Back to focus index

CIAO Focus, January 2014: The Illicit Drug Trade and Conflict in the Americas

A great deal of scholarly and policy attention has been given in recent years to the relationship between illicit trade and armed conflict. Much of the focus has been on how violent non-state actors have exploited illicit commerce to fund and sustain rebellion. It is commonly asserted that this is a distinctly post-Cold War phenomenon—even a defining characteristic of so-called “new wars.”1 A frequent argument, for example, is that in the absence of formal external sponsorship from the United States or the former Soviet Union, insurgents have increasingly turned to alternative forms of material support. This includes illicit exports dubbed “conflict commodities,” such as drugs, timber, ivory, diamonds, and so on. Thus, partly thanks to the campaigns of international NGOs such as Global Witness, diamonds from conflict zones in West Africa have been labeled “blood diamonds” (inspiring a James Bond movie and other major Hollywood productions).

Illegal drugs such as opium and cocaine have come to be particularly associated with armed conflict, given their role in ongoing insurgencies in Colombia and Afghanistan. Colombian government officials and their U.S. backers increasingly charge that the FARC guerillas—often labeled “narco-terrorists” or “narcoguerillas”— are driven by drug profits rather than political grievance. Thus, in this case, a political economy argument is used to delegitimize an insurgency. But as the “greed and grievance” debate in the literature has underscored, it is important to differentiate between commodities causing vs. facilitating conflict. And the FARC dates back to the 1960s, before Colombia became a major cocaine exporter.

Much of the attention to the illicit political economy dimensions of conflict is welcome and long overdue—all armed conflicts, after all, have a political economy, and this includes an illicit side. Too often, however, the end result of this new attention has been to distort and exaggerate more than to explain and inform. And the contemporary novelty of the illicit trade and conflict connection tends to be simply asserted rather than empirically demonstrated. What is needed is a more historically informed, nuanced and critical examination of the complex relationship between illicit trade and warfare.

--Peter Andreas, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University


From the CIAO Database:

The International Politics of Drugs and Illicit Trade in the Americas

The Illicit Trade & Conflict Connection: Insights from U.S. History

Illicit Americas: Historical Dynamics of Smuggling in U.S. Relations with Its Neighbors

Calderón's War

Guatemala: Drug Trafficking and Violence

Latin American Drugs II- Improving Policy and Reducing Harm


Outside Sources: *

Latin America and the Caribbean: Illicit Drug
Trafficking and U.S. Counterdrug Programs
(CRS Report for Congress)

Narcotics Enforcement (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

UN report puts world's illicit drug trade at estimated $321b (Boston Globe)

Drug Trafficking (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime)

Peru: Cocaine Capital of the World (BBC video)

* Outside links are not maintained. For broken outside links, CIAO recommends the Way Back Machine.