Drug Trafficking as a Transnational Crime

Sandeep Chawla & Thomas Pietschmann. Handbook of Transnational Crime & Justice. Editor: Philip Reichel. Sage Publication. 2005.


One of the most typical forms of transnational crime is the illegal movement, across one or more national frontiers, of psychoactive substances controlled under three instruments of international law known as the drug control conventions. This is usually known as “trafficking in illegal drugs.” Although for most types of crime, the transnational dimension is still the exception rather than the rule, drug trafficking has had—from the very beginning of the international drug control system early in the 20th century—a critical transnational element. For nearly a century, illicit drugs have been trafficked from “producer” to “consumer countries,” usually involving a number of criminal groups from countries along the trafficking chain. The drug trade is, of course, more than a century old, but before the 20th century, there was no distinction between legal and illegal drugs and consequently no such thing as drug trafficking. Although the distinction between producer and consumer countries noted above has blurred over the past few decades, there is no question that drug trafficking continues to exist and that it has gained in importance over the last three decades.

The substances under international control, as well as the degree of control exercised over each substance, are laid down in the international drug conventions. The conventions were developed through a multilateral process and can be amended through such a process. Parties to the conventions (member states of the United Nations) may decide to include or exclude particular drugs from the control system or to strengthen or relax the degree of control over a particular drug. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961, provides for the control of the production, distribution, and use of opium, heroin, various other synthetic opiates, coca bush/cocaine and related substances, and cannabis. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, covers the control of hallucinogens such as LSD, stimulants such as amphetamines, and sedative-hypnotics such as barbiturates or benzodiazepines. The U.N. Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988, provides for the control of a number of chemicals that are frequently used in the manufacture of drugs (also called “precursor chemicals”) such as ephedrine (used to manufacture metham-phetamine), P-2-P (1-phenyl-2-propanone, to manufacture amphetamine), potassium permanganate (to manufacture cocaine), and 3,4-MDP-2-P (3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone, also known as BMK, or benzyl-methylketone, to manufacture ecstasy).

This chapter focuses on the four main groups of illicit drugs: cannabis, cocaine, opiates, and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS, such as amphetamine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy).


Although limited drug control efforts at the local level date back more than a century, the evolution of an international drug control system didn’t begin until the Shanghai Opium Conference of 1909. This led to the first drug control treaty, the International Opium Convention, signed at The Hague in 1912. The background of these first attempts at international drug control was the rapidly growing opium trade from India (then a part of the British Empire) to China, which had a devastating social and economic impact on the latter country. Chinese attempts to ban the import of opium in the 19th century were abortive. The opium wars and the unequal treaties imposed on China forced the country to accept “free trade” in opium. A huge trade deficit developed, and to counter it, the Chinese State allowed domestic production of opium from 1880. This alleviated the immediate problem of the trade deficit but exacerbated the problem of opium addiction. By the end of the 19th century, there was a full-fledged opium epidemic in the country.

The International Opium Convention of 1912—which included the control of not only the opium trade but also the trade in heroin and cocaine—was the beginning of the multilateral drug control system and the division of psychoactive drugs into legal and illegal ones. World War I interrupted implementation of the Opium Convention, but it was eventually incorporated into the peace treaties concluding the war. The international drug control system then developed further under the auspices of the League of Nations. Three drug control conventions were drafted in the interwar period: the Second Opium Convention of 1925, which established a system of import certificates and export authorizations and extended the scope of control to cannabis as well; the Convention for Limiting the Manufacture and Regulating the Distribution of Narcotic Drugs of 1931, which introduced a compulsory estimates system and provided controls for the manufacture of drugs; and the Convention for the Suppression of the Illicit Traffic in Dangerous Drugs of 1936, which called for the punishment of drug traffickers.

After World War II, the United Nations assumed the drug control functions and responsibilities of the League of Nations. Under the Protocol of 1948, a number of synthetic opiates, developed during the war, were added to the list of controlled drugs. The Opium Protocol of 1953 introduced a system to limit the number of countries that were legally permitted to produce opium. In 1961, all the drug control instruments were consolidated under the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Control was extended to the cultivation of the plants (opium poppy, coca bush, and the cannabis plant), from which the drugs were derived. The Convention on Psychotropic Substances, 1971, extended drug control to a number of synthetically produced substances such as hallucinogens (LSD), stimulants (amphetamine, methamphetamine, etc.), and sedative-hypnotics, such as barbiturates or benzodiazepines. The 1988 U.N. Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances tackled the transnational character of drug trafficking. It sought to criminalize drug trafficking, deprive drug traffickers of their financial gains, and establish international cooperation (such as extradition of traffickers, mutual legal assistance between countries on drug-related investigations, and preventing money laundering) to secure such outcomes. The scope of control was also extended to include a number of chemicals used in the manufacture of drugs. In June 1998, a Special Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Political Declaration, a Declaration on Guiding Principles of Drug Demand Reduction, and a number of Action Plans on (a) controlling amphetamine-type stimulants and precursors, (b) measures to promote judicial cooperation, (c) strengthening anti-money-laundering activities, and (d) international cooperation for the eradication of illicit drug crops and alternative development.

It is not easy to judge the impact of this international drug control system, which has grown ever more elaborate over the better part of 100 years. Available data suggest that after the system was put in place at the beginning of the 20th century, the global drug trade declined substantially over subsequent decades. In parallel to the decline of the licit trade in drugs, however, illegal drug-trafficking activities emerged and gained in importance. Up until World War II, the net effect of these opposing trends seems to have been positive: Global production and addiction levels were falling. During the war, there was a drastic reduction in world trade; the drug trade consequently declined further. In the first decade after the war, the positive trend appears to have continued. Global addiction and production levels continued to decline, mainly due to major crackdowns in a number of countries. The most notable of these were the solution of the opium problem in China and the controlling of a methamphetamine epidemic in Japan.

From the 1960s, however, world drug production and consumption began to increase, fueled by the rise of transnational drug trafficking and facilitated by growing world trade and improved means of transport and communication. There was a “demand pull” from youth populations in the developed countries. The “supply push” was provided by the economic difficulties of a number of producer countries and the discovery of the lucrative illegal drug trade by various warlords, insurgency groups, and organized crime circles. More production and trafficking increased availability of drugs, in developed countries as well as in transit countries, thus contributing to an overall spread and expansion of demand. In transit countries, the problem often spills over to the local population because service providers to the illicit drug industry (such as groups that organize transporting the drugs) are often paid in kind. Without connections to the main market outlets in the developed countries, many of these groups have to sell the drugs locally to convert them into cash. The increase in both demand and supply of drugs was thus made possible due to ever more efficient transnational drug-trafficking networks constituting the link between demand and supply. The increases were most pronounced in the 1970s and the 1980s. In the 1990s and in the first years of the 21st century, however, global growth rates for the main problem drugs—heroin and cocaine—either decelerated or declined. World production estimates and seizure figures, as well as consumption trends of a number of countries (mainly developed ones), point in this direction. This can be interpreted as a positive outcome of the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances and the 1998 Special Session of the General Assembly, which gave a stronger focus to international cooperation against what is a manifestly global problem.

It is also interesting to note that global production of opium, the raw material for the manufacture of heroin, the world’s main problem drug, is today significantly lower than at the beginning of the 20th century. Opium production in 2002 was one sixth the size of production in 1907-1908.

Even if poppy straw production is included in the calculation and the comparison is expressed in heroin equivalents, production today is some 60% less than what it was at the beginning of the century.

This reflects the massive overall decline in the licit production and trade of opium since the beginning of the 20th century, offsetting the increases in the illicit production and trafficking of opium and heroin over the last four decades.

Extent and Trends in the past Decade


In 2002, the latest year for which comprehensive seizure data are available, nearly 1.1 million seizure cases were reported in the world. This represents a considerable increase from the 300,000 cases reported in 1992. The increase reflects not only more trafficking but also greater law enforcement efforts as well as improvements in reporting.

By far the largest traffic, in volume terms, is cannabis herb (marijuana), of which nearly 5,000 tons were seized in 2002. This is followed by cannabis resin (hashish). The next largest volumes of drugs seized are cocaine-related substances, opiates (opium, morphine, heroin), and amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) (i.e., amphetamines and ecstasy).

The strongest increases in drug trafficking over the past decade were reported for synthetic drugs, notably ATS. Among these, ecstasy seizures grew most rapidly, followed by methamphetamine. Trafficking increases for the two main problem drugs, opiates and cocaine, were less pronounced.

Regional Characteristics


Cannabis herb. Cannabis is the most widely produced and consumed illicit drug. More than 160 million people, 3.4% of the global population aged 15 and above, use cannabis, mostly in the form of marijuana. Seizure data clearly reflect the fact that cannabis herb is produced, trafficked, and consumed worldwide. Concentrations can, however, be identified for North America (58% of global seizures in 2002 according to preliminary estimates, notably Mexico and the United States) and for Africa (20%). South America (including the Caribbean and Central America) accounted for 11% of global cannabis herb seizures, Asia for 6%, and Europe for 5%. Over the past few years, cannabis herb seizures appear to have stabilized, although at fairly high levels. They increased through the 1990s but are still at lower levels than in several single years during the early 1980s.

Cannabis resin. With regard to cannabis resin (hashish), trafficking concentrations are more pronounced. Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia are the main sources. Europe is the main market: Close to 70% of global cannabis resin seizures were made in Europe in 2002. More than 50% of global or more than three quarters of all European cannabis resin seizures were made in Spain, reflecting the country’s strategic location between Morocco and other European hashish markets. The next two largest cannabis resin seizures were reported by Pakistan (8% of global cannabis resin seizures) and Morocco (6%). The Near and Middle East/Southwest Asia region accounted for 22% of world hashish seizures in 2002. Cannabis resin seizures showed an upward trend over the past two decades, although the last few years have witnessed the first signs of some stabilization at these high levels.


More than 14 million people worldwide, 0.3% of the global population aged 15 and above, are estimated to use cocaine. In terms of regional distribution, seizure data show a clear concentration of cocaine trafficking in the Americas (87% of global seizures in 2002). The main exit country for cocaine produced in the Andean region is Colombia. The countries of North America (Canada, Mexico, the United States) accounted for 32% of global cocaine seizures in 2002. The single largest cocaine market is the United States. Cocaine is mainly shipped to the United States through the Caribbean region, Mexico, or both. Cocaine is also transported directly from Colombia to the United States by air. Because of better controls, however, such direct shipments have lost importance over the past decade.

The most significant increases in cocaine trafficking over the last decade were reported from Western Europe. Only 2% of global cocaine seizures were made in Western Europe in 1985; by 2002, this proportion had increased to 13%. The main points of entry of cocaine into Europe are Spain and the Netherlands. In addition, cocaine transits through a number of West African and South African countries. Increases in cocaine trafficking were also reported for the Oceania region, notably Australia. There is some cocaine trafficked to Asian countries, but it is only of minor importance. Global cocaine seizures are showing signs of stabilization and even moderate decline in recent years.


About 15 million people, 0.3% of the global population aged 15 and above, use opiates worldwide. There is a concentration of trafficking in opiates (opium, morphine, heroin) in Southwest and Central Asia—that is, in the countries bordering Afghanistan, which alone accounted for 76% of global opium production in 2002. According to data submitted to UNODC, 49% of global opiate seizures took place in Southwest and Central Asia in 2002. Iran alone was responsible for 25% of global opiate seizures in 2002; Pakistan was responsible for 16% and Central Asia for 6%.

Europe accounted for 28% of global seizures of opiates. Nearly 90% of heroin in Western Europe probably originates from opium produced in Afghanistan. Although the bulk of opiates is still transported through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and the Balkan region to Western Europe, a new trend over the past decade was the rising importance of trafficking through Central Asia and other CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries. This also reflected the emergence of the Russian Federation as a major market for Afghan opiates. In addition, direct shipments by air from Pakistan to the United Kingdom regained importance. Although the volumes are not large, some opiates continue to be trafficked, by air or container, to Western Europe through several African countries.

The world’s second largest opium producing and trafficking center is the Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Laos PDR, and Thailand). Southeast Asia was responsible for 21% of global opium production in 2002, with Myanmar alone accounting for 18%. Of global opiate seizures in 2002, 14% were made in East and Southeast Asia. Most of the opiates produced in Southeast Asia are today consumed within the region. Small amounts are exported to the Oceania region, North America, and to a lesser extent, Europe, often through Africa.

North America accounted for 4% of global opiate seizures in 2002. The main source of supply for the countries in North America are opiates produced in Mexico and Colombia, although some also originate in Southeast and Southwest Asia. Shipments of opiates from the Americas to other continents are very rare.

Opiate seizures grew in the 1980s and more rapidly in the 1990s. They dropped in 2001, but increased again in 2002, reflecting the resumption of Afghan opium production. However, they are still slightly below the peak reached in 2000.

Amphetamine-Type Stimulants

Amphetamines. About 34 million people, 0.6% of the population aged 15 and above are estimated to use amphetamines worldwide. Trafficking of ATS is concentrated in Southeast Asia, Europe, and North America. In addition, the Oceania region gained in importance in recent years. In 2002, 64% of global seizures of amphetamines (i.e., ATS, excluding ecstasy) took place in East and Southeast Asia. The world’s largest ATS seizures in 2002 were reported from Thailand (39%) and China (14%).

The massive increase in the 1990s and the subsequent decline of methamphetamine seizures in East and Southeast Asia in 2001 and 2002 was mainly due to China, a reflection of rising production in the 1990s and lower domestic production over the last few years.

The most lucrative market for methamphetamine produced in China is Japan. In addition, Japanese authorities have recently reported increasing illegal imports of methamphetamine from North Korea. Thailand continues to be affected by large-scale production of methamphetamine in neighboring Myanmar. The main precursor chemical for the manufacture of methamphetamine, ephedrine, used to originate over the past decade almost exclusively in China. In recent years, however, authorities in Myanmar reported that ephedrine of Chinese origin was partly substituted by ephedrine produced in India, apparently reflecting improved controls introduced by the Chinese authorities in recent years.

Of global amphetamines seizures, 18% took place in Europe in 2002. These seizures are primarily of amphetamine. Methamphetamine manufacture within Europe is largely limited to just one country, the Czech Republic, which until the mid 1990s was an important producer of ephedrine. Central locations for the manufacture of amphetamine are the Netherlands, Belgium, and increasingly, Poland. In most of these countries the main “raw material” for the manufacture of amphetamine is P-2-P (1-phenyl-2 propanone), also known as BMK (benzylmethylketone).

North America accounted for 16% of global amphetamines seizures in 2002. Although there is some local manufacture of amphetamine, most of the seizures in North America are of the more potent methamphetamine. Most of the methamphetamine in the United States and Canada is nowadays produced from pseu-doephedrine, which is often smuggled into the United States through Canada. In addition, Mexico plays an important role as a transshipment location for ephedrine. Criminal Mexican groups are known to be involved in the manufacture of methamphetamine, both in Mexico and in the United States.


Ecstasy is consumed worldwide by about 8 million people, or 0.2% of the population aged 15 and above. The largest seizures of ecstasy (MDMA) over the past decade were made in Europe (66% of global seizures in 2002) followed by North America (12%). Increasingly, however, trafficking in ecstasy is emerging as a global phenomenon affecting countries in Europe, North America, Oceania, Central America, the Caribbean, South America, East and Southeast Asia, the Near and Middle East, and Southern Africa. The main production centers are the Netherlands and Belgium, although in recent years, production has also started to spread to a number of other countries in Europe, North and South America, Southeast Asia, and Oceania.

Ecstasy seizures showed a strong upward trend over the last decade. The most frequently encountered chemicals among the MDMA precursors are 3,4-MDP-2-P (3,4-methylenedioxyphenyl-2-propanone), also known as PMK (piperonyl methyl ketone), followed by safrole (often in the form of sassafras oil) and piperonal, both precursors for the manufacture of 3,4-MDP-2-P. Although 3,4-MDP-2-P is the main ecstasy precursor used in Europe, safrole, in the form of sassafras oil, is the main ecstasy precursor used in North America.

Trafficking Patterns

Cannabis (Herb and Resin)

The trafficking of cannabis herb is fairly decentralized. Most of it is trafficked locally, although established international trafficking routes continue to exist and some of the trafficking can be characterized as being well organized. Most of the cannabis herb (77% on average) is trafficked by road, followed by trafficking by boat. There are a number of cases of marijuana trafficking networks expanding their activities to other drugs as well. This was the case, for instance, with several criminal groups from Western Africa that started out in cannabis herb trafficking and later expanded to shipping opiates from Southwest or Southeast Asia to Europe and North America or to trafficking cocaine from South America to Europe.

Cannabis resin production is more concentrated and confined to just a few countries: Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. Trafficking occurs mainly to neighboring countries and to Europe. Most of the hashish is trafficked by road (70% on average), followed by trafficking by sea.


The main change in the organization of cocaine trafficking over the past decade was the end of cartelization. This followed the dismantling of the Medellin and the Cali cartels in the first half of the 1990s. The operations of the cartels were increasingly taken over by a large number of decentralized trafficking groups. Production of coca leaf, which used to take place mainly in Peru (and to a lesser extent in Bolivia), shifted to Colombia, closer to the cocaine laboratories, following successful operations to break the air bridge linking Peru and Columbia in the mid 1990s. One negative side effect was that cocaine manufacturing capacities also started to develop in Peru. The bulk of the cocaine production, however, continues to take place in Colombia. Despite this, the role of Colombia as the center for the international cocaine trade declined in recent years. In addition to Colombian groups, which had almost monopolized the cocaine trade in the 1980s and the early 1990s, a number of other groups emerged over the past decade, including trafficking groups from neighboring countries as well as a number of Mexican groups, which now dominate the cocaine trade from Mexico to the western and central parts of the United States. Colombian groups continue to dominate the trade to Florida, to the east coast of the United States, and to Spain. The cocaine trade to the United Kingdom is dominated by criminal groups from the Caribbean region. Over the past decade, a number of West African groups have become active in smuggling cocaine within Western Europe.

Although vertically integrated trafficking networks are less prevalent now, the average volume of a typical cocaine seizure remains significantly larger than that of opiates or ATS. This reflects the fact that cocaine shipments tend to be larger and that the cocaine trade is still more hierarchically organized than trafficking in other drugs. In 2002, the average size of a cocaine seizure amounted to 2.4 kg (ranging from less than 0.1 kg to more than 11 tons); the average size of a heroin seizure was 0.4 kg and the average size of an ATS seizure was 0.1 kg. Expressed in dosage equivalents, the average size of a cocaine seizure is also larger than the average size of a cannabis seizure. Based on individual seizure cases reported to UNODC, more than 50% of the cocaine was seized in 2002 from ships, 18% on the road (cars/trucks), and 10% from aircraft. The most cocaine seizure cases, however, were made from tourists traveling by air (66%).


The main trafficking route of opiates is from Afghanistan to Europe; the second largest is from Myanmar and the Lao PDR (People’s Democratic Republic) to China and Thailand and the third largest from Colombia and Mexico to the United States. One general trend over the past decade has been a shift of manufacturing capacities closer to the areas of opium production. Although in the early 1990s the bulk of the heroin destined for the European market was still manufactured in Turkey (and to a lesser extent in Pakistan), in recent years, heroin production capacities within Afghanistan have increased significantly.

The opiate trafficking chains are rather complex. Individual criminal groups generally transport opiates over shorter distances than for the typical trafficking in cocaine. Opiate trafficking is often organized along ethnic lines. Typically, Pashtun traders sell the opium to operators of clandestine laboratories in Afghanistan. The opium or heroin is then sold to other Pashtun or Baluch traders who smuggle the opium/heroin across the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan or Iran, or to Afghan Tajiks who ship the heroin across the border to Tajikistan. Tajik groups from Tajikistan are then frequently involved in smuggling the heroin to major Russian towns. From there, criminal Russian groups take over the business. In another parallel route, criminal Pakistani groups transport the heroin either by air or by sea to Europe or, by road, to neighboring Iran. Iranian groups then ship the heroin across the country to eastern Turkey. Criminal Kurdish/ Turkish groups transport the heroin across Turkey to Istanbul. Kurdish/Turkish groups— and, increasingly, also Albanian ones (from Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and partly also from Albania)— then smuggle the heroin to wholesalers in Western Europe. Finally, various West African and North African criminal groups then often take charge of retail distribution.

In 2002, 70% of the heroin seized was being transported in trucks and cars. The next most common modes of transport were by air and by sea. Heroin trafficking by rail seems to be the most common form of transport in the countries of Central Asia and in the Russian Federation.

ATS (Amphetamines, Ecstasy)

Production and consumption of ATS are, in general, less geographically separated than is the case of the other illicit drugs. One consequence of this is that trafficking in amphetamines (although not ecstasy) is mainly intraregional, not interregional. The possibilities of seizing large ATS deliveries while in transit are thus more limited than for cocaine or opiates. In contrast, ATS precursors are increasingly being trafficked interregion-ally—partly a consequence of better controls of precursor chemicals in developed countries.

Amphetamines. In the case of “amphetamines” (ATS excluding ecstasy) more than 80% were seized on the road in 2002. The next most frequently used form of transport was by ship. In East and Southeast Asia, countries reported, on average, that 65% of the methamphetamine discovered was seized while still on ships.

The degree of the involvement of organized crime groups in ATS production and trafficking differs from region to region. In Europe, a professional ATS manufacturing and trafficking sector seems to exist in tandem with a significant number of amateurs, producing relatively small amounts for themselves and for their friends. The involvement of organized crime groups is far more pronounced in East and Southeast Asia. In particular, the Japanese Yakuza (Japanese mafia) has for years been heavily involved in the organization of illegal methamphetamine imports into Japan and their distribution at the local level. In Myanmar, several of the paramilitary ethnic groups that used to control the opiate business have recently diversified into methamphetamine production and distribution. In the United States, criminal groups, often operating out of Mexico, have been involved in setting up domestic production and distribution of methamphetamine, partly taking over this business from the biker gangs that used to control it in the 1980s.

Ecstasy. In the case of ecstasy, the traditional pattern of drugs moving from developing to developed countries has been reversed. Ecstasy is still mainly produced in Europe while consumption has spread from Europe to many countries beyond, including North and South America, Oceania, Asia, and Africa. Dutch and Israeli criminal groups have been heavily involved in setting up distribution networks outside Europe. In addition, a large number of individuals have begun to engage in small-scale ecstasy trafficking.

Over the past few years, there have been a number of attempts to produce ecstasy in developing countries as well, notably in Southeast Asia and, to a lesser extent, in Central and South America and Southern Africa. More than 70% of the ecstasy was seized in road traffic in 2002, followed by seizures from aircraft. If ecstasy trafficking among European countries is excluded, more than 70% of the ecstasy seizures in the rest of the world were made from aircraft, reflecting the increasingly international character of trafficking.

International Action against Drug Trafficking

Measures against drug trafficking have been in place in a number of countries since the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the measures, however, were mainly “national” in character. This is not surprising given that the international drug control system was originally geared primarily toward controlling the licit trade in drugs. The Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961, for instance, obliged member states to limit production, trade, and possession of drugs to medical and scientific purposes (Article 4) and under Action against the Illicit Traffic (Article 35) urged member states to improve coordination and international cooperation, basically by expediting the exchange of information. Under Penal Provisions (Article 36) member states were urged to introduce adequate punishments for serious offenses such as drug trafficking.

The focus on fighting international drug trafficking, however, was not highlighted until the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances. The basic philosophy of the 1988 Convention was to reduce incentives for drug trafficking by increasing the risk involved (e.g., imprisonment) as well as by reducing the potential benefits (e.g., confiscation of the proceeds of drug trafficking).

The 1988 Convention obliges member states to establish as a criminal offense (Article 3) illicit traffic in drugs (including the cultivation of narcotic plants), the manufacture and distribution of equipment and precursor chemicals, and the conversion or transfer of property derived from drug trafficking (money laundering). In addition, it also foresees

  • Mutual legal assistance in investigations, prosecutions and judicial proceedings (Article 7)
  • Extradition (Article 6)
  • Controlled deliveries (Article 11)
  • Action against money laundering and the confiscation of criminal assets (Article 5)
  • Action against precursors (Article 12)

Each measure has been proven useful in dismantling drug-trafficking groups, which are increasingly transnational in nature. This is not only true for mutual assistance in investigations but also for extraditions (notably of criminals who could otherwise count on the weaknesses in local judicial systems) and for controlled deliveries, which have proven to be particularly powerful instruments against trafficking networks. Much work still needs to be done in a number of countries to include controlled deliveries among the achievement indicators for police forces. Otherwise, there is a danger that national police forces may not be inclined to participate in such international operations, which draw resources away from other activities.

Another important field of cooperation is the struggle against money laundering and provisions for confiscating illegally acquired fortunes. Indeed, most drug trafficking is done for profit, and nothing hurts drug traffickers more than losing their illegally acquired fortunes. International agreements in this area are crucial to prevent local pressure on politicians to close their eyes to such matters in the interest of domestic investment or employment. In this regard, the link between fighting money laundering and local authorities to confiscate the proceeds of drug trafficking is important. Article 5 of the 1998 Convention states that “each Party shall adopt such measures as may be necessary to enable its competent authorities to identify, trace, and freeze or seize proceeds” and property derived from drug-trafficking activities (para 2), further stating that “a Party shall not decline to act under the provision of this paragraph on the ground of bank secrecy” (para 3) and that “each Party may consider ensuring that the onus of proof be reversed regarding the lawful origin of alleged proceeds or other property liable to confiscation” (para 7), thus raising the chances of confiscating criminal assets.

Measures against the diversion of a number of identified precursor chemicals are another crucial element of the 1988 Convention, which have helped to identify a number of clandestine laboratories and prevent the illegal manufacture of drugs in a number of cases. The underlying problem is that many of these chemicals have many legitimate uses. Unless properly monitored, however, they can be diverted for illegal uses. Precursor control is an important element of drug control, particularly for synthetic drugs such as ATS. It is the main supply reduction measure for ATS, similar to controlling the cultivation of opium poppy or coca leaf. Without an effective international system of precursor control, it would be very difficult to explain to the chemical industry of any specific country why it should not fulfill the orders of particular clients, and thus forgo income opportunities, when companies from other countries would supply the chemical.

At the operational level, close cooperation among the various law enforcement bodies—both within countries and among countries—has proven to be a sine qua non of effective drug control. In order to implement this, an international framework for such cooperation has been established through the creation of the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and its law enforcement subcommittees, known as the HONLEA meetings (i.e., the meetings of the Heads of National Law Enforcement Agencies), which discuss topics of common interest. More important than the formal meetings as such is the possibility of ongoing informal information exchange, created through the personal contacts and networks emerging among participants of these meetings.

A further important element of operational activities developed in recent years is the creation of international antitrafficking operations such as Operation Purple (for potassium permanganate, the main cocaine precursor), Operation Topaz (for acetic anhydride, a key precursor used to manufacture heroin), and Operation Prism (which targets the main ATS precursors). These operations, organized by a number of key law enforcement agencies, in cooperation with the International Narcotics Control Board and other interested parties, have been successful in stopping a significant number of deliveries of precursor chemicals that were likely to have been diverted to illicit channels for illegal drug manufacture.

A new impetus for strengthening drug control and antitrafficking efforts emerged from the 1998 Special Session of the U.N. General Assembly, Devoted to Countering the Drug Problem Together. At this session the U.N. General Assembly passed a Political Declaration as well as number of Action Plans and/ or Measures to Enhance International Cooperation to Counter the World Drug Problem. The most important of these regarding aspects of drug trafficking concern the following:

  • ATS
  • Precursors
  • Judicial cooperation
  • Money laundering
  • Eradication

New measures foreseen in the Action Plan against Illicit Manufacture, Trafficking and Abuse of Amphetamine-Type Stimulants and their Precursors with regard to the prevention of ATS manufacture and trafficking were, inter alia, (a) the promotion of close cooperation with industry to establish measures or a code of conduct governing the trade in precursors for ATS, (b) greater use of pre-export notifications, and (c) improved monitoring of nonscheduled precursors and the establishment of an international special surveillance list of such substances (Article 18). With regard to the ATS end products, the Action Plan foresees the introduction of the “know your customer” principle in transactions involving ATS (Article 23, h), the introduction of a new system to identify and assess new ATS found on illicit markets more rapidly (Article 23, a), and various measures to bring new ATS more rapidly under control if necessary (Article 23, b). The Action Plan also urges countries to improve their data collection systems on issues such as the size of clandestine laboratories, manufacturing methods, precursors used, prices, purities, and sources of ATS (Article 23, e).

The measures to prevent the diversion of precursors foresee, inter alia, the establishment of a system of control and licensing of all of the enterprises and persons engaged in the manufacture and distribution of Table I and Table II substances (precursor chemicals) of the 1998 Convention, a system for monitoring the international trade in precursors to detect suspicious shipments (Article 4, a), improvement of information exchange (Article 5), and the “know your customer” principle for those who manufacture or market precursor chemicals (Article 9, c), thus giving the seller the responsibility to investigate whether the potential purchaser indeed has a legitimate use for such chemicals.

Under the measures to promote judicial cooperation, the issues of extradition, mutual legal assistance, transfer of proceedings, controlled deliveries, illicit traffic by sea, and cooperation and training are addressed, basically refining the measures already foreseen under the 1988 Convention and taking technological progress into account. Thus, telephone and video link technology, for instance, is to be considered for obtaining witness statements and testimony, to accelerate judicial proceedings and save costs.

The measures to counter money laundering largely followed the provisions already contained in the 1988 Convention, such as the criminalization of the laundering of money derived from serious crimes (such as drug trafficking); the identification, freezing, seizure, and confiscation of the proceeds of such crime; and the requirement of international cooperation and mutual legal assistance in cases involving money laundering (Article 2, a). More specifically, governments are also requested to establish an effective financial and regulatory regime to deny criminals and their illicit funds access to the national and international financial system, inter alia, through customer identification and verification requirements, applying the know your customer principle, mandatory reporting of suspicious activities, and removal of bank secrecy impediments (Article 2, b). More important, in the preamble, a resolution passed by the U.N. CND 2 years earlier (Resolution 5 of 24 April 1996) was recalled (and thus became part of these measures as well), which declared the 40 recommendations of the Financial Action Task Force, established by the industrialized countries, as the standard by which the measures against money laundering adopted by concerned states should be judged.

Finally, the Action Plan on International Cooperation on the Eradication of Illicit Drug Crops and on Alternative Development obliges states to “develop national strategies for the reduction and elimination of illicit crops. … National drug crop reduction and elimination strategies should include comprehensive measures such as programmes in alternative development, law enforcement and eradication” (Article 4).

The Action Plan also introduces, for the first time, clear guidelines on the concrete measures to be taken to eliminate the cultivation of illicit crops and thus eliminate the very basis for drug trafficking: “In cases of low-income production structures among peasants, alternative development is more sustainable and socially and economically more appropriate than forced eradication” (Article 7). “In areas where viable alternative programmes have not yet created viable alternative income opportunities, the application of forced eradication might endanger the success of alternative development programmes” (Article 31). In contrast, “when there is organized criminal involvement in illicit drug crop cultivation and drug production, the measures, such as eradication, destruction of illicit drug crops and arrests, called for in the 1961 Convention … and the 1988 Convention are particularly appropriate” (Article 29). The Action Plan also underlines the role of law enforcement measures in this context: “Law enforcement measures are required as a complement to alternative development programmes in order to tackle other illicit activities such as the operation of illicit drug laboratories, the diversion of precursors, trafficking, money laundering and related form of organized crime” (Article 28, a). “Comprehensive law enforcement programmes can affect the profitability of illicitly cultivated drug crops and, in so doing, make alternative sources of legal income more competitive and attractive” (Article 28, b). “In areas where viable alternative sources of income already exist, law enforcement measures are required against persistent illicit cultivation of narcotic crops” (Article 30).

All these measures cannot, of course, stop drug trafficking entirely. But they seem at least to have led to a certain stabilization or perhaps even first signs of a decline of drug trafficking during the past few years, which can be regarded as progress if viewed against the background of decades of ongoing increases. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) advocates the need for a balanced approach, aiming at a reduction of both demand and supply of drugs. Fighting drug trafficking is an important component within this strategy because it reduces both demand (through higher drug prices in consumer markets) and supply of illicit drugs in the producer countries (through lower farm gate prices). One important precondition for further success, however, is better cooperation among the various law enforcement bodies, both within and among countries, to counteract the globalizing tendencies of drug-trafficking groups. Much progress has been made over the past few years. More is still needed. The international framework for cooperation exists. It merely needs more concrete efforts to make it bite.