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Drug Trafficking, National Security and Intelligence Research Paper

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Updated: Aug 6th, 2020

Drug trafficking is one of the major security problems that the United States National Security Council has been battling over the past five decades. According to a study by Coyne and Bell (2014), drug traffickers often consider the United States as their main market because of the country’s population and purchasing power. In the 1980s, Columbia became one of the major sources of drugs that came to the United States. Various drug cartels were formed in South America, Asia, and East Europe to facilitate the trade. In most of the cases, these cartels used carrot-and-stick approach when it came to dealing with security agencies both in their home country and in the United States. This illegal trade was very lucrative and it earned the traffickers a lot of money. The traffickers were always willing to share their money with the security agencies as long as they would get the immunity they needed. Warner (2010) says that it was not easy to ignore the offer of these criminals. Corruption in the United States, especially among the security agencies, made it easy for these criminal gangs to thrive.

Shanty (2011) notes that the security agencies believed that it would be easy to crash these drug cartels whenever they felt it was necessary, and as such they were comfortable earning extra income from them. However, these cartels grew to become the worst enemies of the security agencies around the world. According to Weintraub and Wood (2010), the drug cartels have their military wing responsible for neutralizing any threat, including law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Currently, the United States is still battling the problem of drug trafficking. This trade not only affects American youths who are addicted to drugs, but also poses serious economic and security threat to this country. Every time a leader of these cartel groups is killed, a new leader emerges to ensure that drug trade continues. In this paper, the researcher will look at the national security threat posed by drug trafficking and what the intelligence community can do to help fight this group.

Threats Drug Trafficking Poses to U.S. National Security

Threat to Governance

According to Weintraub and Wood (2010), one of the biggest threats that drug cartels poses on national security is its Penetration of state institutions through corruption. It is human nature to try and use any means possible to get rich and Americans are no exceptions. The drug cartels in this country use a lot of money to bribe their way into the country’s security system. They often use their influence to get critical intelligence, especially those relating to fighting trade in drugs. Their position and constant demands makes it difficult for those trusted with political offices to govern.

A study by Coyne and Bell (2014) found out that it has become almost impossible for the government to fight drug cartels because of their ability to get intelligence ahead of the law enforcement agencies. Cases have also been reported where these cartels force security agencies to ignore their criminal activities because of the amount of money they are often using to bribe their way out. They often bribe both the senior and junior officers, making it almost impossible for any actions to be taken against them. A study by Warner (2010) indicates that some drug cartels are now targeting political leaders. They fund their expensive campaigns and once elected to the office, these leaders become their instrument of power.

Such political leaders lack the moral authority to fight these cartels because they played a critical role in their elections. That explains why drug trafficking has remained a major problem despite the promises that political leaders often make when campaigning. Once they assume office, they forget about their promises and are often quiet despite the suffering of people who abuse these drugs. According to Callaway and Matthews (2008), cases of insubordination among law enforcement agencies are common because of this problem of drug trafficking. Once an officer is in the payroll of these criminal gangs, they become powerful even if they are in junior rank. Such challenges have created inefficiency in law enforcement in the country.

Threat to Economy

Drug trafficking poses a serious threat to the United States’ economy which in turn create a ripple effect on the national security. It is not possible to come up with accurate monetary value of what the United States loses annually to the drug trade because of the syndicated manner of the business. However, this value can be estimated. A report by Coyne and Bell (2014) found out that Medellín Cartel, which was once headed by Pablo Escobar, was responsible for smuggling 80% of Cocaine sold in the United States in the early 1990s. It was estimated that his organization made a daily turnover of about USD 70 million. This would translate into slightly over USD 25 billion every year (Figueira, 2004). This was not the only organization trafficking drugs in this country.

Others too were making away with huge sums of money that would otherwise be spent in developmental projects. According to a study by Shanty (2011), the government is spending a lot of taxpayers’ money on the fight against illegal drugs in the country. The study also shows that over the past 40 years, the country has spent a staggering USD 1 trillion in the fight against drug trafficking. Over that period, USD 450 billion has been spent to locking drug traffickers in the federal courts. USD 121 billion is spent in tracking down and arresting criminals engaged in drug trade. Law enforcement along the borders of the United States consumed USD 49 billion over the same period while USD 33 billion was spent in prevention and rehabilitation programs. Fighting drug lords in their home country cost the country over USD 20 billion, while USD 215 billion went to other expenses.

When the country is forced to spend a lot of money in drug trafficking, it forces the government to reduce its expenditure in other national security issues (Figueira, 2004). Moreover, the money lost to the drug trade has direct impact on the country’s economy. The United States of America has the best security system in the world primarily because of the amount of money the country spends in protecting the country. The Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and various law enforcement agencies play a critical role in protecting the country from homegrown and international threats. The efficiency of these agencies heavily relies on the ability of the government to provide funds they need for their operations. The intelligence agencies not only work within the United States borders but also in other countries around the world. When the government dedicates a lot of resources in fighting drug trafficking, its ability to focus on other security-related issues is reduced. Finding a lasting solution to this problem may help in channeling the resources to other important security concerns.

Crime and Terror

A study by Warner (2010) indicates that there is a close relationship between crime and drug trade. Being an illegal business, it thrives in an environment where there is no political stability. Drug traffickers know that their activities often go unnoticed when the security agencies are paralyzed. Drug kingpins sometimes use their financial capabilities to cause civil strife to enable them conduct their activities without being detected. Drug trade in itself is also associated with crime. Large drug cartels have very powerful military wings primarily responsible for neutralizing threats to their business. Some of these cartels have hired security agents such as the local sheriffs to help ensure that their trade is not affected. These officers would be used by the cartels to neutralize other officers considered a threat to their business. A study by Shanty (2011) also shows that war between these cartels sometimes get very ugly. The cartels always fight to control markets and trade routes.

Their fight involves killing leaders of the rival groups as a way of taking over their market share. Such cases have been witnessed before in the United States, which is their main market, and other countries, which are the source of the product. According to Ratcliffe (2009), it is also easy to link drug trafficking to terror. It is obvious that the United States, and other European nations, have come up with stringent measures to help stop drug trafficking. Sometimes the only possible way that these criminals can use to ensure that their contraband products find their way into the country is to cause a distraction. One of the best ways of distracting the security agencies is to execute a terror acts such as the 2015 San Bernardino attack. As the security agencies focus on such terror attacks, the cartels take advantage of the situation to smuggle their products through the country’s borders.

Human Smuggling

Drug trafficking is getting more sophisticated as security agencies come with new measures to fight this trade. At the sea ports and airports, the government of the United States has come up with modern ways of detecting drugs which are entering the country. To help deal with this problem, the cartels are now using people to help them deal with this problem. One of the ways of doing so is to wrap the drugs in sizable special polythene paper bags and make people swallow the bags. This is the easiest way of going through the security checks at the airports without being detected. Most of these people come to the country as tourists who are supposed to travel back to their home countries. However, in most of the cases they are abandoned by the cartels after their arrival in the country. They become illegal immigrants who are incapable of earning a living in the country legally. They turn into criminals such as robbers and burglars, causing a major threat in the country. Some of them even get recruited by terror organizations who promise to address their needs.

Weaponry Trafficking

Weaponry trafficking is another common problem that is associated with drug trafficking. Most of these traffickers know that they are operating in a very dangerous industry where one can lose life at any time. Both the security agencies and their rival drug traffickers are potential enemies that they have to be weary of at all times. As such, they need to protect themselves at all times. The best way of doing so is to arm up. They often carry with them some of the most sophisticated weapons that would enable them neutralize their attackers with ease. Given that some of these traffickers prefer using unlicensed guns to conceal their identity, their activities have created a booming business for illegal arms trade. Such weapons pose serious threat to the lives of Americans. Crimes committed using such weapons are often very difficult to investigate. The law enforcement officers find it difficult to trace owners of such guns, a fact that has been blamed for cases of murders in the country.

Case Study: Sinaloa Cartel

Sinaloa Cartel, known as Cártel de Sinaloa, is currently one of the leading international organized crime and drug trafficking syndicates in the world. Started in Mexico, this syndicate is responsible for trafficking most of the drugs smuggled in the United States. Sinaloa Cartel has been accused of working closely with security agencies, making it impossible to arrest and prosecute its leaders. The cartel poses serious security threat because of a number of reasons. It has penetrated the intelligence agencies, making it possible for its leaders to have access to classified information meant only for the top security agencies. Having access to such intelligence makes the country vulnerable to external aggressions. The cartel has also been blamed for its direct involvement in deaths of a number of people within the country. Such murders are rarely investigated because of the fear that the law enforcers have towards this syndicated group. The government is yet to come up with an effective approach that can be used to crash this organization.

Role of the Intelligence Community

The intelligence community can play a critical role in the fight against drug trafficking and drug trade in the United States. The community can assist the law enforcement agencies to respond effectively and crash this trade if there is proper coordination. The United States has a number of agencies specifically responsible for intelligence gathering both locally and at international level. The Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation are that most popular intelligence agencies in the country. However, there are other agencies which also play critical roles in gathering intelligence.

They include Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and National Reconnaissance Office (Figueira, 2004). Other intelligence agencies include National Security Agency and Officer of the Director of National Intelligence (Bunck & Fowler, 2012). These agencies have their specific mandate that helps in avoiding overlaps of responsibilities. These agencies have an important role of providing intelligence to the law enforcers that can help in fighting drug trafficking. When conducting their respective duties, these agencies might collect intelligence about operations of drug cartels that may help in tracking them down and making successful arrest.

The intelligence agencies must work as a unit to ensure that they help in fighting drug trafficking. It may seem that this is a responsibility for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Central Intelligence Agency (Shanty, 2011). However, the truth is that these agencies must work as a unit to achieve success in this fight. They must coordinate their activities and share their intelligence to fight powerful drug cartels which are affecting American youths. The intelligence community must work closely with the law enforcement agencies such the state police and local sheriffs. These law enforcement officers can easily lay trap for the traffickers if they are provided with adequate information.

They can also coordinate their activities once they are provided with the important information about these gangs. According to Callaway and Matthews (2008), one of the problems faced in the fight against drug trafficking and drug trade is lack of close coordination among the intelligence community and law enforcement agencies. In fact, cases where the agencies accuse one another of sabotaging the fight against drug trafficking have been witnessed in the past. This has jeopardized ability of the law enforcement agencies to get the right information that can enable them thwart activities of the drug traffickers within the country. It may be necessary for the legislators to come up with laws and regulations that will help fight this illegal trade.

Legal Concerns

Legal concerns have been raised on the fight against drug trafficking in the United States over the recent past. Some critics have argued that the United States intelligence agencies have not been committed to finding a lasting solution to the drug trafficking problem that has bedeviled the nation. In fact, some have argued that that the intelligence agencies have been using some of these cartels for various reasons. According to a study by Ratcliffe (2009), the United States intelligence agencies are believed to have been actively involved in violent Bolivian 1980 coup, popularly known as the cocaine coup. Klaus Barbie, who had been a member of the United States intelligence community at that time, played a major role in the coup.

He helped install a military government in that country and facilitated export of cocaine from the country to Europe and North America (Masse, O’Neil, & Rollins, 2008). It raised legal concerns about the role of the intelligence agencies in the fight against drug trafficking. The fact that the intelligence community had supported a military government that relied on drug trafficking was a sign that there was no true commitment in this fight against trade in drugs. Some scholars argue that the real threat in the fight against drug trafficking in the United States is the intelligence community. This community has vested interests on various issues regarding drug trade. In fact, it has demonstrated its unwillingness to commit its resources to fighting the traffickers. The concept of giving immunity to criminals who help in arresting other cartels has been used to shield drug traffickers.


Drug trafficking is one of the activities that poses serious threat to the country’s national security. The trade not only affects the economy of the country but also affects the youth who become addicted to it, being unable to obey the law. The drug cartels have been responsible for some of the worst cases of armed robberies, human trafficking, weaponry trafficking, and corruption in the country. It is the responsibility of both the intelligence community and the law enforcement agencies to fight this trade. The intelligence community should provide law enforcement agencies with information about activities of the drugs cartels to facilitate their arrest.


Bunck, J. M., & Fowler, M. R. (2012). Bribes, bullets, and intimidation: Drug trafficking and the law in Central America. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Callaway, R. L., & Matthews, E. G. (2008). Strategic US foreign assistance: The battle between human rights and national security. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate.

Coyne, J., & Bell, P. (2014). The role of strategic intelligence in law enforcement: Policing transnational organized crime in Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. New York, NY: Cengage.

Figueira, D. (2004). Cocaine and heroin trafficking in the Caribbean: The case of Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica and Guyana. New York, NY: iUniverse.

Masse, T., O’Neil, S., & Rollins, J. (2008). Information and intelligence (including terrorism) fusion centers. New York, NY: Nova Science Publishers.

Ratcliffe, J. (2009). Strategic thinking in criminal intelligence. Annandale, VA: Federation.

Shanty, F. (2011). The nexus: International terrorism and drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger Security International.

Warner, J. A. (2010). U.S. border security: A reference handbook. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Weintraub, S., & Wood, D., (2010). Cooperative Mexican-U.S. antinarcotics efforts. Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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