Report Illustrates Dynamics of Colombia’s Domestic Drug Trade

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A recent analysis on the relationship between local drug markets and violence and crime in Colombia illustrates the dynamics driving the domestic drug trade, and provides recommendations for comprehensive government interventions designed to result in long-lasting security improvements.

In a study for the Transnational Institute, authors Isaac De Leon Beltran and Juan Carlos Garzon investigate the nature of domestic drug activity — and the urban context in which it takes place — in order to provide a basis for the development and implementation of more effective security strategies.

The authors begin by debunking one of the key assumptions about domestic drug trafficking in Colombia: that transnational criminal organizations have developed local drug distribution networks to offset a loss of influence in global markets. 

Overall, the authors affirm, evidence from Colombia does show a rise in demand for drugs. In 2013, 484,000 people were estimated to be habitual drug users (about 57 percent of the drug using population), up from 298,000 in 2008. However, the authors found no indication that this increase in demand correlated with easier access to drugs.

As expected, the growing domestic drug market has created a significant source of potential income for criminal organizations (profits from domestic marijuana and cocaine sales in Colombia in 2012 were estimated at $139 million and $136 million, respectively). Yet the authors express skepticism that transnational criminal organizations have been able to shift into micro-trafficking due to the different skill sets and organizational capacities required. They state that there is no conclusive evidence of significant connections between transnational and local traffickers.

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Instead, the authors focus on analyzing the dynamics and processes of local urban criminal groups. A key component of these dynamics is the creation of “zones of impunity,” or areas where illegality has become socially accepted, allowing for the emergence and consolidation of local drug markets. For instance, in the case study cities of Cali and Barranquilla, the authors recorded a high density of murders in areas with significant drug seizures and criminal networks. It is in these areas, the authors argue, that criminals have sought to ensure their survival by constructing a social order (“zone of impunity”) conducive to their illicit activities.

The creation of a zone of impunity, however, is a long-term process, and can only occur if criminal organizations are able to replace the legal order of the state with an illegal order favorable for their activities — this requires the replacement of current residents with a like-minded population.

Once established, however, zones of impunity are easier to maintain over time, and it eventually becomes very costly for the state to intervene in these local drug “hotspots.”

In recent years, the Colombian government made targeting these areas — called “ollas” in Spanish — a priority. Yet, while the authors found that police intervention in hotspots had an immediate impact on reducing retail drug sales in the targeted area, it also pushed drug activity to neighboring zones, a phenomenon known as the “balloon effect.” Criminal groups were simply able to relocate to “satellite ollas,” or smaller zones of impunity that could potentially expand into larger ones.

The authors therefore recommended that authorities view these zones of impunity, or hotspots, as part of an interconnected environment, and called for the participation of many different actors responsible for restoring a legal social order. This includes developing a strategy for preventing the displacement of crime into neighboring areas, as well as developing accompanying social interventions to re-establish the state’s presence and reintegrate citizens into mainstream society.

For this to happen, however, the authors stress the need for strong political will on the part of policymakers, the ability to bring criminal groups to justice, and alternative activities and livelihoods for those most susceptible to joining criminal groups.

InSight Crime Analysis

The report — prompted by a 2013 offensive that aimed to dismantle local drug dens, or “ollas,” in order to combat increasing domestic drug use — highlights several important considerations the authors argue policymakers should take into account when targeting drug hotspots.

For instance, while the initiative did result in closing down drug cells in Colombian cities by physically demolishing their areas of operation, it also had the effect of uprooting drug dealers and users, pushing them out into the open and into neighboring areas.

Despite immediately disrupting local drug markets and making short-term advances, the program failed to consolidate these gains, according to the report. Indeed, the strategy of destroying buildings used as drug sales points — which was still being employed a year after the initiative began — essentially amounted to chasing drug dealers around in a game of cat-and-mouse.

Instead, as Beltran and Garzon recommend in their study, targeting problem areas requires a more comprehensive approach.

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For instance, the use of smartphone apps and computer software can help police collect and map data on criminal activity in order to better formulate and target intervention strategies. Nevertheless, these intervention efforts — as Beltran and Garzon point out — are unsustainable in the long run because of a lack of police manpower, and need to be followed up with lasting, sustainable solutions to reduce crime and violence.

Authorities in Ecuador, for example, claim the country was able to successfully lower its homicide rate from 22 per 100,000 in 2011 to 8.3 per 100,000 in 2014 by adopting an integrated citizen security strategy, putting police back on the streets to foster positive relationships with local communities. An assessment of USAID’s community crime prevention work in Central America corroborates the lessons learned in Ecuador, suggesting that the development of programs for at-risk youth, the improvement of public spaces, and community policing have helped to improve citizen security.

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