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Nov 4, 2010 | Commentary

Drug trafficking is a global problem affecting both developed and developing countries through drug abuse, organized crime, corruption and violence. Though its reach is universal, the drug trade’s burdens are not equally shared; the harm associated with drug trafficking is particularly acute in countries whose pre-existing governance issues threaten the stability of the state. In these countries, the endless flood of drug money breeds corruption at all levels, as traffickers can pay bribes in excess of a year’s (or even a career’s) salary. In the most severe cases, organized crime groups may feel strong enough to openly confront the government through violence or subvert it through high-level corruption. In some countries, drug traffickers may even have a stake in the state. When faced with these conditions, creating effective and accountable security forces through security sector reform (SSR) represents donor governments’ main tool of intervention.

In this respect, SSR, drugs and organized crime are rightly seen as linked. However, some donor governments take the linkage a step further, approaching SSR as a foreign arm of their domestic drug enforcement policy. This approach is bad policy for three principal reasons: it distorts the design of SSR programs; may only affect supply in the short term; and is extremely expensive and inefficient as a tool for reducing domestic demand.

  1. Distorting SSR programs

Notwithstanding the general consensus of the donor community about the importance of human rights and democracy, the structure and design of SSR assistance, not surprisingly, reflects the interests of the principal donor. This is the case with the United States and the Mérida Initiative, a US$1.4 billion funding package to Mexico and several Latin American and Caribbean countries. The US State Department’s Factsheet on the initiative expressly states that:

The Mérida Initiative demonstrates the United States’ commitment to partner with governments in Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic to confront criminal organizations whose actions plague the region and spill over into the United States […] The Mérida Initiative complements U.S. domestic efforts to reduce drug demand, stop the flow of arms and weapons, and confront gangs and criminal organizations.

When SSR is seen as a tool to alleviate a particular problem, rather than a holistic process spanning the entire security and justice sector, it causes distortions in funding and attention that undermine the process.[1] This instrumental conception of SSR leads to several different types of distortion:

  • Funding: The Mérida Initiative’s funding is disproportionately weighted towards counternarcotics, counterterrorism and border security efforts, which received US$306.3 million in funding in 2008 and US$238.3 million in 2009; this is compared to US$56.1 million in 2008 and US$158.5 million in 2009 for public security and law enforcement. The counternarcotics and counterterrorism funding is also heavily weighted towards military hardware, including eight Bell 412 transport helicopters, costing US208.3 million (Cook et al, 2008: 4).
  • Time-Frames: Donor states’ desire for tangible results from SSR interventions can distort the process by favouring projects that promise immediate results over those that may take years to develop. The result of this is often the militarization of the process and an emphasis on training and equipping security forces. These “hard” elements of SSR are often more quantifiable and therefore easier to link directly to the desired donor country outcomes. These kinds of interventions may, in fact, deliver short-term results while at the same time undermining long-term programming.
  • Militarization: Mexico’s reliance on the military to confront the drug cartels—including the deployment of more than 40,000 soldiers to perform policing duties—was brought on by the extensive infiltration of the police forces by the drug cartels. However, this solution carries with it other problems, such as the military’s implication in widespread human rights abuses, and the inability or unwillingness of military tribunals to bring perpetrators to justice. In 2008, Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission received over 1,200 complaints of military human rights abuses (Beittel, 2009: 14).A Human Rights Watch report outlines that in the over 70 cases they documented of serious abuse by military personnel, not a single one of the military investigations has resulted in a conviction. Mexican citizens’ mistrust of their security forces may have lingering long-term consequences.
  • Benchmarks for Success: When donor states try to establish a direct link between SSR programs and domestic security, they can rely on the wrong kinds of benchmarks for success. For instance, the volume of drugs crossing the border may be the highest priority of the donor state while being of limited importance in determining the overall success of an SSR intervention. Less measurable (but more vital) problems like corruption and poor oversight typically receive far less funding and attention.

2. Success May be Short-Lived

US interventions in Colombia (Plan Colombia) and Mexico (the Mérida Initiative) are largely motivated by a desire to address drug abuse and drug-related crime in America by reducing the area under coca cultivation in Colombia and limiting the ability of Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to export cocaine to the US market. Evidence of the success of these interventions is mixed, and seems to indicate that international interventions can reduce drug supply—though with a few serious caveats.

Colombia, which has undertaken massive, US-funded eradication and SSR programs, has seen a dramatic reduction in the area under coca cultivation: according to the UNODC 2010 World Drug Report, the area under cultivation decreased by 58 percent between 2000 and 2009. The drastic reduction in cocaine seizures in the US , combined with data on rising cocaine prices (US$95 in 2006 to US$174 in 2009) and decreasing purity (68.1 percent in 2006 to 46.2 percent in 2009) (see US DOJ, 2010), illustates the sharp decline of the drug’s availability in the US market between 2006 and 2010.

However, it remains to be seen if these supply-side distortions will be short-lived. As Colombia was reining in coca cultivation, it was expanding in Peru—up by 38 percent—and exploding in Bolivia—up 112 percent (see UNODC, 2010: 16). This phenomenon has been called the “balloon effect” (squeeze one part of a balloon and it bulges elsewhere) or, in other words, drug eradication in one area will increase the market price of the drug, which will in turn stimulate cultivation elsewhere.[2] Whether the US market’s long-term equilibrium will be higher prices and lower purity will depend on whether or not other coca producers expand production.

3. International intervention is expensive, inefficient

The interventionist view of international drug trafficking fails to adequately account for the demand side of the equation. Fundamentally, the interventionist assumption is that as long as there is a steady supply of drugs, people will be unable to resist consuming them—in other words, as long as there is supply, demand will follow. This is demonstrably untrue, considering that many large-scale drug-transiting countries (Bosnia-Herzegovina and Guatemala, for instance), have relatively low rates of drug addiction, despite the very high quantity of illicit drugs passing through their borders. A better way to look at the issue is that traffickers will continue to supply the market for drugs as long as the demand (and price) remains high—where there is demand, someone will find a way to meet the supply.

One of the primary goals of domestic and international drug policy is to reduce the number of people abusing drugs in a given country. A study from the RAND Corporation indicates that international interventions are the costliest way to achieve this goal (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Cost of Decreasing Cocaine Consumption by 1 Percent with Alternative Cocaine-Control Programs, in US$ millions[3]

Source: Rydell, C. Peter and Susan S. Everingham (1994).

Part of the reason for this is that international interventions only affect the supply side of the market, relying on price increases to influence demand.  This is not to say that these approaches will have no effect on drug demand—a variety of studies indicate that demand for cocaine falls when the price rises.[4] However, this money could be better spent elsewhere. The best policy would focus more resources on reducing domestic demand for drugs directly as well as attempting to limit supply.

Focus on SSR, Domestic Drug Goals Separately

A “joined-up,” integrated or “whole-of-government” approach to addressing international problems has become the accepted best practice in Western countries.  A whole-of-government approach to the problem of drug abuse and drug-related criminality should place more emphasis on domestic interventions, in particular those based on health rather than law enforcement. The securitization of drug issues distorts whole-of-government approaches by circumscribing government agencies which should be more directly involved. Drug policy is a clear case where health departments should play a more active role.

Corrections agencies are another critical player in domestic drug policy. There is no group at more risk to abuse drugs than currently incarcerated drug users, yet in the US this population has not received consistent drug treatment. At the same time that the US was funding multi-billion dollar programs in Colombia and Mexico, “Of the 64.5 percent of prison and jail inmates who met clinical diagnostic criteria for a substance use disorder in 2006, only 11.2 percent had received any type of professional treatment since admission” (see Columbia, 2010). The neglect of this vulnerable population is short-sighted, considering that 51 percent of inmates were under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of their offense, and that at least 95 percent of those currently incarcerated will eventually be released (see American Correctional Association, 2010).


Drug trafficking organizations thrive in areas where insecurity reigns. Without doubt, interdiction and law enforcement have a role of play in confronting drug traffickers in the short term. In vulnerable countries, the narcotics industry is intertwined with criminality, corruption and poor governance. Accordingly, over the long term, SSR programs are a vital part of the solution. Reducing the scope of SSR programs to counter-narcotics and border security, however, can lead to long-term imbalances in funding and attention that undermine the wider reform process.

Likewise, while it would be wrong to suggest that donor countries ignore their domestic security interests in pursuing SSR, they should avoid falling prey to short-term planning and a reliance on quantifiable domestic security benefits. At the same time, donor governments must recognize the role of domestic drug demand in the global drug trade and utilize ministries—like health and corrections—that can more directly address the problem.

Works Cited

American Correctional Association (2010). Government and Public Affairs: Offender Population. Available at: https://www.aca.org/government/population.asp

Beittel, June S. (2009). Mexico’s Drug-Related Violence. Washington: Congressional Research Service.

Caulkins, J. P. (1995). Estimating elasticities of demand for cocaine and heroin with data from the Drug Use Forecasting system (Working paper 95-13). Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Mellon University, School of Urban and Public Affairs.

Columbia University (2010). “Behind Bars II: Substance Abuse and America’s Prison Population.” The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Available at: http://www.casacolumbia.org/articlefiles/575-report2010behindbars2.pdf

Cook, Colleen W., Rebecca G. Rush and Clare Ribando Seelke (2008). Mérida Initiative: Proposed US Anticrime and Counterdrug Assistance for Mexico and Central America. 18 March. Washington: Congressional Research Service. Available at: http://fpc.state.gov/documents/organization/103694.pdf

Rydell, C. Peter  and Susan S. Everingham (1994). Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs: Summary. RAND.

UN Office on Drugs and Crime (2010). World Drug Report. Available at: http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/WDR-2010.html

US Department of Justice, National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC), (2001, 2004, 2007). Canada-US Cross Border Threat Assessment. Available at: http://www.publicsafety.gc.ca/prg/le/bs/uscabdta-eng.aspx

US Department of Justice (2010). National Drug Threat Assessment 2010. February. Available at: http://www.justice.gov/ndic/pubs38/38661/index.htm


[1] The same process has occurred in Afghanistan, which shares many of the same characteristics as Mexico, though the focus of international donors was on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency rather than counternarcotics.

[2] It is important to remember that while Colombia has long been a transit country for cocaine, its position as the world’s top cultivator came about only after US-sponsored coca eradication programs in Peru and Bolivia.

[3] Note: According to the authors of this study, the different tactics are defined as follows: “Source-country control: coca leaf eradication; seizures of coca base, cocaine paste, and the final cocaine product in the source countries (primarily Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia). Interdiction: cocaine seizures and asset seizures by the U.S Customs Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Army, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).  Domestic enforcement: cocaine seizures, asset seizures, and arrests of drug dealers and their agents by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies; imprisonment of convicted drug dealers and their agents. Treatment of heavy users:outpatient and residential treatment programs” (Rydell and Everingham, 1994).

[4] One researcher estimated that the demand elasticity was -2.5—meaning that a 2.5 percent increase in cocaine price produced a 1 percent decrease in demand (Caulkins, 1995). However, these figures ignore the fact that there may be a high degree of substitution for other drugs. It is naïve to assume that heavy cocaine users will be choosing between cocaine and sobriety when faced with higher than normal prices.