In recent years, cocaine and other illegal drug trafficking has increased in the Caribbean and around the world, due to the ‘balloon effect’ of drug cartels intending to get their products to the United States and Europe. In regards to drug trafficking, the balloon effect is the increase of trafficking in another region or by different means of transportation. Think of a balloon; when one part of it squeezed, air is pushed to another area within. The same principle can be applied to drug trafficking due to the vast amount of resources drug cartels possess. When a government shuts down routes from South America through Central America and Mexico, the effect is an increase usage of routes in areas such as the Caribbean, or even through Africa to Europe. In 2014, the amount of cocaine transported through the Caribbean rose to an estimated 90-100 tons. This amounts to 16 percent of the total cocaine smuggled into the U.S., which is a steep increase from 5 percent in the mid-2000s (1).
Much of the focus in recent years has been in Mexico and Central America, where drug cartels waged war, often including the local populace. In addition, the capture, escape, and recapture of El Chapo has brought more news and attention to how drug cartels move drugs to the United States. In the 1970s, the Caribbean was a popular smuggling route for the ‘cocaine cowboys’. However, the routes were mostly shut off in the 1980s by U.S. naval and air power, which was overwhelming to smugglers on boats, as there isn’t anywhere to hide in the ocean if you’re targeted by a U.S. Coast Guard vessel or aircraft (2). The crackdowns of the 1970s and 1980s in the Caribbean created routes in Central America and Mexico. In 2009, the U.S. State Department estimated that as much as 90% of the cocaine found in America was sent through Mexico (3). This is what led to the huge rise in violence within border cities and a war amongst the cartels. Since 2009, the United States and Mexico have been coming down hard on cartels, leading to the creation of new routes elsewhere.
Drug traffickers and cartels are constantly looking to find new routes into the United States, and the crackdowns in Mexico mean that the Caribbean routes will be used more frequently. In May, four women from the D.C. area were charged with drug smuggling, after they were found with 6.6 kilograms of cocaine returning from a Royal Caribbean cruise. After being caught, they said that a man offered them a free cruise; they just had to meet another man in Jamaica and bring back a gift (4). This isn’t uncommon in regards to using civilians to transport cocaine through duress, or in this case, to transport for reward; however, this type of bust indicates the traffickers’ ingenuity and desperation to move cocaine through the Caribbean, where a decade ago, it was much more profitable and less risky to go through routes in Mexico.
Beyond the Caribbean, West Africa is seeing an increase in drug trafficking routes. Situations of failed states, rebel groups, gangs, and terrorist organizations leave many parts of Western and Central Africa unchecked by authorities who have the capabilities and are willing to stop drug routes. Two major drug busts in 2014 indicate the increasing role of Africa as a trafficking route to Europe and the United States. These drug busts were also caught by unlikely defense forces, at least in countering drug trafficking in Africa. In 2014, an Australian warship seized more than a ton of heroin off the coast of Kenya with an estimated worth of $260 million (5). Later that year, Kenyan forces found 1,800 pounds of heroin on a ship from Pakistan. The amount of drugs passing through Africa indicates two major problems. First, the failed or failing states of Africa provide a safe haven for large drug trafficking rings that distribute to streets in the United States or Europe. Shifting rebel groups and gangs make it difficult to track routes and shipments throughout the region. In addition, the new routes also indicate the balloon effect, as Africa serves as a hub for drugs, such as heroin from the Middle East, and cocaine from South America.
Corruption of government and military officials in states in the drug trafficking routes also plays a role in the safe passage of the drugs. For example, the United States recently indicted the newly appointed Minister of Interior Justice Luis Reverol for protecting drug traffickers out of Venezuela in exchange for bribes (6). Although this indictment is mostly symbolic, this demonstrates the issue of high-level corruption in areas of drug trafficking. Corruption is not limited to South America either. The trafficking routes in Africa usually include bribes of military officials, as the International Crisis Group reported that Guinea-Bissau soldiers were seen unloading drugs off of planes at abandoned air strips (5). Bribery and corruption are not, by any means, new concepts to drug traffickers or cartels; however, they show how the balloon effect can influence traffickers to move anywhere in the world where state or military officials are willing to break the law for kickbacks.
The United States is increasing surveillance of the Caribbean, as they are aware of the increase in shipments from Venezuela to Hispaniola. One of the U.S.’s best counter-narcotics tools is the P-3 surveillance plane. Over the summer of 2015, these crews helped track down 114,000 pounds of cocaine. These professionals know what they are looking for in the area, as they notice when a sail boat isn’t sitting right in the water, or other suspicious activities in the sea or air (7). The U.S. will need to increase cooperation with Caribbean states in order to counteract the increase in cocaine shipments through the region. Most importantly, when deciding and implementing U.S. counter-narcotic policy, the U.S. must take into account the balloon effect, and preemptively lock down new routes before they have a chance to open.
(1) Bargent, James, and Armando Cordoba. "Caribbean Cocaine Trafficking Continues Rise: US Officials." Insight Crime, 17 Apr. 2014. Web. 16 Aug. 2016. <http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/caribbean-cocaine-trafficking-up-200-as-trafficking-routes-migrate>.
(2) Kleiman, Mark. "Surgical Strikes in the Drug Wars." Foreign Affairs. N.p., 17 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Aug. 2016. <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/north-america/2011-09-01/surgical-strikes-drug-wars>.
(3) Debusmann, Bernd. "Drug Wars and the Balloon Effect." N.p., 26 Mar. 2009. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://blogs.reuters.com/great-debate/2009/03/26/drug-wars-and-the-balloon-effect/>.
(4) Bonanno, Chris. "Four Women Charged with Using Cruise Ship to Smuggle Cocaine." USA Today. N.p., 24 June 2016. Web. 23 Aug. 2016. <http://www.usatoday.com/story/travel/news/2016/06/24/cocaine-cruise-royal-caribbean/86341770/>.
(5) Woods, Tom, and Michael Bacca. "Cartel Continent." Foreign Affairs. N.p., 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 18 Aug. 2016. <https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/west-africa/2016-01-05/cartel-continent>.
(6) Tjade, Sean, and David Gagne. "Indicted Minister: Venezuela Is Free of Drug Trafficking." Indicted Minister: Venezuela Is Free of Drug Trafficking. N.p., 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 26 Aug. 2016. <http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/indicted-minister-venezuela-is-free-of-drug-trafficking>.
(7) "Drug Smuggling in Caribbean Surges Again, so Border Agents Take Flight to Fight It." Fox News Latino. N.p., 10 Sept. 2015. Web. 25 Aug. 2016. <http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/news/2015/09/10/drug-smuggling-in-caribbean-surges-again-so-border-agents-take-flight-to-fight/>.
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Chadd Dunn is a senior at the University of Southern California double majoring in business administration and international relations. He focuses mainly on international economics,