by Hala Mounib

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While the genesis of globalization is commonly debated, there is no doubt that it drastically transformed the international system. This reformation has been the focal discussion point for researchers, scholars, and economists alike; and where there is debate, there is disunity. The colossal divide lies between those who condemn globalization for all the transnational issues that it bred, and those who endorse it due to the vast benefits and opportunities that it offered developing countries, granting them equal representation and participation on an international level and improving their living standards significantly.

The election of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States of America only increased the dispute; his advocacy for protectionist and mercantilist trade policies over free trade, the promise to build a U.S.-Mexico wall, and his recent declaration of national emergency over the U.S. Southern border (Donald J. Trump, 2019) all seemed to widen the aforementioned divide in the global community.

In this paper, I attempt to dissect the organized crime of drug trafficking, which is a by-product of globalization, in accordance with the international relations’ macro-levels of analysis to better understand where the phenomenon stems from, how it’s facilitated, and the amount of impact it has on the international system. This paper will also look at the role of key actors in international relations and identify the causes of conflict and cooperation in the international system.



The assassination of New Orleans Chief of Police, David C. Hennessy, made headlines in prominent newspapers in 1890 after a succession of events and an unfair rigged trial that led to the discharge of several Italian men involved in his murder. This was the first time an organized crime syndicate was identified in the United States of America. The New York Times newspaper loosely referred to the accused men involved as a “Mafia” (The New York Times, 1890).


Shannon L. Blanton and Charles W. Kegley (2017) identify three levels of analysis to describe any international phenomena; the global level, the state level, and the individual level. They explain that these different layers aid in visualizing trends and events as a “part of the end result of an unknown process”. These levels eventually impact the process of foreign and domestic policy-making in a state, subsequently influencing the global community as a whole.

  1. Individual Level of Analysis: This level draws on the irrationality of human beings when it comes to decision-making (John Rourke, 2007). It explains the reasoning behind individual choices and how they aren’t always consciously calculated due to aspects outside of people’s control, such as up-bringing, biological factors, and psychological and perceptual parameters (Blanton and Kegley, 2017; John Rourke, 2007).
  2. State Level of Analysis: This level is concerned with the decision-making units, governmental agencies, and political institutions that are exclusive to a specific state. It also looks into the type of government, the military capabilities, and the economic power of a country as these elements contribute to the shaping of foreign policies.
  3. Global Level of Analysis: This level revolves around the behavioural trends and interactions that take place in the international political system. Due to the paradigm shift from traditional diplomacy to new diplomacy (William R. Moomaw, 2012), this level involves the input of both state actors and non-state actors. Therefore, it’s split into two subcategories; international (state-actors) and organizational (non-state actors).

These levels will be used in the context of drug trafficking to explain how it’s facilitated and why dilemmas often emerge due to clashing ideologies and policies in these levels.



With its roots dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, the international community deems organized crime as one of the most challenging problems to tackle, especially with the recent rapid globalization, which has resulted in the increased intricacy of these illicit enterprises.

According to the 2018 National Drug Threat Assessment report conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) under the U.S Department of Justice, Colombia remains the primary supplier of cocaine in the United States. An estimated 93% of seized and tested cocaine samples in the United States were traced back to Colombian origins with the drug quality averaging at 84.4% purity, reports the DEA’s Cocaine Signature Program.

  • Individual Level of Analysis: Serving as the beginning of the drug smuggling network that eventually reaches out into the United States, this level will look into the mentality of coca farmers, operators of drug cartels, and politicians in Colombia. Narconomics (2016) author Tom Wainwright recalls his meeting with Édgar Marmani, the chief of the local coca-growers’ union in Trinidad Pampa, where he explained that the conditions of coca farmers (or cocaleros as they’re known in the region) in Latin America are rough; children as young as six assist their parents in the fields, villages lack nurseries, and the average coca farmer earns around $2 per day. Marmani asserts that cocaleros would switch to planting different crops if they required less investment, as they are more profitable in the long run, however the farmers lack that kind of readily-available capital at hand.

It then becomes easy to note the pattern that keeps people stuck in this chain; children are born and raised with certain societal expectations to meet, which are those of a coca farmer. Their upbringing is impacted negatively as they are trained from an early age by their parents to participate in the farming, and they lack the proper education to make the necessary changes in their lives. This is highlighted by the extremely low revenue that they receive, forcing them to continue working as coca farmers and facilitating the point-of-departure of the drug trade.

The next explored mentality is that of cartel operators, which can be similar to the farmers’ mentality if the element of poverty is there. “Groupthink” can impact a person’s decisions if certain expectations are prevalent in a society, which is not uncommon especially among the youth in Colombia (John Rourke, 2007). Additional factors like power, status, and money are all considered when an individual decides to join a network of organized criminals.

Finally, the perspective of politicians and law enforcement must be taken into account. Organized crime is a “get-rich-quick scheme” (Marcelo Bergman, 2018) and therefore it’s common for drug cartels to use bribery with individuals who already have power like policy-makers and paramilitary groups to gain security, facilitate routes, and finance for the smuggling of drugs (Alvaro Camacho Guizado and Andrés López Restrepo, 2000).

  • State Level of Analysis: As stated above, this particular level addresses why the state is the way it is. The Colombian government has taken hard measures against coca production in its jurisdictions. With a section of its army drafted for “emergency gardening services”, light aircrafts and satellites scan the Andes in search for coca terraces which are promptly eradicated when found (Tom Wainwright, 2016).

This strategy has proven ineffective due to the “balloon effect”; when coca farms are eradicated somewhere, new ones are established somewhere else due to the fragmentation of organized criminal networks (Bagley and Rosen, 2015).

We can conclude that the Colombian government’s measures are inadvertently contributing to the facilitation of drug trafficking in the region due to the asymmetry of information and their lack of data on the methods of operation of drug cartels. Combined with the corruption and bribery that is prevalent in the upper echelons of law enforcement and political institutions, Colombia’s coca farmers remain crippled in a system that forces them to seek illicit businesses to provide a living for themselves and their families.

  • Global Level of Analysis: This level will depict the facilitation of the drug trafficking pandemic on a global scale, shedding light on both the international and the organizational sublevels.
  • Geopolitics: The main factor that allows Colombia to smuggle drugs into the United States is the proximity of these two countries and the existence of Mexico, which acts as a proxy for two reasons; because it shares borders with the U.S. and because of its notorious intricate drug cartels which have gained experience through their operation over the years.
  • The advancement of technology: The illicit narcotics business, like other global businesses, has benefitted wildly from the internet revolution, blockchain innovation, and the TOR browser; an application developed US Naval Research Laboratory which grants anonymity online through layers of encryption. Combined with the enhanced security of decentralized cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin and Litecoin, transactions over websites like Silk Road on the Dark Web have been made possible, making the process of tracking down cartels more complicated (Tom Wainwright, 2016).
  • Colombia’s ties on an international and organizational level: Colombia has maintained cordial relations with the United Sates since its independence from Spain. With its ties to the U.S. dating back to the early 1800s, Colombia and the United States have been committed to undermining the regional narcotrafficking organized crime. Given the humanitarian and economic aid that the United States has provided and continues to provide to Colombia, both nations exist in a state of symbiosis and Colombia tries its best to remain on good terms as it benefits greatly from being a U.S. ally. The tough measures taken by Colombia against coca production can be attributed to its bilateral relations with the U.S., which are accentuated by the U.S.-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA) that has resulted in economic growth and employability abundance in both countries (Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, 2018).

Another reason why Colombia is taking major efforts to eradicate the trade in narcotics is because it belongs to several international organizations, such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the IMF and the World Bank, and is currently pursuing membership with the OECD. Falling below certain criteria can threaten Colombia as it can start to face sanctions for facilitating drug trafficking and lose the benefits that it currently gains from being a member state with these organizations (Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, 2018).



With the transformation of International Relations and the adoption of new diplomacy methods, the global community is now directly influenced not only by states, but also by non-state actors. Non-Governmental Organizations, Inter-Governmental Organizations, terrorist cells, and the media all play an important role in impacting and shaping the international community and the global issues that hinder its progress.

  1. The State of Colombia as a Key Actor

In 2000, after a decade of intensive farm burning, spraying, and poisoning, around 545,000 acres of land were utilized to grow coca plants in Latin America, restoring up to almost the exact same amount of land used in 1990, deeming the eradicating tactics in Colombia unsuccessful (Tom Wainwright, 2016).

The state’s lack of proper understanding of the modus operandi of the cartels is what renders their curbing efforts inefficient. The reasoning that the government has is that by attacking the supply of coca, the price for the leaf will go up, raising the cost of production which they assume would raise the cost of the final cocaine product, demotivating potential drug buyers. In summary; to end to the demand, it is necessary to eliminate the source (Guizado and Restrepo, 2000).

However, Wainwright argues that this line of thinking is illogical and that the attacks carried out by the Colombian government on the farmers does more harm than good and keeps the farmers in a perpetual state of poverty.

The cartels run their business models in ways that are very similar to multinational franchises. However, since it’s an illicit enterprise, the farmers have to sell the coca to the limited cartels that operate in the region, and given that the business is both illegal and clandestine in nature, the cartels can force the farmers to sell coca at very low rates as they have nobody else to sell to. This monopsony only affects the farmers and leaves virtually no impact on the eventual clients of the cartels, who only have the cartels to buy from. In this way the cartels can dictate their purchase and sale prices, maintaining their power through monopsony and monopoly.

An effective measure that Wainwright proposes instead of attacking the farmers and destroying their farms is providing these people with other alternatives to make a living instead of relying on selling coca to cartels. This way, if cartels dictate low prices, the farmers can switch to growing other crops, or at the very least be able to negotiate the raise of the price of coca if the cartels want the farmers to continue growing them, which would result in a real change in the market prices of cocaine, leading to a decrease in the number of users. If Colombia decided to adopt this method, then it would effectively incapacitate the illegal drug business, successfully executing its key role as a state.

  1. Organized Crime Networks as a Key Actor

Often times, organized criminal networks are “diversified”, which means that drug cartels can have connections with terrorist cells, money launderers, and human traffickers. The reason behind this is that the surplus of cash that these networks want to invest with cannot go through the normal process of vetting in banks; it takes other illicit routes so as not to be flagged as suspicious capital flow (Tom Wainwright, 2016). Therefore, the tentacles of these networks stretch around the world, making it difficult to locate and separate the kingpins from other operators in the hierarchy of organized crime groups.

  1. NGOs and IGOs As Key Actors

Schools of thought like functionalism and neofunctionalism have emerged with the birth of non-governmental and inter-governmental organizations, which point out the pragmatism of these organizations and supports them in addressing global problems by giving them access to resources and granting them the authority they need, thus giving them more influence as key actors on a global level (John Rourke, 2007).

Programs and strategic plans like the Sustainable Development Goals Fund of the United Nations Development Programme seek to address the many global issues impacting the different regions of the planet. Goals like Quality Education (SDG 4), Decent Work and Economic Growth (SDG 8) and Partnerships for the Goals (SDG 17) can all help to end the drug trafficking pandemic as the UNDP seeks to promote an integrated global effort through providing a peaceful negotiation platform and constructing successful multilateral agreements between member nations.



  1. Conflict – Clash of ideologies between regional states: Bolivia has radically different views on coca than Colombia and Peru, whose stance on coca elimination is more extreme. The plant carries a great historical value and is often chewed by farmers and peasants as it has a mild non-psychedelic stimulant effect (unlike processed cocaine) and helps in preventing altitude sickness, a condition prevalent in the Andes. Bolivia’s current President Evo Morales, a former cocalero himself, defended the state’s right to grow coca in a 2009 UN meeting where he defiantly consumed a coca leaf to demonstrate the fact that he is not incapacitated and still capable of leading the country of Bolivia. He argued that he is not under the influence of cocaine and that he’s not an addict for simply consuming the leaf (International Narcotics Control Board, 2009)

These kinds of ideological differences create tension both regionally and internationally, leading to conflicts.

  1. Conflict – Violence and brutality: Violence is prevalent in cartels because their problems cannot be solved through the law or other peaceful alternative means (Marcelo Bergman, 2012). Additionally, traffickers use violence to maintain employee discipline and order (June S. Beittel, 2018). John Rourke (2007) explains that “frustration-aggression theory” is also a factor; when societies or individuals are frustrated, in this case due to poverty and the already existing institutionalized social and political violence (Guizado and Restrepo, 2000), they tend to become increasingly violent and aggressive.
  2. Cooperation – Through the excuse of “war on drugs”: The global level of analysis is used to identify the conflict and cooperation in world politics (Blanton and Kegley, 2017). In the case of cooperation, stronger countries like the United States have the capacity to influence the choices or weaker countries. In this context, it’s by waging a “war on drugs” to allow Colombia to stay on good economic terms with the United States and to allow it to remain a member state of several international organizations, given it comes up with anti-coca policies.



The price difference gap between the final processed drugs that are released into the illegal market and the raw plants that are farmed at the beginning of the value-chain is one of the biggest among customer goods (Bergman, 2018). Narrowing down this gap through effective “no-coercion” drug policies grounded in human-rights would cut down on the crimes and the poverty that are induced through illicit drug trade (Kleiman, Caulkins, and Hawken, 2011).

Low-level offences in impoverished areas should adhere to The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for Non-custodial Measures and provide alternatives to imprisonment so that individuals with very limited choices can still retain their human rights and dignities. For instance, South Africa and Mexico’s highest courts ruled in 2018 that the criminalization of drug possession infringes on the right to privacy.

It’s worth noting that the majority of cocaine transported into the United States is trafficked through privately owned vehicles that go through legal ports of entry, which dismantles the false widely held belief that a U.S.-Mexico wall would completely put a stop to the drug trade.

In conclusion, the war on drugs has been futile and targeted the wrong people in the supply chain. In the words of the late Kofi Annan, “Drugs have destroyed many lives, but wrongheaded governmental policies have destroyed even more” (Rebecca Schleifer and Tenu Avafia, 2019).


Hala Mounib is a Policy Research Fellow at the American Freedom Institute

Featured Image Credit: By National Police of Colombia – This image was sourced from the Flickr gallery of the National Police of Colombia., CC BY-SA 2.0,

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