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Balloons and sausages – understanding the global drugs trade

2.27 tons of seized marijuana and cocaine are analysed and inventoried before being transferred by armed convoy to Ganthier for destruction. There, the Haitian National Police will destroy the illegal drugs with the support of the United Nations Stabiliza UN Photo/Victoria Hazou
Un secteur très mobile : des policiers haïtiens saisissent des drogues en transit
What turned Guinea Bissau and other West African countries into drug-trafficking routes to Europe more than a decade ago? Why did the drug wars move from Colombia to Mexico?

A key weapon in the arsenal of those who argue against drug prohibition policies is the “balloon effect” - the idea that if drug producers, traffickers and dealers are stopped by law enforcement agencies in one area, they will simply pop up in another place, with “no more than temporary inconvenience to the participants”, as Peter Reuter, author of The Mobility of Drug Trafficking, writes in Ending the Drug Wars, released this week by the London School of Economics’ International Drug Policy Project and the Open Society Foundations.

Trying to pinpoint cause and effect is not easy in an underground industry where many complex factors influence the intricate and ever-shifting web of drug-trafficking. All players in the illicit drugs chain risk interdiction - from crop destruction, to drug seizures, to the arrest of dealers and drug lords, who in turn depend on a host of other factors for the success of their operation, like corruptible officials, luck, and effective penetration of markets in demand countries, for example.

There may be a number of reasons why traffickers choose one country through which to ship drugs over another. Bribe costs may be higher in Costa Rica than Honduras for example, but if the likelihood of a drug bust is greater in Honduras than in Costa Rica, the latter country may be the preferred route. Cross-border family ties and connections may be just as crucial in determining shipment routes. Furthermore, although “drugs travel in the pipelines of regular commerce and traffic”, as Reuter puts it, geography is not always the determining factor. He points to the role Nigeria plays in drug-trafficking, despite the fact that the country itself is far from any of the main producer or consumer countries of cocaine or heroin. He attributes this in part to the fact that “Nigerians are highly entrepreneurial, have been misruled by corrupt governments over a long time and have large overseas populations, weak civil society, very low domestic wages and moderately good commercial links to the rest of the world.”

Immigration patterns may also have a bearing, and could explain Turkey’s role as a transit route for heroin smuggling to Western Europe: besides its relative proximity to Afghanistan, five million Turkish citizens live there.

Antilles crackdown pushed drug route to Guinea Bissau?

Reuter is cautious about paying lip service to the balloon effect but he cites the opening of drug routes in West Africa as a possible response to “a Dutch crackdown on an existing route from the Netherlands Antilles to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport” in the early 2000s, leading traffickers to find new routes into Europe.

"Prohibition is setting up a prize for anyone who can create effective ways to penetrate borders. They stand to make a lot of money. The innovations are happening at lightening pace because the price is right"
When Dutch authorities started seizing cocaine in 2003 from the Antilles - using a “substance-oriented” rather than “offender-oriented” method that led to the couriers’ passports being cancelled rather than their arrests - the detection of couriers rapidly declined. Nevertheless, cocaine continued to flow into the country in vast amounts. Then, from 2003 to 2007, five times more cocaine was seized in West Africa. The small, impoverished nation of Guinea Bissau was soon awash with cocaine, its fragile government easily corrupted by it. Ghana soon followed suite, and huge amounts of cocaine were seized from there in 2007.

“Was the opening of the West African route a response to the closing of the Netherlands Antilles smuggling channel? The time is roughly right,” Reuter writes.

Today, increased interdiction efforts in Turkey, the source of the Balkans route, have led to traffickers of opium finding new routes through East and West Africa via Pakistan and Iran, before reaching destination markets in Europe, according to a source at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. However, the “balloon effect” is not a term widely used by the organization.

The movement of drug-related violence

Daniel Mejia, director of the Research Center on Drugs and Security at the University of the Andes, Colombia, is unequivocal that the “balloon effect” explains the movement of drug-related violence from Colombia to Mexico.

In an interview he described the study Why is Strict Prohibition Collapsing? A Perspective from Producer and Transit Countries in Ending the Drug Wars (co-written by Pascual Restrepo), as “the first formal attempt to measure the so-called ballooning or displacement effects.

The experience of drug-trafficking in Latin America shows that “when a country is (locally) successful in the fight against drug production and trafficking - which is the exception rather than the rule - (drug-trafficking organizations) are displaced to other countries where they find more favorable environments to run their operations”, the authors write.

They cite recent research that shows that the 200 percent increase in the size of the illicit drug market from 1994 to 2008 in Colombia explains the 25 percent increase in the homicide rate there - roughly 3,800 more homicides annually as a direct result of drug-trafficking and efforts to stop it.

Meijia told IRIN: “We find that successful interdiction policies implemented in Colombia, starting in 2007, then displaced the cocaine trade to Mexico and Central America, increasing violence in these countries.”

The clampdown in Colombia shrank the supply of cocaine from that country by 50 percent, pushing the price of cocaine in US and international markets up by 50 percent, he said. “This increased the market rents associated with the cocaine trade and increased violence between cartels who now fight over the control of a more valuable [illegal] business.” The balloon effect may have led to a 46 percent increase in drug-related murders in Mexico, Mejia added.

Others, like Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies, are also adamant about the existence of the balloon effect or “sausage effect”, which he says is clearly in evidence at the drug cultivation side of the chain. When coca leaf plantations were eradicated in Peru and Bolivia in the 1990s, for example, cultivation simply moved to Colombia, says Tree. Plan Colombia, the wide-ranging US-backed programme to curb production and trafficking of cocaine in that country, then simply pushed cultivation back to Peru.

“Hydra effect”

He invokes another metaphor - the “hydra effect” - to explain how traffickers will innovate their way around interdiction and prohibition, growing new routes (heads) when others are chopped off. The greater the interdiction and prohibition efforts against hard drugs, the higher the prize in getting them across the Mexican border and into the hands of drug users in the US, and therefore the more creativity in evidence on the part of traffickers.

The existence of underground tunnels linking the two countries is well known, but Tree points to other innovations such as special underground tubes made with fracking drills to move drugs by means of a pneumatic process. Other means of getting drugs over the border include a range of hi-tech and low-tech methods: erecting ramps and driving trucks over the wall; making packages smaller to fit through the “four inch” gaps in the border fence; using catapults to send packages across; even utilizing submarines, Tree says.

“Prohibition is setting up a prize for anyone who can create effective ways to penetrate borders. They stand to make a lot of money. The innovations are happening at lightening pace because the price is right,” he says. “It is very difficult to crush a black market when there is high demand,” he adds. “It produces perverse side effects.” The only way out of the conundrum, he believes, is to introduce policies that many politicians perceive as counter-intuitive, such as relaxing restrictions on hard drugs to drive down prices, and focusing on decreasing demand for the drugs in the first place.

“We need honest and effective treatment, prevention and education programmes. There is no substitute for building a healthy society. When you have poverty, despair and alienation, then people are going to self-medicate.” Tree believes the low drug use rates in the Netherlands, despite liberal drug laws, can be attributed to the “strong social safety nets in place”.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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