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Veen, Hans T. van der (1999), The international drug complex. Amsterdam: Centre for Drug Research, Universiteit van Amsterdam. Revised in August 2000.
© Copyright 1999, 2000 Hans T. van der Veen. All rights reserved.


The international drug complex

When the visible hand of crime fractures the strong arm of the law. Understanding the intertwined dynamics of international crime, law enforcement and the flourishing drug economy

Hans T. van der Veen


Crime and law enforcement in the 'new world order'
The drug industry
The political-economy of drug law enforcement
The International Drug Complex


The 'War on Drugs' is lost, but the struggle continues. In spite of ever increasing resources dedicated to the reduction of supply and demand of illicit drugs, consumption levels are still rising all over the world. The drug industry is probably the largest and most profitable sector of international crime. The perceived threats of drug consumption and organized crime provide the main justifications for important impulses given in recent years to the development of legislation and the organization of law enforcement. Drug repression thereby increasingly acquires an international character. Unilateral, bilateral and multilateral forms of pressure, intervention and collaboration are proliferating between states in the name of suffocating the ever-swelling drug economy. The prohibition regime is thereby, in a rapid pace, extended with the coercive powers of states to intervene in national and international drug markets, but therewith also in the sovereignty of individuals, peoples and countries.

Just as individuals might get addicted to the use of drugs, so the societies in which they live are becoming addicted to the money that is generated in the drug business (OGD 1995: xiii). This seems to be equally true for the agencies that are assigned the task to control it.

The drug war can not be won, at least by the state, as long as demand for illicit drugs exists. Instead of keeping drug trafficking and organized crime in check, supply repression is likely to increase the profits of illegal entrepreneurs and to give incentives to the professionalization of their organizations. Repression induced scarcity inflates the price of the merchandise; consequently more people will be attracted to take the risk and enter the business. When governments enhance their efforts to repress the drug industry, remaining drug entrepreneurs will reorganize their activities so as to limit the risk of detection and prosecution.

Supply reduction therefore seems a dead end strategy, as it is likely to produce little but counterproductive effects on the supply of illicit drugs and on the organizational strength of the trafficker networks that it attacks. There are, nevertheless, many other regulative functions for the police and other state agencies that might merit their intervention in controlling the problems related to drug trafficking/ distribution and drug use. Such problems are basically related to issues of public health and public order. Ultimately, policies aimed at supply reduction must -at least in accordance with official policy goals- be judged by how they affect consumer demand; through the decreased availability of drugs, through an increase in price or through the deterrent effect of the criminal law (UNDCP 1997: 237). This picture is rather bleak. Over the last decade worldwide production of illicit drugs has expanded dramatically. Opium and marijuana production has roughly doubled, and coca production tripled (Perl 1994: ix). New synthetic drugs find a burgeoning demand in countries all over the world. Nonetheless, what is discussed in the relevant international fora is not so much if drug policies are one the right track, but how more powers and resources can be assigned to law enforcement agencies to suppress the drug trade. Thereby the prohibition regime is extending its scope towards the financial sector (money laundering), new drugs, the chemical precursor industry and the disruption of organized crime. Moreover, it is increasingly extending its scope across borders.

In public policy debates, human rights and anti-war on drugs perspectives stand opposed to the belief that only by the strengthening of domestic and international legal instruments the necessary conditions for the democratization of society can be brought about (Dorn, Jepsen, and Savona 1996: 4). As proponents of legalization and those of intensified law enforcement vie with one another in the media and political arenas, the two worlds of crime and law enforcement are increasing their grip on society. Both are extending the scope of their activities, professionalize and internationalize their operations. Moreover, they seem to find support in the existence of one another.

To understand the perverse dynamics of both the booming drug industry and of proliferating state powers to control it, it is my contention that more attention should be given to the political and economic interests related to both the drug economy and its control. Equally, the intertwined symbiotic and systemic interactions of the upper and the underworld, which take shape in the international political economy, need to be more closely scrutinized.

Why people produce, traffic and consume drugs are very complex issues. Money and the power (poverty and marginalization) that goes with it account for trafficking and much production. But other answers that explain the flourishing of the drug economy must be found in society. These relate to how a society is structured, how political power is accrued and wielded within it, how economic policy is applied, how the economy performs, and how resistant the cultural fabric is to the use of public office for private gain (Tullis 1991: 2). To understand the policy options and policy choices of governments we have to consider these factors as well.

Dealing with these drug-related interests, and the multifarious and interdependent dimensions of the drug problem, poses governments with very complex policy choices. Difficult as the management of these interests in the domestic domain may be, with the internationalization of both the drug economy and drug law enforcement this task confronts governments with far greater difficulties. No matter how good the intentions of drug law enforcement may be, no matter how valuable their outcomes are, they are unlikely to curb the expansion of the drug industry.

It is to this spiraling escalation between two power contenders on different sides of the law that I want to draw attention in this article. My quest is to understand how this failure is produced, why this policy is continued and what its consequences are. Thereby I mainly try to explain the escalation of the drug war and understand its underlying dynamics as deriving from structural changes in the global political economy. I thus look at the drug war as a response to the problems states face in dealing with the loss of their authority in a globalizing world. Thereby I focus on the political and economic stakes of drug trafficking and drug control, and analyze the flourishing of both the drug industry and the crime control industry as forms of projecting power and imposing social discipline, and as mechanisms of wealth accumulation, more adapted to the exigencies of the pursuit of power and plenty in the 'new world order'. My core point is that misguided assumptions and the instrumentalization of the War on Drugs - both in the domestic and the international domain - subvert the goals of the prohibition regime and produce not only unintended, but also intended consequences, that explain for its escalation.

By what I label an -as yet incipient- theory of the International Drugs Complex, I hope to offer a deeper understanding of the mutual dynamics of the expanding drug industry and the extension of repressive state powers, and provide further insights in the looming and actual dangers posed by these forces for the democratization of societies.

The theoretical concept of the International Drugs Complex is chosen in analogy with the theory of the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC), that was broadly used to explain the longevity of the Cold War, the spiraling arms race, the persistence of ideological antagonisms, 'perverted' priorities in state budgets and interventionist proclivities of big power's foreign policies (Rosen 1973: 1). To explain the dynamics underlying these societal events and tendencies, the theory of the MIC focused specifically on relations between the military establishment and the weapons industry, that -within the social, economic and institutional fabric of specific countries- together formed a community of interest powerful enough to lead to such outcomes. Apart from analyzing such symbiotic relations between different actors with common and interrelated interests (special interest groups seeking special attention from the government), the theory of the MIC also focused on more systemic factors that lead to the growth of both the arms industry and the military services. Such systemic factors, the theory asserted, exist both within a specific society and in the international arena. In the domestic domain, even where there was no structure of interest mediation between a confederation of business firms and military services, and where the goals of the MIC were merely achieved through innumerable and basically unrelated decisions, still the outcomes of these decisions taken in the pursuit of perceived self-interests led to the growth of both sectors. In the international arena, the theorists of the MIC perceived different, nationally bound, Military-Industrial Complexes to mutually support each other, as the alleged achievements of one party in the Cold War urged the other on to greater heights.

In a similar way, in this paper, I try to understand the underlying dynamics of the War on Drugs, by focusing on the symbiotic and systemic relations between the drug industry and states' drug control efforts, and from there develop a theory of the International Drugs Complex. This theory should help to explain for the continuation -if not escalation- of the War on Drugs, explain the predominant place the drug issue has attained in domestic and international policies of many states, and provide a deeper understanding of the very dynamics of the drug industry and of the state powers put in place to control it.

I depart from the assumption that by focusing on the political and economic dimensions of the drug industry and drug law enforcement, a more profound understanding can be achieved of the dynamics underlying their mutual expansion. I place the drug industry and law enforcement within the context of both the societies and the international political economy in which they take shape, and thereby try to delineate their interactions and mutual dynamics. To assess the outcomes of their mutual interactions I focus on the distributional consequences of these interactions within and between societies; stating these - intended and unintended -consequences in terms of the distribution of power, wealth and security in both the domestic and the international realm.

Below I develop three closely related themes, through which I aim to illuminate the intertwined dynamics of the drug industry and law enforcement practices, and so provide the building blocks for a theory of the International Drugs Complex:

  1. The global drug industry; in which I focus on the international division of labor in the drugs business, and on how states' laws and drug control practices might impinge on the industries organizational structures and the distribution of reward;
  2. The political-economy of drug law enforcement; in which I focus on the trade-offs between drug repression and broader policy goals of states in domestic and international arenas, and on the mechanisms through which the intertwined dynamics of the forces of crime and punishment influence the distribution of power, wealth and security within and between societies;
  3. The International Drugs Complex; in which I assess the underlying dynamics of the interactions between the drug industry and drug enforcement practices, and argue that the War on Drugs is driven by similar collusive and systemic mechanisms as those that spurred the Cold War, with possibly no less detrimental consequences for the relations between states and their societies.

As my focus is specifically on the international dimension of the interactions between the drug industry and law enforcement practices, in the next section I first clarify some of the dominant changes in the international political economy that I see as the necessary background for understanding the escalation of their mutual dynamics.

Crime and law enforcement in the 'new world order'

The internationalization of both crime and law enforcement and therefore also their mutual dynamics are closely related to the changes in the world system, brought about by the end of the Cold War, globalization, regional integration and neo-liberal reforms. The transformations these developments and processes gave rise to are manifold. They produced new patterns of hierarchy and dominance in the international system and changed the role of the state in this system. Therewith we see new forms of sovereignty (e.g. economic, multilateral, multinational) and changes in the relations between economic and political systems (e.g. deregulation, informalization, corruption). These changes in the world political and economic system also lead to a diminished separation between the domestic and the international frameworks for policy making and the management of economic affairs (Cherny 1995, Rosenau 1992). With these developments the very basis of the accumulation of power and wealth, and the use of these resources for their protection take unprecedented shapes. This is equally true for the forces that try to redistribute these political and economic resources.

Globalization leads thus to a much more fragmented competition for the sources of power and wealth, in which non-state actors play an increasingly important role. In this context the internationalization of crime and law enforcement takes place. In this context their interactions take shape. It is also in this context that they influence the international political economy, and therewith the distribution of power, wealth and security in the international system.

Globalization, defined as the intensification of economic, political, social and cultural relations across borders, has to a large extent been facilitated by technological developments, and has further been sustained by economic and political decisions to give international exchanges free-way. Together with the partial liberalization of global markets, globalization has offered increasing opportunities for the unfettered flow of capital, goods, people and information over the globe. The concomitant increase in the power of market forces and the impact of neo-liberal reforms has debilitated states' capabilities or willingness to regulate and control these flows. With the fall of the Berlin wall, this globalization, uneven as it may be, is gaining truly global dimensions.

Paradoxically, together with the further integration of the world society, these developments have also brought about disintegrative forces, which, combined with new technological capabilities, offer unprecedented opportunities for the expansion of transnational criminal enterprises. The political turmoil and poverty that came with these changes in the international political economy offer a virulent breeding ground for the drug industry, as increasingly people seek and find in it a way to alleviate economic distress and/ or fund their nationalist struggle through criminal enterprise (e.g. both sides in Turkey-Kurdistan, Chechnya, Kosovo).

Globalization has also fostered the expansion of networks and illegal transactions over the globe. Migratory Diasporas link relatively poor drug producing countries to consumer markets with far greater spending power. Financial technology makes it easier to hide the proceeds of crime, and increasing trade in general is likely to enhance the opportunities for smuggling and fraud.

Some criminal entrepreneurs, in more organized forms, like transnational enterprises, extent their transnational operations; and the degree to which their authority in world society and in the world economy rivals and encroaches upon that of governments (Strange 1996: 110). "Mafias", like the Italian Ndragheta and Camorra, the American Cosa Nostra, Colombian drug "cartels", Chinese and Hong Kong Triads, the Japanese Yakuza and, more recently, many -more or less nationally or ethnically based- organizations from former Eastern bloc countries, are only the most commonly known examples of criminal networks extending their activities over the globe. Amongst each other they either compete for markets or establish ways to co-operate in their activities. Drugs may or may not be their most lucrative product, as they engage in many other legal and illegal activities (arms trafficking, prostitution, extortion etc.) that often have a much longer record of proven profitability. These activities not only offer them fast profits, but also the means to exert political power.

Organizing their resources helps some drug entrepreneurs to establish a power structure to protect themselves, to challenge the authority of states in specific areas, or even to supplant or penetrate the power of élites controlling a state. Such developments ultimately also may endanger other sectors of society and the social body in general, where progressively the rule of law and formally regulated relations between states, markets and societies give way to informal arrangements, corruption, violence, and intimidation.

Such consequences might, however, be brought about more by the fact that their activities are illegal, than that their organizations are criminal. More than the leverage power that organized crime can attain, it is their untouchability -that comes with the internationalization of their activities- that makes them such a threat to a state's authority. Furthermore, the illegal or ambivalent legal status of production and transactions in the drug industry severely hamper the regulation of the sector through social organization, institutions and administrative laws, that -as in most legal sectors- could secure the embeddedness of social actors in society, the protection of property rights, labor conditions, product quality and the arbitration of conflicts emanating in all market operations. It is my assertion that where drug entrepreneurial networks cannot be incorporated in local or national political and economic arrangements, their impact on society becomes much more detrimental; a situation that is only worsened as the state increasingly resorts to criminalization and repressive means to control their activities.

In this context we can see a seemingly contradictory increase in both the importance of specific criminal or criminalized activities and in the coercive powers of states (police, military, custom agencies, fiscal and intelligence apparatuses).

Since the end of the Cold War, the 'peace dividend' has to a large extend been absorbed by assigning new tasks to coercive state agencies. In many countries this was given shape by a raise in expenditure for internal coercion, whereas the cost of defense are increasingly legitimized by the proclaimed need to counter new external threats. In this process, especially police forces have increased their size, their resources and their legal powers. In many countries also the military has been given tasks in drug repression. The United States in the 1980s and 1990s sufficiently amended the Posse Comitatus Act, that since 1878 had prevented military involvement in civil law enforcement, to engage in drug law enforcement at home and abroad (Bagley 1992: 130, Drug war facts). But also the Dutch, British and French navies are patrolling the Caribbean to interdict drug shipments. In many of the countries where the military has always been more important to suppress internal dissent than to ward off foreign enemies, their involvement in drug control dates back much earlier.

Globalization and liberalization, thus, go hand in hand with new efforts directed at the control and regulation of markets, institutions and societies, notably those related to illegal drugs and migration, and to a lesser extent those controlling capital flows (Andreas 1995). Some of these control mechanisms lay in the remit of state agencies. There is however also a tendency to hive off part of control responsibilities to other levels of political authority as well as to the private sector (Johnston 1992). Most striking may be a shift from the use of administrative law to criminal law for the maintenance of order in society and the preservation of national security in general. Internal and external security concerns, so, become increasingly blurred, and therewith the tasks assigned to coercive state agencies to protect the sovereignty of the state.

The challenges to national sovereignty, posed by the consequences of globalization, have led many governments to believe that the traditional system for the organization of criminal justice policy - the system of individual states - no longer suffices to deal with new problems of international crime (Anderson et al. 1995: 40).

Extending and internationalizing state powers, political pressures and foreign interventions in a state's sovereignty, and a growing share of populations jailed on drug related charges, however, led many people to perceive law enforcement itself as a threat to liberal society. Out of the roughly one million people serving jail terms in the United States State Prisons, about 59,9% are casual and non-violent drug offenders (Akiba 1997: 607).[2] Many more are in Federal, County and other prisons. Their total reached 2 million in April 2000. In the United States of every 100.000 inhabitants 641 are in jail, in the Netherlands, to date, this is 'only' 65 (Belenko 1998). The 'Americanization' of the war on drugs is, however, also taking shape in Europe and other countries, most substantially in Latin America. International Conventions, Mutual Assistance Treaties, and - in the European case - institutional mechanisms set up under the three pillars of the European integration process, combine with vastly expanding informal networks among police agencies, intended to intensify the suppression of the drug scourge (Sheptycki 1996).

In most European countries the judiciary has been responsive to the demand and practice of drug law officials to codify in law the investigative techniques and penal power that constitute the tool kit of their American colleagues. Undercover operations, "controlled delivery" of illicit drug consignments, "buy and bust" tactics, non-telephonic electronic surveillance, and reduced charges or immunity for informants are now standard operating procedures in many countries' drug and crime investigations. Definitions of crime are also broadened, so as to include forms of 'criminal conspiracy', membership of an organized crime organization etc. And also new and more severe forms of punishment have become part of the accouterment of law enforcement to tackle crime. The promotion and enforcement of drug prohibition laws have played a central role in this development (Nadelman 1998). Not only the liberty, but also property of drug offenders is increasingly targeted. Asset forfeiture took a great leap in the US during the 1980s, and is now experimented with in Europe. A multitude of police agencies is furthermore expanding their extraterritorial presence and activities. And also military forces and intelligence agencies assume increasingly international criminal law enforcement tasks.

The drug war - as a core element in the expansion and institutionalization of new coercive state powers - expands the scope of the policing power of states from the domestic to the international domain. To some extent, this tendency reflects a burgeoning of domestic and transnational criminal and criminalised activity. But the relation between crime and repression is, as I will argue, a much more dramatic one, where one often breeds the other, and where the activities of criminals become increasingly difficult to distinguish from those of their counterparts on the other side of the law.

Important changes in the international political and economic system that accelerated in the last decade or two have offered unprecedented opportunities for legal and illegal trade, and for the redistribution of power and wealth. These developments incite states, or the élites controlling a state, to look for new ways to accumulate such resources, to control their societies, and manage the interface with the outside world. Liberalizing some activities thereby seems to go in par with the criminalization of others. The 'War on Drugs' is becoming one of the main legitimization venues for states to enhance their capacity to intervene, both in the national and in the international domain.

In the next sections I turn to how political and economic interests, and interactions between the illegal drug industry and state drug control practices shape the dynamics and outcomes of the 'War on Drugs'.

The Drug Industry

Drug trafficking is to a large extent a transnational business. The drug industry consists of various stages: cultivation, refining, transport, distribution, money laundering and investment of proceeds. In every stage of this drug trajectory, from production to distribution, profits are made that are consumed or invested but often demand some form of laundering to conceal their illegal origins.

From the marihuana, coca and poppy fields to the refining laboratories and further on to the consumers, the drugs pass through many different routes of transport and distribution. They thereby cross many territorial frontiers, formal and informal jurisdictions. More sophisticated laundering techniques, equally, use an elaborate international network of financial institutions, trade and investment firms to hide and invest the drug profits. The various stages of the drug trajectory and the linking of these stages involve the participation and sometimes organization of a great many different people, to see to the proper execution of activities, including the protection against encroachment by law enforcement agencies and competitors.

The transnational dimension of the drug industry therefore is not only a function of the territorial distance between major production and consumption regions. It also consists of the links that are made through networks and organizations with diverse homebases that sometimes develop transnational operations. Thereby differences in countries' legal codes and law enforcement capabilities shape the opportunities for drug entrepreneurs to evade the risks of interdiction and prosecution and prop the flourishing of their business.

The variety of laws and systems of control and criminalization throughout the world, and the disparities in ability and determination to control the drug problem displayed by various countries, enable major drug traffickers to take advantage of the weak points in such a patchwork' (Van der Vaeren 1995: 350).

We might, however, as well reverse this perspective, which than would suggest that a state's political and/ or economic interests demand it to create 'weak points' or shield niches in which one or more of the stages of the drug trajectory can flourish (like coffee shops, bank secrecy, self regulating stock markets etc.).[3]

Such features explain for the existence of a very dynamic international division of labor in the drug industry. Production centers for 'natural' drugs (marihuana, coca, opium) and their derivatives can particularly be found in the 'Golden Triangle' of South East Asia, the 'Golden Crescent' in West Asia, in some Middle East and Maghreb countries and in Latin America. These regions compete increasingly with each other, with emerging production areas in former Eastern Bloc countries and with producers in the western world, where synthetic drugs (XTC, amphetamines) are produced. To this list can be added many other countries where drug entrepreneurs try to conquer a niche in national and international drug markets. Some of these have an important transit function for drugs heading to the most lucrative consumer markets in the United States and Europe. Others find a gainful role in the laundering and investment of drug profits, thanks to 'liberal' banking regulations (secrecy, confidentiality and financial investment tools). We thus deal with a very heterogeneous competition, where different drugs, different drug entrepreneurs/ trafficking groups and diverse jurisdictions compete for market shares in many if not all of the subsequent stages of the drug trajectory.

According to a recent estimate of the UNDCP, total revenue accruing to the illicit drug industry is equivalent to about 8% of total international trade (UNDCP 1997).[4] Its estimated annual turnover of $400 billion constitutes a large share of the income from illegal activities worldwide, which the UN believes to be $1000 billion. But how to assess such data? Reminiscent of very distinct calculations like the global accumulated production of razorblades; when laid next to each other, said to be enough to cover the surface of the earth, we see that what matters more than aggregate numbers is the distribution of such profits, their rents in terms of power and wealth, and their overall impact on societies.

The drug industry does constitute the backbone of many national and local economies, directly and indirectly offering income and employment opportunities for millions of people around the globe. They serve the demand of many more.

Countries like Bolivia, Morocco, Mexico, and Afghanistan derive incomes from this industry that pairs with their formal export income. Morocco earns an estimated $5,75 billion, 20% of its GNP from the production and export of cannabis and hashish (Ouazzani 1996: 122), supplying the lions share of Europe's demand for these products. The Mexican drug economy, based chiefly on the export of homegrown marihuana and poppy derivatives, and the transit of Colombian cocaine to the United States, is valued at more than $20 billion. Important as contributions of this illicit enterprise may be to overall income and employment levels, the real impact should be measured from its effect on the economy at large, the distribution of its proceeds, and the social costs in terms of health, safety, political transparency etc.[5]

Such aggregate data for developing countries, estimative and fluctuating as they are, as an indication of the wealth and power that might be derived from criminal sources, pail by the late-1980s consumer expenditures on illicit drugs in the United States alone. These likely exceeded the total gross domestic product of eighty-eight different countries (cited in Tullis 1995: 2, 80 countries in Akiba 1997). This tells us that probably the greater part of drug turnovers never leaves the main consumption countries, as they are likely to offer the most lucrative investment opportunities.

To assess the economic power and political influence of drug entrepreneurs, and therewith the strategies that states adopt to intervene in drug markets, it is paramount to know how these criminal markets are organized, how drug entrepreneurs confront or collide with the legislation and political economy of their countries of origin, and what is the scope of activities of actors involved.

The organization of the drug trajectory involves the linking of the different stages of the drug industry. In spite of much police rhetoric, our knowledge is not very conclusive about the extend of horizontal or vertical integration of the drug trajectory. Are we dealing with organized crime or with disorganized crime?[6]

Such organizational characteristics to a large extent determine the distribution and accumulation of wealth derived from the drug industry. As the lions share of for instance cocaine profits is made in American cities, it makes an enormous difference to Colombian traffickers if they can control the upstream gold mine of the retail part of the drug trajectory, or if they have to content themselves with the wholesale profits they can make through transactions in Colombia, Mexico or in the United States. Wholesale profits may still be considerable but rather insignificant compared to the turnover made at the retail end.[7] It is clear that law enforcement can play a role in disrupting the drug trajectory, and doing so, can bring about important shifts in the distribution of drug profits. This not only by taking people out, and so creating market space for new entrants (which can be individual entrepreneurs, institutions or whole regions), but also by increasing the cost of maintaining links in the drug trajectory.[8]

Drug repression drives up the prices and so gives an enormous impulse to the profitability of the product and the services rendered to the drug industry. Drug entrepreneurs, be they poppy growing farmers in Pakistan, transport companies in Turkey, or laundering exchange offices in the Netherlands, have to protect themselves against prosecution by police forces, and against competitors. The costs to decentralize production, bribe state officials, hire protection, create well-camouflaged transport facilities, or convince bankers to take a certain risk, increase with the intensity of repression. Repression of the drug trade thus not only contributes to the growth of the drug economy, but also incites a redistribution of the income from the trade.

Taking this competition in the drug business and the effects of state intervention on the division of labor in the drug industry as a starting point, I now focus on the mechanisms through which the interactions between states' drug enforcement practices and the drug industry become part of more general efforts in the national and international domain to redistribute power, wealth and security.

The Political-Economy of Drug Law Enforcement

The growth of the drug industry and concomitant real or perceived threats to states' authority gave an important impulse to the development of law and the organization of crime control. Since the beginning of this century, starting with the Shanghai Conference in 1909, step by step a global prohibition regime was created, sanctioning the production, dealing, and trafficking of psychotropic substances.[9] Almost every country in the world, by ratifying international treaties, obliged itself to adapt its national laws in accordance with these treaties, and thereby to suppress the now illegal drug business. The responsibility for control and furthering the design of the regime came to fall on the United Nations in 1946.[10] This regime is still under construction, targeting new drugs and expanding its organizational structure. It encompasses multinational organizations, state bureaucracies, banks, medical institutions and morality. Thereby a regulatory framework is established, comparable to the non-proliferation regime for nuclear weaponry. In the evolution of this international regime, individual states attained a high degree of world-wide uniformity and mutual tuning in the regulation of one category of intoxicating, mind bending, substances (Gerritsen 1993: 75).

There exists a formal global prohibition regime, but to date there is no global criminal justice system to meet the challenge of drug trafficking and globalized crime. Although formal regime control and design are with the United Nations, execution and dedication of control efforts are in the hand of governments and state agencies of individual nation-states.

In spite of formal compliance to the predispositions of the prohibition regime, in practice, the strategies and tactics for its enforcement are broadly disputed. Historically the conception of the 'drug problem' has been subject to dramatic transformations. Fiscal, balance of payments, civic security, public health, social welfare and moral considerations can be found as determining the main diagnosis of the problem. Within and between societies the conception of the problem and the discourses guiding government intervention in the drug industry vary widely, over time and in geographic space. The multi-dimensionality of the drug problem makes it a very complex policy field. With prohibition in place, repression still is no panacea.

It was only after their dependencies gained autonomy that the major European powers dissolved their colonial monopolies on the opium trade. Prohibition also met with fierce resistance from the pharmaceutical industries in Germany, Japan and Switzerland. State interests in the preparation for war, in which the secured supply of anesthetics plays an important role, often shielded these companies. Coaxing governments into compliance with prohibition has been, and still is, an arduous process.

From the beginning it has been the United States to take the lead in building the prohibition regime. Especially since the 1980s, unilateral, bilateral and multilateral forms of pressure, intervention and collaboration are proliferating to force governments to comply with prohibition and to stifle the growth of the drug economy. Conditional development aid, extradition treaties (so called International Mutual Legal Assistance Treaties), new types of financial policing to 'chase the money' around the international banking system, financing and advising foreign military and police, political pressure and even outright military intervention count among the plethora of instruments applied in the relations between states in this war on drugs. In the process, institutional structures (e.g. Interpol, Europol, and UNDCP) are strengthened to intensify international cooperation. Besides that, many informal structures have developed between police, military and intelligence agencies (see Anderson et al. 1995, Anderson and den Boer 1994, Benyon et al. 1994, Fijnout 1993, Marshall 1991). Many of these are not new. Before the end of the Cold War, countries like France and the United States had extensive programs for the assistance of foreign military and police forces (Fijnout 1993, Marshall 1991). Nowadays, however, such programs are legitimized by the supposed need to strengthen other state's capabilities to fight the drug industry. Since the mid 1980s, through the process of European integration, also the European Union is asserting itself as a major player in the field.

The internationalizing powers to enforce the prohibition regime are largely legitimized and rationalized by interdependencies that derive from the global division of labor in the illegal drug industry and the concomitant problems this presents to individual states to control the drug industry. But forthcoming interdependency does not necessarily mean greater integration (collaboration and harmonization). Interdependency can possibly also mean 'dependency', 'exploitation', 'free riding' and 'conflict' (Bühl 1995: 123). International law enforcement instruments, are unevenly distributed, and include the exchange of information between law enforcers, international pressures on countries to shape their legislative body (for example, the closure of coffee shops and the lifting of bank secrecy), the provision of military aid and advisors (an important element of the American efforts in Latin America), or the extension of 'intelligence' gathering by foreign stationed liaison officers. The control over these instruments ultimately touches on the control that countries have over their economies and political system, and on the control people have over their privacy and security.

The strategies and tactics applied by governments in their drug policies do not only touch upon very different conceptions of 'the drug problem'; they also affect the distribution of income within and between societies, and the level of protection that citizens can attain.

Interventions in drug markets influence the direction, composition and volume of drug streams over the world, and of the flows of money that are generated in this international business. They thereby touch upon the distribution of wealth that can be accumulated in the drug business, and on the relative power of actors within and between societies.

Drug interests are strong enough to create powers that can play a major role in political life and in economic activities. Where many people depend on the drug industry for their income, and where the overall economy is dependent on the influx of foreign currencies from the drug trade, such drug interests, and concrete efforts of drug entrepreneurs to protect their trade, severely limit the margins for governments to deal with the drug industry. Moreover, enhanced drug repression also strengthens coercive and other powers within state apparatuses relative to each other and the society at large. Drug policies therefore also have an impact on the distribution of power and security in and between countries. On the one hand, they can limit the destabilizing effect of the drug industry on society. On the other hand, enhancing the resources and legal powers of a state's security forces possibly also limits the sovereignty of individuals, peoples and countries, and therewith the level of freedom, democracy and human rights they can enjoy.

Drug repression therewith also attains an important political dimension. From the perspective of the ruling élites, it is of concern to prevent power contending ethnic, political or clan associations to use the drug proceeds for building their own power structure. In such a situation, they may have little choice but to gain control over the business for themselves, or at least find a way of incorporating such new dynamic sectors into the existing power structure. Drug repression would, in many cases, only strengthen the opposition, as it would leave a good share of the population without means of support.

Domestic and foreign drug policies thus touch upon the distribution of power, wealth and security, both within a country and between societies. These interests are informing if not imposing a specific logic on many a state's policies and practices, and lead to systemic interactions between the upper and the underworld, that play a (decisive) role in deepening their perverse impact on the relations among states and between states and their societies. The phenomenon of 'protected trafficking' here enters the picture (Scott and Marshall 1991: vii), where selective suppression and protection of the drug industry becomes a more likely outcome of drug policies.

Criminal groups and criminally obtained resources often are a deviant element in national and international dynamics of politics. Illegal violence and authorized force used illegitimately to serve the purpose of one class, clan, ethnic group region or country against the other is no new phenomenon. It is however strongly related to the dynamics and consequences of the growth of drugs markets and state policies to control them. In many countries it is exactly the association of criminal groups with power élites that produces and prolongs such perverse consequences (Hess 1986: 128). In recent history of both industrialized (e.g. France, the United States and Italy) and developing countries (e.g. Turkey, South Africa, Colombia, Mexico) many examples can be found of cooperation between secret services, political parties and other elite power groups with -drug trafficking- criminal groups in the repression of domestic opposition, the destabilization of foreign governments, and the support against (geo)-political foes (see for example Block, Hess 1986, Krüger 1980, McCoy 1972, Scott and Marshall 1991). Equally, many opposition groups have discovered how important drug income can be to withstand (foreign) control over their territories (e.g. PKK in Turkey-Kurdistan, and the Afghan Mudjaheddin).

Forms of corruption of a more or less institutional nature often amend such symbiotic relations between drug entrepreneurs and local, national or foreign power élites. The price increase effect of prohibition works effectively as a tax, that however does not flow straight into the coffins of the state treasury, but is collected by the producers, traffickers and other service providers that sustain the trade. In many countries, a prohibition tax is however equally levied by 'corrupt' enforcement officers and other protectors of the trade within the politico-administrative system. Such state induced extortion, or bribing, of the trade is not only an activity for private gain (supplementing salaries). In fact, various systems exist that provide for the distribution of such rents within hierarchical networks, through which such money flows. In return they facilitate exchange in prohibited markets. Bribery can be a primary method of public finance, alongside taxation, borrowing and inflation (Thornton 1991: 137). From that perspective, it should be less of a surprise to find police officials actively involved in the management and maintenance of black-market monopolies. Through their relations with drug entrepreneurs, police officers (and other state protectors) become responsive to the monopolist. This may lead them to act against new entrants or third parties in the pursuit of maintaining the monopoly and its profits.

Such symbiotic relations are often an outcome of law enforcement tactics, where drug enforcement agencies infiltrate trafficking rings, and set up front stores to provide services to the drug industry. The 'War on Drugs' is in many countries literally running out of control. A severe crisis upset the Dutch police and juridical system, as it turned out that the methods used by police agencies in their criminal investigations on drug traffickers had to a large extent devolved beyond the juridical boundaries and parliamentary control. The Dutch parliamentary commission that investigated these methods in 1996 found for example that 285 tons of drugs had been imported by the Dutch police, of which 100 tons had disappeared on the market (Zwaap 1996).[11]

The opportunities for bribery and outright extortion, facilitated by the outlaw position of drug entrepreneurs, constitute an important incentive for the escalation of the drug war. In a more formalized way, asset forfeiture laws - directed against the property of traffickers and users involved in a criminal act - have had the same result (Benson, Rasmussen, Solars 1995, Benson and Rasmussen 1996). In fact, the self-financing of police forces in the drug war is now also actively propagated by Pino Arlacci, director of the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (AFP 31/03/99).

The narcotics industry has, to a greater or lesser extent, become economically and socially entrenched in almost every country in the world. Drug related interests have permeated many sectors of society, sectors that often function in the formal economy, but derive part of their income from activities connected to the drug trade. Few sectors remain untouched by the drug industry, as drug proceeds are consumed and invested in other enterprises, or as for example banks and transport companies provide services to the drug industry, and so become part of the drug industry themselves. The drug industry is to varying degrees also socially embedded in many countries. Drug consumption is culturally rooted in certainly not only the most marginalized sectors of the population. Furthermore, drug entrepreneurs increasingly establish themselves as a social force that seeks integration in the formal institutions of the societies, in which they live and operate. They thereby often gain if not the respectability than at least some leverage to protect their interests. The income and employment the industry generates, for a multiplicity of actors and societies at large, also does not fail to provide political clout to drug related interests, especially when threatened by foreign or domestic repression efforts. Prohibition, however, severely impede the formal incorporation of the drug industry through taxation, interest mediation and forms of market, labor and product regulation. From consequential partial, informal, or denied integration, it is my contention, derive many of the most harmful consequences of the industry's operations, much more so since police and military institutions are ill equipped to perform these regulatory roles.[12]

As both the drug industry and drug law enforcement are internationalizing, they put severe strains on the possibilities of the state to incorporate the drug industry in local and domestic arrangements, that could limit their destabilizing effects on society. Such a strategy, if applied, and many countries can not escape such a choice, either by informal arrangements or through 'corruption', is however becoming less feasible where the power of organized crime and pressures for intensified law enforcement upset such symbiotic relations.

The drug industry and drug repression, certainly where they cross the border of other states, can therefore have very disruptive effects on domestic political-economic institutions and arrangements. This can come about merely as an unintended consequence of conscientious cross border supply reduction efforts. However, in many instances, drug policies are merely part of other foreign policy goals, and are to a large extent shaped by the institutional logic of agencies called in to implement them.

Recent history has shown that, rightly, much more calculation tends to play a role in supply side policies than zealous supply reduction. Such policies also take into account the interests involved in drug trafficking, and the capabilities of governments to offset the pressure put on these interest by efforts to stifle the drug economy (for example crop substitution projects carried out by the United Nations that aim to provide drug farmers with an alternative source of income, or the provision of arms to the Colombian military). As soon as drug policies become part of broader policy goals towards other countries they are however likely to be subordinated to other priorities that states pursue to protect their national interests.

Just as war is the continuation of politics by other means, so the 'War on Drugs' has become an extension of foreign policy by other means (Marshall 1991: ii). International drug policies almost inescapably become enmeshed with geo-political and economic considerations (LaBrousse and Koutouzis 1996). So also, enhancing powers of specific law enforcers, like, in an extreme case, the military in Peru or Colombia, is likely to serve interest quite different from convincing coca growers to limit their output. In the most brutal form, international drug law enforcement can legitimize outright military intervention, as the Panamanians experienced in the late 1980s.

In the foregoing paragraphs I have built an analytical framework to study the underlying dynamics, outcomes and consequences of the War on Drugs. Thereby I tried to show how the growth of global networks of crime and the internationalization of law enforcement are shaped by some fundamental changes in the global political and economic system. I also focused on how the 'War on Drugs' is likely to be subverted by interests of both drug entrepreneurs and of the powers that are called in to control the drug industry. Through their symbiotic and systemic interactions they are the most likely beneficiaries of this war.

As their interactions take place in a competitive world, with unevenly distributed resources, the outcomes of their interactions are also likely to impinge unevenly on different societies and groups within them. The criminal system permeates the political and economic system, thereby undermining the functioning of legal industries and the role and functioning of the state. The extension of states' coercive powers to 'control' the drug industry also impinges heavily on the distribution of power, wealth and security within and between societies, often through practices that escape democratic control. The destructive force of the intertwined dynamics of the drug industry and state repression is thereby likely to demolish the existing relations between states, markets, and societies. Therewith, the underlying dynamics and outcomes of the drug war are not only shaped by, but also reshaping the fundamental structures of the worlds' political economy.

In the next section I argue that interests in the drug industry and in drug law enforcement collide, in both the domestic and the international domain, to form the International Drugs Complex.

The International Drug Complex

In analogy with the theory of the Military Industrial Complex, developed since the 1960's to explain the longevity of the Cold War, arms racing, the persistence of anti-Communist ideology and political interventions in peoples lives and societies, I have tried in this paper to assemble and understand the mechanisms and dynamics that might explaining for the flourishing of both drug economies and new regulatory frameworks for 'state' control.

Therewith I hope to elaborate a theory of the International Drugs Complex. This theory tries to explain for both the prolongation of the 'War on Drugs' and the flourishing of the drug economy, by focusing on political and economic interests that shape relations between drug markets and state interventions in these markets.

The basic hypotheses I try to further are that: the dynamics within and between the social forces at both sides of the law do not tend to keep each other in check, but rather reinforce each other, either by acting in concert or through more systemic interactions. Through this a 'community of interest' -a coalition of groups with vested psychological, moral, and material interests- develops between drug entrepreneurs and coercive state agencies or the power élites that control them. This mutual support takes many shapes and has many levels, changing over time and location. However, the consequence of this collusion is that the interests of both groups are advanced, to the detriment of third parties and great parts of the societies they flourish in. The drug industry and drug law enforcement, in this approach, are not necessarily opposite to each other, but develop a more or less intertwined and interdependent dynamic, a sort of countervailing but also mutually reinforcing 'coalition', that serves the interests of both, independent of democratic control by citizens and sometimes even the government.

Globalization, neo-liberal reforms and the end of the Cold War have strongly affected the regulation of relations among states and the relation between states and societies. The Cold War system imposed relative stability in the international state system, as well as order and discipline within both camps and a more general foundation for stability in the world economy. The Cold war did not lead to a major conflict between the superpowers and diminished the possibilities for war between states. But, it also charged a heavy toll on peoples squeezed between the antagonistic claims to maintain political and ideological unity within the superpowers', self-proclaimed, spheres of influence.

With globalization and the end of the Cold War system, state's legitimation and capacities to maintain internal order and protection against external threats have quickly diminished. Neo-liberal reforms and regional integration, there above, have accelerated the incapacitation of individual states to manage the interface between their society and the rest of the world, and to intervene in the distribution of opportunities within society.

In the protection of the state, internal and external security are closely related. For half a century, military-industrial élites have nearly always prevailed over domestic rivals without much difficulty. Fear of the foreign foe persuaded political managers and the population at large to acquiesce in new efforts to match and overtake the other side's armament. The escalating arms race, in turn, helped to maintain conformity and obedience at home, since an evident outside threat was, as always, the most powerful social cement to human kind (McNeil 1982: 382).

The vast armed establishments that protected the NATO and Warsaw Pact powers against one another, their ideological strife and the legitimization for domestic control and foreign interventions are nowadays being supplanted by an extension of the strong arm of the law in private, domestic and foreign domains.

Today, a qualitative and quantitative shift has been brought about in the constitution and dedication of the coercive apparatuses of states. In public discourse, governments' budgets and in the daily lives of many of us we are witnessing important transformations. These transformations can be seen in the dominance of acclaimed threats (from communism to drugs, crime and foreigners); in the priority given to the financing for the preservation of internal order instead of for external security arrangements (from the military to policing institutions); and in the demands made by states on their citizens to acquiesce to restrictions on spending power, consumer freedom, personal privacy, sovereignty and liberty, in order to comply with international demands to 'harmonize' efforts in countering the scourge of drug trafficking and other forms of criminalized activities.

The discourse and state activities supporting this transformation are to a large extent based on real and acclaimed new foes, basically the drug industry and its alleged connections with organized crime, terrorism and migration. The 'red scare' is so substituted by the fear of drugs and organized crime. The fight against this 'white scare', however, poses societies and states for many the same opportunities, dilemma's and systemic contradictions as they were facing during the Cold War era.

Different from the Cold War epoch, which was dominated by external security concerns, coercive powers are nowadays primarily set up for the safeguarding of internal security. However, such divisions are progressively blurred by the internationalization of non-military treats to internal security. Thereby the traditional divisions of labor between police, military, secret services and other coercive state powers tend to loose their significance. Such developments can be seen in the militarization of the 'War on Drugs', in the policing of external frontiers and in cooperative or interventionist activities of law enforcement agencies across borders.

The 'War on Drugs' is so in many respects taking over the functions of the Cold War, in legitimizing the coercive use of state powers to foster internal order and discipline, but also in setting up control mechanisms to defend the state and society against external threats, at home and abroad. The internationalization of police cooperation and the concomitant proliferation of tools to intervene in the sovereignty of individuals, peoples and foreign countries is, however, highly liable to decrease the prospect of a world order in which peace, justice and freedom could develop.

This is mainly due to the uneven distribution of the powers unleashed by the International Drugs Complex. One the one hand, the globalizing forces of for instance crime, monetary volatility, and migration decrease the possibilities to protect the state and the social arrangements that support it. The increasing overlap this brings about between internal and external security concerns, are likely to lead the formal goals of the drug war to be overruled by geo-political and economic concerns. The coercive powers of states that are called in to maintain internal order and external security, to a large extent, tend to escape democratic control, as their 'operational information' needs to be shielded from the outside world. Diminishing accountability goes hand in hand with the increased powers assigned to coercive state agencies.

More than this threat of free-floating state power; it is however the subversive impact of international criminal organizations that can undermine the very basis of the state and the societies they preside over. If indeed also law enforcement directed against the drug industry is counterproductive, and there above serves quite different political goals, this leaves us with a less than gloomy perspective for the future development and democratization of our societies.


Since the end of the Cold War, the 'New World Order', established under conditions of increased globalization and underwritten by neo-liberal reforms, is to a large extent shaped by two forces: the visible hand of criminal forms of market control and the extension of the strong arm of the law in the national and international domain.

These two forces of repression and subversion increasingly show the tendency to squeeze the populations of entire societies into a spiraling anarchy, endangering the constitutional state, and the living conditions of its citizens. Both sides of the law, although formally opposed to each other, in fact enhance each other's growth and therewith their impact on the rest of society. In their mutual (systemic) interactions they permeate societies with a logic reminiscent of the way in which, during the Cold War, the two antagonistic superpowers and their military-industrial complexes on the one hand fostered the control over their spheres of influence, and on the other hand incapacitated their populations to counter the pressures of vested interests in a spiraling arms race that enhanced the income, prestige and power of military establishments and the profits of weapons industries that fed the threat of war.

The two worlds of criminal entrepreneurs and of the coercive agencies of states are however not separated by geographical boundaries, nor are they separated from the societies in which they function. As both increasingly attain transnational dimensions they become more disposed to prevent themselves from being incorporated into society and, thereby, from being subordinated to democratic control. At the same time they increase their powers to penetrate in the sovereignty of individuals and that of entire societies over the globe.


  1. My greatest thanks are due to Yasemin Soysal, Marnix Croes, Gianfranco Poggi and Anne Wegner for reading and criticizing an earlier draft of this article. In a more morphological sense I may be indebted to Peter Andreas, although he takes a more constructivist approach to the issues at stake.
  2. Between 1980 and 1996, the number of inmates in the United States more than tripled from 501,886 to 1,700,661 (Belenko 1998: 53). 1:50 American men are in prison; 1:20 are on parole or probation. In 1993 one in three black Americans, who did not finish highschool, was in prison (ESB 26/6/96). The number given by Mauer (1997) for drug offenders in American State and Federal prisons is substantially lower than that provided by Akiba. However, he also notes a considerable shift in law enforcement priorities towards drug law enforcement. According to his data from 1985 to 1994 drug offenders accounted for more than a third (36%) of the increase in the number of offenders in state prisons and more than two thirds (71%) of the increase in federal prisoners. One of the largest increases in arrests has been for violation of laws prohibiting drug sales, distribution and possession - up 154 percent during this time period, from 580,900 to 1,476,100 (Belenko 1998:55).
  3. Naylor (1987) describes very comprehensively the way in which governments and financial institutions compete with one another to attract international flows of hot and/or dirty money to shore up bank liquidity or foreign exchange reserves.
  4. This comparison is highly deceptive. UNDCP also compares the illicit drug trade to other economic sectors: "In 1994 this figure [US $400 billion] would have been larger than the international trade in iron and steel and motor vehicles and about the same size as the total international trade in textiles" (UNDCP 1997: 124). What is actually compared here is the overall global consumer expenditure on illicit drugs with recorded world imports on other commodities.
  5. The literature embarking on such assessments is extensive, especially for producing countries. See for example the Studies on the Impact of the Illegal Drug Trade, 6 Volumes, undertaken by UNRISD and the United Nations University.
  6. For a discussion of 'models' of the criminal firm see e.g. Peter Reuter (1983), and Joseph Albini in Thomas Mieczkowski (ed.) (1992). Thomas Naylor (1995) points at the important distinction to be made between forms of organization to participate in the market and organization to control the market.
  7. An example of one of the few studies that analyze cocaine as a transnational commodity chain can be found in Wilson and Zambrano (1994). They assess that most profits (87 percent) remain in drug consuming countries. They also note the selective nature of US drug policy, that distributes the risk of participation in the trade unequally throughout the cocaine commodity chain, as it overlooks or underfunds investigation into the formal sectors (provision of key components like chemicals, airplanes, arms and communication equipment) and core countries' roles in the drug trade (money laundering, distribution networks).
  8. For example, the US Drug Enforcement Agency estimates that in 1993 the Colombian drug cartels spent 23% of their profits on laundering their hard earned drug money, up from 6% in the late 1980s (Foust and DeGeorge 1993).
  9. The substances covered by this regime are expanding with technological developments in pharmacology; new 'designer' drugs are rapidly proliferating and incorporated in the prohibition regime. The principal targets for control are opiates, followed by coca and cannabis derivatives. Other substances with prohibitive marking are denominated by their active substances.
  10. For an oversight and analysis of the development of this global prohibition regime see for instance Stein (1985), Gerritsen (1993) and Silvis (1993).
  11. In June 1999 a new Dutch Parliamentary Commission (Kalsbeek-commission) concluded that double-informants, with the help of drug officers had managed to import and market an additional 15.000 kilos of cocaine (NRC June 10 1999).
  12. Like in many other black market sectors such as illegal gambling and prostitution, exchanges in the drug industry are of a consensual nature. The criminalization of personal vice, as opposed to some of the consequential social harm it inflicts on society, thus leads to what some authors call 'victim less crime'. Both this consensual nature and the fact that prohibition pushes all exchanges underground has far reaching implications for the tactics of law enforcement agencies in the process of evidence gathering, as participants are unlikely to issue complains or invoke arbitrage from formal institutions, even when disputes arise. Moreover, many of the negative consequences associated with illegal drugs derive from the prohibition rather than the consumption of the prohibited good (Miron and Zwiebel: 1995).


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Contact information

Hans T. van der Veen, European University Institute, San Domenico, Italy
e-mail: vanderv@datacomm.iue.it


Last update: May 25, 2016