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Professor of international studies school of international studies university of miami

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Interdiction of Drug Trafficking Routes

Some 13 million U.S. drug users spent approximately US$ 67 billion on illicit drugs in 1999, making the U.S. market the most lucrative one in the world for Colombian traffickers. Washington spent roughly two-thirds of its US$ 17.8 billion 1999 anti-drug budget on interdiction and related activities to curb the flow of illicit drugs from Colombia and elsewhere in the hemisphere into the United States. Indeed, throughout the 1990s the U.S. government placed heavy emphasis on interdiction activities as a key tactic in its overall strategy in the war on drugs.9

During most of the 1980s the Medellin cartel dominated the Colombian drug trade and its principal trafficking routes passed through (or over) the Caribbean into the United States via south Florida and elsewhere along the U.S. Atlantic seaboard. As these “traditional” smuggling routes came under increasing pressure from U.S. drug enforcement over the second half of the decade, a gradual shift away from the Caribbean routes to new ones passing through Central America and Mexico and across the U.S. southwest border took place. By the early 1990s 70 to 80 percent of the cocaine smuggled out of Colombia entered the United States from Mexico while only 20 to 30 percent continued to come in via the Caribbean.10
This dramatic shift in contraband routes was undoubtedly bought about by the heightened interdiction efforts of U.S. law enforcement agencies, reinforced by the growing involvement of the U.S. military (especially the Navy and Air Force). U.S. “success” on this front in the war on drugs did not, however, result in a reduction in the availability of cocaine (or heroin) in the U.S. market, much less a rise in street prices, over the 1990s. In practice, the Medellin and Cali traffickers proved highly adaptable, quickly establishing new contraband routes to replace the older and riskier ones. Rather than curtailing drug trafficking from Colombia into the United States, increased interdiction in the Caribbean merely “ballooned” Colombian smuggling activities into Central America and Mexico, along with the attendant corruption and violence that typically accompanies large-scale drug trafficking activities.11
Initially, the Colombian drug cartels arranged for existing Mexican drug organizations to smuggle their “product” across the U.S.-Mexican border on a simple fee-for-service basis. By the mid-1990s, however, as first the Medellin and then the Cali trafficking rings were partially dismantled by U.S. and Colombian law enforcement authorities, the Mexican drug Mafiosi began to demand drugs rather than cash in return for their services. Commonly, they received as much as 40 to 50 percent of any shipments they handled. The Mexican’s expanded role in the Colombian cocaine trade over the 1990s increased their illicit profits exponentially and led to the consolidation of several Mexican cartels (e.g., the Juarez cartel, the Tijuana cartel and the Gulf cartel) that soon rivaled the Colombian organizations in size, profitability and violence. Indeed, during the second half of the decade the emergence of these powerful new Mexican criminal organizations unleashed an unprecedented wave of drug-related violence and corruption in Mexico that seriously threatened the country’s fledgling process of democratization.12
Over the decade Washington responded to the increase in drug trafficking activity along the U.S.-Mexican border by bolstering U.S. drug enforcement throughout the southwest and by pressuring Mexico City to cooperate more fully with U.S. authorities in joint drug control operations on the border and in Mexico. Although only partially successful in enlisting Mexican collaboration because of the extensive drug-related corruption in that country, by the end of the 1990s enhanced U.S.-Mexican border interdiction had begun to make significant progress in reducing the flow of Colombian cocaine and heroin across the border. U.S. and Mexican drug control efforts were given a real boost by the rift that opened up in the late 1990s between Colombian and Mexican trafficking organizations over the exorbitant size of the Mexican share of the cocaine trade. The outbreak of internecine violence among rival Mexican Mafia families, especially after the death of Juarez drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes (a.k.a. “El Senor de los Cielos”) in 1997, also contributed to declining Colombian use of Mexican routes and, thus, to greater U.S. drug enforcement success along the border.13
Once again, however, this U.S. interdiction “success” was more apparent than real. At the end of the decade there was clear evidence that the Colombian traffickers had begun to shift back to smuggling routes in the Caribbean. Increasingly, reports surfaced indicating that Colombian cocaine and heroin were transiting through the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and Puerto Rico into the United States. There was also mounting evidence of increased use of shipboard containers for cocaine smuggling into U.S. east coast ports and of a reversion to “swallowers” or “mules” traveling on commercial air transportation and cruise ships for the transport of heroin. As of late 1999 perhaps as much as 50 percent of the Colombian cocaine trade and 80 to 90 percent of the heroin traffic was routed across the Caribbean rather through Mexico. Topping the list of the most heavily used Caribbean transit countries were the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Cuba. This return to the more traditional routes was made possible, in part, by Washington’s decision earlier in the decade to transfer some U.S. Custom’s personnel from South Florida to the southwestern border, leaving the Caribbean/South Florida routes exposed once again. The severe recessions suffered by many Caribbean island economies over the latter half of the decade unquestionably made them more vulnerable to drug smuggling and related corruption as well.14
The May 1999 closure of Howard Air Base in Panama in fulfillment of Washington’s 1977 treaty obligations to return control of the Panama Canal Zone to Panama by the end of the century further reduced U.S. air surveillance capabilities over Colombian drug smuggling activity. Throughout the 1990s, the U.S. Air Force had used Howard as a base of AWAC operations to monitor the gaps not covered by the three U.S.-run ground radar stations located in southern Colombia. With the loss of Howard, drug contraband flights, especially along Colombia’s pacific coast, began to surge in late 1999. Requests from the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command to the Pentagon for surveillance flights over Central and South America and the Caribbean were satisfied only 43 percent of the time during 1999. The U.S. government negotiated rights to upgrade an air base in Manta, Ecuador, to replace Howard in 1999, but as of early February 2000 construction of the new facilities had not yet begun.15
Starting in 1998, the Colombian Air Force, like its Peruvian counterpart, began to force or shoot down suspected drug smuggling aircraft. In 1998/99, 36 planes were intercepted. Six were shot down and another 30 were destroyed after landing. In early February 2000 Colombian Defense Minister Luis Fernando Ramirez announced that the Pastrana government intended to step up its air interdiction activities over 2000 with the help of the new equipment to be provided by the Clinton administration.16

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