How Narco States Work

By: Josh Clark

Controlled Substance Image Gallery Festival goers at the Solipse Festival in Zambia in 2001. See more controlled substance pictures.
Yoray Liberman/­Getty Images

­For a variety of reasons, people around the wor­ld have developed a love affair with illicit substances. The United States has a particularly ravenous appetite for cocaine, consuming some 40 percent of the global supply each year [source: Glenny]. While it contributes only 11 percent of the world population, Europe is home to almost one-third of the globe's heroin addicts [source: Chamie, Norton-Taylor].

The West's continual fondness for drugs has helped to drive their costs down. In the U.S., a kilogram of uncut cocaine sells for around $22,000, while that same kilo fetches almost $120,000 on the streets of Moscow [source: Kirschke, Walt]. There are other costs associated with illicit drugs, including health care and welfare expenditures for addicts and their children. Disability payouts for addicts in the UK, for example, cost the nation almost $80 million in 2008 [source: Daily Mail]. These enormous numbers are piddling compared to the tolls exacted in places where illegal drugs are produced. Rather than dollar amounts, or pounds or euros, the prices paid for illicit drugs at their points of origin or along their supply chains are often calculated in human blood and misery.


The marijuana and hash smoked in Detroit and El Paso. The cocaine sniffed in clubs in Ibiza, Frankfur­t and Atlanta. The heroin injected in basement flats in New York, London and Los Angeles. The methamphetamine snorted, smoked and shot up by people in Bangkok and Nashville. All of it comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is usually somewhere else.

­There's a likelihood that the pot and meth consumed by American users were grown in sub­urban grow houses or produced in mobile meth labs within U.S. borders, but it's much likelier that both came through Mexico. There's zero chance the heroin and cocaine were produced locally -- both come from plants cultivated in East Asia and Latin America.

To get from their areas of origin to the towns and cities where consumers purchase them in little baggies, illicit drugs have likely passed through way stations called narco states. These are regions and countries where governmental action is directly influenced -- either through corruption or violence -- by drug traffickers, drug producers or the drug trade itself [source: Hartelius]. It's big business: The drug trade generates as much as $300 billion a year. Basically, narco states are the capitals on the drug trade map, and this map touches every corner of the globe.



What Makes a Narco State?

Colombian police capture 3.5 tons of cocaine in December 2008, about one-half of a percent of the county'­s annual production.
Colombian police capture 3.5 tons of cocaine in December 2008, about one-half of a percent of the county'­s annual production.
Raul Arboleda/AFP/Getty Images

­Ideally, a government exists to protect its citizens. In return for this protection, the public is expected to give up some of its rights to government control. English philosopher Thomas Hobbes called this tradeoff a social contract. One of these controls is the ability to kill others: In civilized society, the government is the only entity that can execute or incarcerate a citizen. Only the government, not vigilante citizens, may punish criminals. This state monopoly on violence, as it's called, is carefully regulated because the nation's legal system should protect citizens from unwarranted imprisonment or executions. Taken as a whole, the social contract is meant to prevent chaos.

The government often keeps up the pretense of this social contract in a narco state, but ultimately the government serves the interests of drug traffickers rather than those of its citizens. The public may remain protected as long as this protection doesn't interfere with state-fueled drug trafficking.


Why would a government engage in such corruption? There's the threat of violence, as we saw in Colombia in the 1980s and 1990s. Competing drug cartels with armed paramilitary groups launched attacks on federal and judicial buildings there. They also kidnapped and murdered officials and judges who sought to bring them to justice. By using the military to challenge the government, these groups established legitimate political parties that served their interests in policy-making decisions.

A narco state may also emerge once a nation's military hierarchy has been corrupted, especially that nation's intelligence officers. Military officials can turn to drug trafficking themselves, as we've seen in places like Guatemala, or they may be bribed into corruption -- a dilemma the African nation of Guinea Bissau currently finds itself in. A corrupted intelligence service backed with armed military might, knowledge of smuggling lines and access to airfields, planes and boats, can create a domino effect that forces other layers of government to abide by a narco state's creation. The military maintains the state's threat of violence, and it can be very persuasive once that threat's trained on the public -- or even the rest of the government -- at the behest of drug traffickers.

Nations that have seen lots of government turnover, especially due to war or coups, also easily can devolve into narco states. Between 2000 and 2002, Guatemala, an undisputed narco state, saw the chief drug enforcement director position change hands nine times [source: UNODC]. Prolonged conflicts may lead to damaged infrastructure, which limits the government's ability to provide basic services to its citizens. This, in turn, reduces that government's public legitimacy and leaves it open to armed challenges.

Conflict also means a glut of guns and war veterans that can use them effectively. This can lead to rebellion and even civil war, especially when an armed group opts to engage in drug trafficking en masse and the central government moves to thwart those activities. For examples of this type of rebellion, let's look at Central America, which is rife with narco states due to its location between South American producer countries and North American consumers. The area has a long history of conflict: In the 20th century alone, Guatemala endured a 36-year-long civil war, El Salvador's engaged in a 12-year-long one and Nicaragua had one that lasted 19 years [source: UNODC]. These conflicts left Central America with such a weapons surplus that unregistered guns outnumber those held by legitimate police and military forces 5-to-1 [source: UNODC].

­Certainly, heavily armed groups bent on maintaining drug trafficking in areas with weakened central governments can lead to the birth of a narco state. However, one should never underestimate the most important factor in the foundation of a narco state -- money.


The Root of all Narco States

Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori (left) and his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, during Fujimori's 2008 corruption trial.
Former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori (left) and his intelligence chief, Vladimiro Montesinos, during Fujimori's 2008 corruption trial.
Jaime Razurij/AFP/­Getty Images

­Narco states are often born out of financial corruption. "Drug money is used as a lubricant for corruption," wrote the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in its 2008 World Drug Report [source: UNDOC]. Since the global drug market generates more than $300 billion in annual revenue, there's a lot of lubricant to go around.

Let's see how money greases a narco state's wheels. In Guatemala, a federal judge was accused of accepting thousands of dollars in bribes to dismiss a drug trafficking case. The judge not only dismissed the case, she was seen later driving the defendant from court [source: UNODC]. While military force remains a distinct threat, a corrupt judicial or legislative system may contribute more to a narco state's continuation. Bribery and kickbacks are subtler than armed resistance and attract less attention, which may allow a narco state to thrive unchecked.


Congressional and judicial protection of drug traffickers can also extend beyond a narco state's borders. In Guatemala, corrupt government officials drafted legislation that prevents citizens from being extradited to face criminal charges in another country. Extradition has been a powerful policy tool used by the United States to fight the war on drugs. By protecting its nation's drug traffickers from extradition and prosecution, the Guatemalan narco state has allowed its cocaine trade to explode.

Not all narco states are alike, though. In some states the government may give implicit approval of drug production and trafficking, but remains inactive in the drug trade. The amount of money generated by drug production and trafficking can be enough to make up a substantial percentage of the nation's economy. Afghanistan's opium production produces $3 billion annually for the nation. That staggering number represents one-half of the country's gross domestic product -- the sum total of all goods and services a country produces in a year [source: Norton-Taylor]. With income like this, a government (and the public) often hesitates to take any real steps towards curbing the drug trade within its borders.

Other governments have taken a more direct approach to drug trafficking. Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's administration is a prime example. Throughout the 1990s, Fujimori, who ascended to power via campaign contributions by Colombian drug cartels, ruled Peru as a dictator who employed death squads to quiet dissent. Fujimori had plans for the cartels as well; namely, Vladimiro Montesinos, Fujimori's second-in-command and head of intelligence. Montesinos, a former defense attorney for various South American drug lords, maintained his old contacts and extorted $700 for every kilogram of cocaine exported from Peru during Fujimori's 10-year tenure, amassing as much as $1 billion in personal wealth [source: Chauvin, Vann]. Those who didn't pay up were eliminated by government death squads.

­Converging political, public and revolutionary pressures ended both Fujimori and Montesinos' rule over Peru. Both were also extradited and tried on corruption charges in Peruvian court. If you examine the creation and support of some narco states, however, you might be surprised to find the presence of the United States. Find out how and why on the next page.


The Cold War

A mass grave containing 13 skeletons unearthed in Guatemala in 2005.
A mass grave containing 13 skeletons unearthed in Guatemala in 2005.
Orlando Sierra/AFP/­Getty Images

­The United States has a history of using its military and intelligence services to destabilize nations whose political philosophies and interests diverge from its own. There are several examples of this interference. During World War II the Office of Special Services -- the predecessor to the CIA -- inserted operatives within the borders of hostile nations like Burma to assemble, train and convert anti-government factions into guerilla armies. The value of using Americans to create armed insurgencies within foreign nations hasn't waned: As recently as 2001, the CIA helped amass the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, which successfully overthrew the Taliban government [source: Sims and Gerber]. While the United States has found plenty of reasons to meddle in South and East Asia, perhaps no other region of the world has experienced more covert U.S. involvement than Central America.

­Central America proved a key battleground for the proxy wars between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union (USSR) during the Cold War. With nuclear destruction assured through the amassed arsenals of each nation, neither the U.S. nor the USSR could afford to engage in outright war with one another. Instead, the two foes used other nations' governments and rebel factions to fight their ideological war for them. Because of their proximity to Communist Cuba and the United States, as well as the presence of both Marxist and anti-Communist military groups, Central and South America played vital roles in the Cold War.


FARC guerillas along the border between Colombia and Panama in July 1999.
FARC guerillas along the border between Colombia and Panama in July 1999.
Stephen Ferry/Liaison/­Getty Images

The Soviets and the Americans propped up governments and insurgencies, and both sides supported equally brutal regimes. Guatemala's U.S.-supported right-wing paramilitary group, la cofrida (the brotherhood), helped kill as many as 200,000 of its own people during that nation's civil war [source: Smyth]. Since 1964, the Soviet-supported FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a well-known Communist guerrilla army, has declared responsibility for countless kidnappings, bombings, executions and the use of child soldiers [source: Global Security].

Dictators like Panama's Manuel Noriega also served as CIA assets. Several key players who served as U.S. allies and covert aid recipients in the Latin American proxy wars received military and intelligence training in the U.S. Army's secretive and controversial School of the Americas. This program, based at Fort Benning, Ga., trains Latin American soldiers in tactics like assassination, counterinsurgency an­d the assembly of guerrilla armies [source: CNN].

­These organizations and leaders, and numerous others operating in Latin America's present or recent past, share more than brutality in common. They are also among the most prolific and established drug traffickers in the world.



America's Role in Latin American Narco States

Hacienda Napoles, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar's 3,700 acre estate, in a photo taken in 1988.
Hacienda Napoles, Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar's 3,700 acre estate, in a photo taken in 1988.
Timothy Ross/Time Life Pictures/­Getty Images

­Following the fall of the Soviet Union, which caused the abrupt end of the Cold War, funding for rival Latin American factions largely dried up. Russia and its former Soviet satellites no longer had the wealth or the inclination to continue funding its proxy armies. Though the U.S. remained entrenched in Central American geopolitics, its involvement throughout the 1980s dwarfed what it had been during the Cold War. All of the training, airstrips, planes and weapons provided by the United States and the USSR remained, however.

Moving sensitive materials like arms and people without detection is a vital aspect of intelligence. Thanks to U.S. and Soviet training, Latin American intelligence officers were now well-versed in the art of smuggling. It's simple to substitute cocaine for arms or people. Without funding from the superpowers, Central American groups now had the motive and the means to produce and distribute drugs to fund their own continuing conflicts despite decreased interest from the Soviets and Americans. The U.S. continued to fund both sides of these conflicts, inadvertently, through the income made from selling drugs to American consumers.


During the 1970s and '80s, Colombian cocaine syndicates like Pablo Escobar's Medellín cartel hired FARC guerrillas to protect their coca crops and processing laboratories. Eventually, the cartels and FARC became rivals in the cocaine trade. FARC developed its own cocaine distribution network and the cartels assembled anti-Communist paramilitary organizations. Both also protected their drug trafficking operations by entrenching themselves in the federal government. The 1980s and '90s saw tremendous violence in Colombia; both the cartels and FARC staged bombings and raids on government buildings and kidnapped federal officials. FARC also used its drug profits to outsource its terrorism, offering a $1,000 reward to any person who killed a government official [source: ABC]. Rural areas that served as vital points along cocaine distribution lines were taken over by one side or the other, leading to microcosmic narco states within Colombia.

Because of its proximity to Mexico and its emerging cartels, Colombian drug traffickers turned their sights on Guatemala in the 1990s after the Unites States began to patrol their overseas trade routes in the Caribbean. In Guatemala, la cofrida conducts drug trafficking, led by two intelligence officers trained at the School of the Americas. The pair have been amazingly successful; as much as 75 percent of the cocaine that enters the U.S. passes through Guatemala's borders en route to Mexico, which has made Guatemala an effective narco state [source: Smyth].

Once in Mexico, cocaine is routed up to border towns like Juarez, where mules carry it and other drugs across the border. As a result of the rise of Mexican cartels, Juarez has devolved into a regional narco state. After the local government purged the police force of corrupt cops, few remain on the job. Juarez municipal officials are powerless to prevent the violence and corruption spread by rival drug cartels warring for control of supply routes into the U.S., despite the increased presence of federal authorities in the city. This violence reached a fever pitch in 2008 as it spilled over into the civilian population -- murders in Juarez rose from 300 in 2007 to more than 1,500 in 2008 [source: Beaubien].

Much of this violence was due to tactics exported from South and Central America to Mexico. The Mexican Gulf cartel established the paramilitary unit los Zetas with guerilla leadership consisting mostly of former Mexican Army Special Forces commandos trained by the United States [source: Roig-Franzia].

­After it exits the war zones along the Mexican border and enters the United States, the rate of violence attached to cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth decreases dramatically. The highest prices are paid inside the narco states.


Making Allies out of Drug Dealers

In 2006, a U.S. Army soldier wades through a poppy field in Afghanistan'­s Helmand province, the world capital of opium cultivation.
In 2006, a U.S. Army soldier wades through a poppy field in Afghanistan'­s Helmand province, the world capital of opium cultivation.
John Moore/Getty Images

Narco states aren't exclusively a result of the end of the Cold War -- some, like Burma, existed long before the USSR crumbled. Cocaine, which originated in South and Central America, became popular in the United States during the late 1970s as the Cold War still burned hot. It's also inaccurate to say the U.S. was unaware of its allies' drug trafficking activities. U.S. foreign policy has long valued what an ally can offer tactically or geopolitically over that nation's commitment to eradicating drugs [source: Schweich]. In the 1980s, as the administration of President Ronald Reagan ramped up the United States' war on drugs, it was also providing funding and weapons for the same anti-Communist paramilitary groups and governments that were producing and distributing cocaine on a global scale.

The Contra rebels in Nicaragua, which the United States covertly supported during the group's civil war with the leftist ruling Sandinista party, ran cocaine distribution operations while receiving training, funding and arms from the CIA [source: Zirnite]. Gen. Manuel Noriega, a CIA asset since he rose to power in 1981, operated a narco state with the CIA's knowledge during his tenure as president of Panama [source: National Security Archive]. Once news leaked of Noriega's involvement with the U.S. and drug trafficking, he was captured during an American military invasion of Panama in 1989 and indicted on drug charges in the United States. Noriega received a 30-year federal prison sentence.


The United States continues to fight the war on drugs while turning a blind eye to drug trafficking among its allies, most notably in Afghanistan. After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, America and its allies toppled the Taliban militia that had ruled the nation under strict Islamic law. In 1999, despite the Taliban's fundamentalist views, Afghanistan overtook Burma as the world's leading producer of opium poppies, the plant from which heroin is derived [source: Traynor]. Under the Taliban, Afghanistan functioned as a narco state, with the government using profits from its state-run heroin processing labs to fund its military and keep its economy afloat.

Afghanistan saw the largest poppy harvest in recorded history in 2006. The crop yield was a 50 percent increase over the previous year, and the harvest made Afghanistan the producer of 93 percent of the global heroin supply [source: Norton-Taylor]. The U.S. made efforts to eradicate poppy crops early in its occupation, but could offer no replacement crop that approaches its profitability for Afghani farmers. President Hamid Karzai, a key U.S. ally, allowed some crop removal by soldiers on the ground, but refused to allow the U.S. to eradicate crops with ­pesticides sprayed from airplanes, a method that's proven effective in fighting Colombian cocaine production.

President Karzai isn't accused of personally engaging in drug trafficking, and he has stated poppy eradication as a goal of his administration. In addition to allowing hand eradication of poppy crops, he's accepted $780 million from the United States for counternarcotics operations like removing corrupt judges and training drug officers [source: Transnational Institute]. His nation, however, remains the world's leading exporter of heroin, generating more than $3 billion annually for the country's economy.

Amid reports that convicted Afghani drug traffickers pay bribes for release from prison, fear has mounted that the country may devolve into a full-fledged narco state [source: Schweich]. With remote areas still ruled by drug trafficking tribal leaders, the nation certainly contains narco states within its borders.

­If questions remain about Afghanistan's status as a narco state, any surrounding several West African nations have been put to rest. In 2008, drug officials around the world watched as West Africa became the new narco state capital of the world.


African Narco States

Senegal bears the memories of French colonization. The French remain involved in the nation'­s law enforcement.
Senegal bears the memories of French colonization. The French remain involved in the nation'­s law enforcement.
EyesWideOpen/Getty Images

­The first signs of drug trade's presence in Africa appeared in 1985. In Zambia, a southern central African nation, 25 prominent citizens were indicted on drug trafficking charges. A panel was established to investigate this home-grown cartel, which dealt largely in marijuana. The investigation revealed a startling fact about the Zambian economy; drugs had become so entrenched there that they were used as goods that everyday citizens traded and bartered to purchase things like groceries [source: Mulenga].

The inquiry revealed an invisible narco state beneath the functioning one, replete with a money laundering network that helped support it financially. Zambia was among the first African nations to see a narco state rise out of its poor economy, but it was far from the last.


The 1990s saw an explosion in post-colonial Africa's drug trade. While marijuana and hashish had long been favored by many African nations, cocaine made a big entrance into the continent as drug traffickers from Latin America began to gain traction in Africa. This foothold led to the establishment of narco states, especially along the west coast, a major transit point for Latin American cocaine en route to Europe. With poor economic outlooks among many of the nations along the west coast and inland, combating the drug trade has taken a back seat in many cases to the economic stimulus trafficking provides. Like many in Latin America, African narco states often exist largely under the radar within a functioning state that maintains the pretense of eradicating drug trafficking.

Take Senegal, for example. In the 1990s, cocaine and heroin use among the upper classes began to take off as a major influx of drugs penetrated the nation's borders. This led to the development of a Senegalese narco state; in 2008, Britain's Telegraph newspaper reported the average cost of a bribe to persuade an official at the country's Dakar airport to look the other way was about $9,000 per kilo of cocaine -- around a third of its wholesale value in Europe [source: Blair]. In Ghana, a combined 2 tons (1814 kilograms) of cocaine were seized during 2006; this was in addition to another 7 tons (6350 kg) of cocaine captured off the nation's coast that same year [source: Mail and Guardian].

As we saw in Central America, conflict also played a major role in the emergence of narco states along the Africa­n coast. Nations that have endured prolonged civil war and lack stable central governments, like Liberia and Sierra Leone, have also developed regional narco states.

­Combined, these nations have come to form the backbone of a bustling narco economy that links Latin America with Europe. "The former Gold Coast is turning into the Coke Coast," a U.N. report stated [source: Kirschke]. There is no other nation in Africa, however, that fits the classic definition of a narco state than the continent's newest addition to the international drug trade, Guinea Bissau.



Guinea Bissau

A week following Guinea Bissau's 2008 elections, members of the nation'­s army launched a siege on the residence of the reelected president, João Bernardo Vieira.
A week following Guinea Bissau's 2008 elections, members of the nation'­s army launched a siege on the residence of the reelected president, João Bernardo Vieira.
Georges Gobet/AFP/­Getty Images

­Guinea Bissau, West Africa's most prominent narco state, became the major hub between Latin American cocaine traffickers and European consumers quite by accident. In 2005, a group of Guinea-Bissauan fishermen snagged what they later realized was a significant amount of cocaine in their nets. When the Colombian traffickers traveled to the country to purchase back their lost cocaine for $1 million, the Guinea Bissauans -- who live in the fifth-poorest nation in the world and make an average salary of $528 a year for a civil service job -- happily sold it back [source: Kirschke]. Just like that, the cocaine trade in Guinea Bissau was born.

The nation has become the purest -- and most important -- West African narco state. The Latin American drug traffickers have set up shop, building mansions in the capital and overseeing drug operations. The military protects the traffickers and is basically at war with the federal government. Many residents actively participate in the drug trade as traffickers and mules. Like just about every other narco state, Guinea Bissau emerged due to money. In 2007, about $150 million (wholesale) worth of cocaine was passing through its borders each month -- an amount equal to about half of the country's entire annual gross domestic product [source: Hanson]. It's little wonder that the nation became a narco state as a result.


Cocaine use in Europe has skyrocketed due to the development of these West African drug havens. In Spain, the main smuggling port for illicit goods and illegal immigrants from Africa, the percentage of cocaine users now exceeds that of the U.S. [source: Walt]. A 2006 study found that, as a result of this sudden cocaine infusion, 94 percent of all euro notes in circulation in Spain contain trace amounts of the drug [source: BBC]. These bank notes may have been handled by drug dealers or users, or may have served as impromptu straws for sniffing cocaine.

Portugal, another major port of entry for drug smugglers, is of particular use to Guinea-Bissauan traffickers. Guinea-Bissau is a former Portuguese colony and citizens aren't required to apply for visas to enter Europe. This former colonization has helped make Guinea Bissau a drug trafficking paradise.

Infrastructure built during the Portuguese occupation fell out of order after they left the African state. Airstrips located on uninhabited islands, for example, went unused for decades because the nation of Guinea Bissau owns no airplanes. These airstrips have made perfect smuggling sites for the South American traffickers. The virtually unfunded police in the capital city of Bissau have been unable to make any headway in fighting the Colombians. Many Colombians have moved to the city to direct drug operations as police officers rarely have fuel for their five police cars [source: Walt].

Those arrests that are made tend not to stick. The nation's military routinely protects the Colombians. In September 2006, police arrested two Colombian men in a house with nearly 700 kilograms (1543 pounds) of cocaine. Soldiers arrived at the police station and surrounded it until the police released the men and the cocaine. The soldiers loaded both onto their vehicles and drove off [source: Walt].

Guinea Bissau has become a case study in the emergence of narco states. Its president is at war with the military, which has allied itself with drug traffickers. ­On March, 2, 2009, the turmoil between the Guinea-Bissau military and President João Bernardo Vieira ended when the president was shot to death by soldiers as he attempted to escape his presidential palace, which had been under siege for several hours; it was assumed the assassination was retribution for the killing of the head of the Guinea-Bissau military the previous night [source: AP]. The deaths left a "power vacuum"­ in the already unstable nation and the world continues to watch tensely to see what would come of the deaths [source: AP]. Its economy depends solely on drug trafficking. Like other narco states around the world, Guinea Bissau proves that when poverty collides with the will of drug traffickers, a narco state is likely to emerge. When narco states emerge, the drug economy thrives.

­For more information on narco states, please see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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