed drug production and export apparatus under former leader Muammar Gaddafi, though this mechanism broke down following the civil war in 2011. However, the close relationship between Guinea-Bissau’s “political-military elites” and drug smugglers has made it Africa’s greatest example of state complicity in aiding international drug networks. The country’s importance in the international drug trade stems from its proximity to Latin America and Guinea-Bissau’s geographic use as a transit stop for criminal groups seeking access to the European market.

In recent years, politicians from Venezuela, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, and other Latin American countries have been accused or suspected of aiding and abetting criminals involved in the drug trade. United States officials have also accused former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his political allies of “state-sponsored drug trafficking,” as he awaits trial in the United States.

But there has been a decades-long involvement of the United States in the drug trade. In the 1950s, for example, the CIA gave significant support to anti-communist rebel groups involved in the drug trade in the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet. The cooperation lasted into the 1970s, and ongoing corruption in the region means state authorities continue to permit criminal groups a degree of operability.

The CIA also admitted to ignoring reports about Nicaraguan Contra rebels selling drugs in the United States to fund their anti-communist campaign in the 1980s. The United States permitted Afghan farmers to grow opium poppy during the Obama administration’s handling of the War in Afghanistan in 2009 and has been suspected of cultivating Latin America’s drug networks to control the region.It may be mentioned here that drug deaths in the US have been rising significantly since 2000 and during Joe Biden’s presidency has hit record high, with fentanyl responsible for two-thirds of total deaths. Biden’s open border policy has encouraged transnational drug trafficking rackets in significantly increasing supply of drugs into the country while CIA is putting extended focus on increasing drugs within Russia and the East European countries. For decades, CIA has been continuing overt participation in drug trade, which is one of the key sources for generating billions of dollars, which it uses for running operations worldwide. It is also reported in the media that CIA has been maintaining deeper connections with notorious drug cartels in Colombia, Venezuela and Mexico in particular, while it in most cases ignores participation of Iranian proxy Hezbollah in international narco-trade.

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Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury
Salah Uddin Shoaib Choudhury is an internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research-scholar, counterterrorism specialist and editor of Weekly Blitz. Follow him on Twitter @Salah_Shoaib

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