Are Law Enforcement Efforts Making Cocaine Trafficking Worse?

By Lindsey Weedston 04/05/19

Researchers examined the effects of law enforcement's counter-drug strategies on drug trafficking. 

law enforcement dealing with cocaine trafficking

New research led by the University of Alabama is showing that cocaine traffickers through Central America are continuously adapting to law enforcement efforts in ways that may be making the problem worse rather than better.

Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, lead author of the paper showing these findings, developed a model of the “cat-and-mouse game” of cocaine smuggling versus government efforts to seize and prevent movement of the drug.

"This work demonstrates that supply-side counterdrug strategies alone are, at best, ineffective and, at worst, intensifying the trafficking problem," said Magliocca according to "These networks have demonstrated their ability to adapt to interdiction efforts, identifying and exploiting new trafficking routes in response."

The findings, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that drug traffickers routinely find ways around routes and means of transportation that are blocked by law enforcement efforts and as a result have expanded their area of use.

In 1996, cocaine trafficking networks spread across 2 million square miles of land. By 2017, that had expanded to 7 million square miles.

The results may suggest that new methods are needed to effectively counter drug trafficking. In 2014, the Global Commission on Drug Policy recommended decriminalizing all drugs and diverting resources from punitive measures into harm reduction strategies.

“Policy shifts towards harm reduction, ending criminalization of people who use drugs, proportionality of sentences and alternatives to incarceration have been successfully defended over the past decades by a growing number of countries on the basis of the legal latitude allowed under the UN treaties,” wrote former President of Brazil and Global Commission on Drug Policy chairman Fernando Henrique Cardoso. “Further exploration of flexible interpretations of the drug treaties is an important objective, but ultimately the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit responsible legal regulation.”

Dr. Magliocca and team’s model used the (admittedly) limited information on drug trafficking routes, volume, and timing to simulate and predict the decision-making process of cocaine smugglers and how their networks adapt to government anti-drug strategies. The results show that current strategies are only causing these networks to spread out, making the same law enforcement efforts more difficult and costly over time.

“The adaptive responses of narco-traffickers within the transit zone, particularly spatial adjustments, must be understood if we are to move beyond reactive counterdrug interdiction strategies,” Magliocca concluded. His team and others will now be able to move on to exploring alternative methods to counter this growing problem.

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Lindsey Weedston is a Seattle area writer focused on mental health and addiction, politics, human rights, and various social issues. Her work has appeared in The Establishment, Ravishly, ThinkProgress, Little Things, Yes! Magazine, and others. You can find her daily writings at Twitter: