The 'Big Business' of Drug Smuggling

“Smuggling was not just a cottage industry, but a national industry.” – Jim Sinclair

Global cocaine sales reached $88 billion in 2008, according to a 2010 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. To put this statistic into perspective, the national budget for Colombia – the world’s leading cocaine producer – is approximately $84.9 billion. When a criminal endeavor brings in more revenue than the annual national budget of one of the most heavily involved countries from which the criminals operate, solving the problem is certainly no small task.

Like any other large-scale enterprise, however, there are certain vulnerabilities in the international cocaine trade that can be exploited. For example, there are a number of operational and business-driven practices that make it easier for illegal drug smugglers to bring illicit products into U.S. markets. Among these practices is the use of well-developed and diverse distribution networks, and effective intelligence operations, as well as the dispersal of illicit products across a much broader network of transporters and routes – all of which reduces the adverse impact of any given loss.

In order to counter these factors, U.S. law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies must become even more diligent, and more effective in: (a) uncovering intelligence penetrations; (b) intercepting a greater number of vessels and vehicles; and (c) disrupting and adversely affecting the land-based linchpin elements of the distribution networks themselves.

More Seizures, But Fewer Confiscations 

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, approximately 26 percent of the cocaine seized en route to the United States in recent years was being moved through maritime channels. In its annual summary of counternarcotic efforts, the Coast Guard also said that interceptions of smugglers and their vessels have increased substantially since 2006 – e.g., there were 43 more interceptions in 2011 than in 2006, and the numbers for 2009, in fact, were almost double those in 2006.

However, although such successes by the Coast Guard are both noteworthy and praiseworthy, in the past two years the total reported quantity – i.e., “tonnage” – of drugs seized in the recent-year interdictions was dramatically lower. In the 107 seizures made in 2011, for example, the total amount of drugs seized by the Coast Guard was nearly 136,000 pounds less than in the 64 interdictions carried out in 2006.

An optimistic view might be, of course, that the cocaine supply itself is shrinking by a similar ratio – but it seems much more likely the Coast Guard and other agencies are correct in assessing the smugglers are revising their tactics and, as the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime suggests, shipping the same quantities of drugs, or perhaps more, to a greater number of destinations and/or in somewhat smaller “packages.”

Cutouts, Dangles, and Other Pawns 

The use of “cutouts” – i.e., individuals and organizations without direct ties to the cartels and their leaders – to transport illicit drugs has become an increasingly common practice. These distributors are basically “for-hire” transporters who function independently and thereby insulate the cartels. Overall, therefore, a larger number of smugglers are in fact being employed, but smaller quantities of drugs are being shipped in any given load. This tactic mitigates the adverse effect of a single loss. Of perhaps greater importance, though, it is also a strong indication that the cartels’ distribution networks are not only large and robust, but also have the ability to sustain themselves despite the growing number of interdictions.

Even more disconcerting in many respects, though, is the drug cartels’ clever use of intelligence “dangles” and disinformation to ensure that a high percentage of the drug shipments sent out reach their intended markets. As demonstrated by the current efforts of the Obama Administration to reduce corruption by, among other tactics, rotating border patrol agents to new assignments, the drug cartels have become increasingly adept at using bribery and false information to increase their odds of success. James Tomscheck, Chief of Internal Affairs for the Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency, was quoted in the Houston Chronicle on 27 January 2012 that approximately 8,000 CBP agents – approximately one-fourth of the recruits for frontline positions with the agency – had been subjected to relatively strict pre-hire screening processes (use of the polygraph, for example).

At least in part for that reason – and despite the fact that the U.S. government is taking several other important steps to mitigate the risks – the hiring of new CBP agents who have not been subjected to the same level of screening applied to “new hires” in several other federal agencies could make it much easier for the cartels to manipulate the DHS/CBP work force.

A Long & Winding Chain of Disinformation 

The cartels also can influence interdiction efforts in several other ways – through the use of so-called “Confidential Informants” (CIs) within U.S. law-enforcement agencies, to cite but one worrisome example. The CIs can and sometimes do act as double agents, providing inside information about drug shipments – thereby building the credibility of the CI source while the nation’s law-enforcement agencies are interdicting the shipments targeted. Even credible information may not be as accurate as it seems, therefore – or as helpful. The potential always exists for manipulation. For example, a trusted informant frequently is able to provide important details about competitors’ operations – or, when the occasion warrants, about relatively smaller and less important shipments of the CI’s own products. The goal here, of course, is to keep law enforcement agencies occupied and focused on relatively small shipments elsewhere, while larger and more important shipments slip through.

By using tactics such as bribery, blackmail, and other means of coercion, drug traffickers have developed effective means of both gathering and planting information. According to a 30 January 2012 Newsweek article by Aram Roston, Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel has been providing information to the U.S. government for more than 10 years, to the cartel’s apparent benefit. The cartel’s relationship with two other DHS agencies – the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) – has, however, come under greater scrutiny in recent months. According to one of Roston’s sources, ICE agents were aware that the information being provided to U.S. officials was coming directly from the Sinaloa cartel’s senior leadership. The net effect, though, as Professor Tony Payan of the University of Texas has charged, according to Roston, is that the Sinaloa cartel has been “duping U.S. agencies into fighting [the Sinaloa cartel’s] enemies.”

Tightening the Noose; Strangling the Cartels 

In combatting the growing threat of drugs, U.S. law-enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies are faced with what in many respects is an uphill battle. The combination of a huge and apparently growing demand in the United States and a ready supply of illegal drugs from countries such as Peru, Colombia, and Mexico, makes the task of interdicting illegal substances not only mandatory, and at the same time, much more difficult. Moreover, as effective pressure is applied in one area of operations, activities in another area quickly crop up to fill the void. There seems to be general agreement that, although the federal agencies, and agents, tasked with interdicting the cross-border shipments of drugs should be commended for their efforts to date, an even greater and more diversified effort is needed to achieve the much larger, and much more sustainable, long-term impact that is required.

Counteracting the threat posed by illegal drugs is an asymmetric battle against very well-funded, and highly determined, creative and adaptive groups functioning outside the bounds of legal and ethical conduct. Reducing the drug threat to the United States, not only in the short term but far into the future, requires the development and implementation of effective policies that not only tighten the noose around the cartels “where they live” – i.e., in their home countries – but also deny them both the manpower and the materiel, financial, and logistical support resources they now possess to continue their illegal and extremely harmful activities.

Both on the ground and on the sea, reducing the threat requires having an actionable tactical picture of the enemy and its methods of operation, if only to disrupt the flow of products that fund the cartels. More specifically, what is needed are: (1) a smarter and more closely integrated use of resources and personnel; (2) the improved policies and methods of coordination required to achieve clearly defined and obtainable results across agency boundaries; and (3) adoption and use of a network-centric approach to disrupt and for practical purposes destroy the cartels themselves. Accurate predictive intelligence, high- and low-tech methods of operation and improved equipment, intensively screened and vetted personnel, and creative approaches to the problem are all keys to achieve the complete, effective, and enduring solution that must be the final goal.


For additional information on: The 2010 report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, visit

The 30 January 2012 Newsweek article, visit

James Tomscheck’s comments to the Houston Chronicle, visit

U.S. Coast Guard statistics cited in this article, visit

Lawrence O'Connell

Lawrence E. O’Connell is the Executive Vice President and Chief Operations Officer of International Maritime Security Corporation, and a 26-year veteran of the U.S. intelligence community, with special expertise in counter-insurgency and counter-terror operations.

MIchael Brewer

Michael S. Brewer is the CEO and Co-Founder of the International Maritime Security Corporation (IMSC), a service-disabled veteran-owned small business built upon the principle of protecting ships, their cargoes, and – most importantly – their crews from both piracy and terrorist threats. A former U.S. Army Special Operations soldier, he also has been, over the past 13 years, a subject matter expert on terrorism and piracy for numerous government agencies and private-sector businesses and organizations.



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