The existence of a strong link between international drug trafficking and extreme violence would seem, on the surface, to be an unarguable truth. Countries and regions that provide the main arteries for transporting narcotics are prone to extreme violence; organizations involved in the trade are criminal groups that require violence to defend themselves and their property in an economic sector without formal rules or arbitration; and the principle bulwarks against criminal violence, namely the police, the courts and civil society, are virtually without exception the main targets for these organizations’ co-option and intimidation. Denying any of the above would seem futile.

However, the patterns of causation and alignment that seemingly connect violence and narco-trafficking are far from being simply universal laws. A first complication, in this respect, is statistical: although law enforcement and judicial systems provide estimates of murders and violence caused by organized crime (e.g. in Colombia, Central America), as well as types of victim, the breakdown of violence attributed to different sorts of crime – whether transnational trafficking or local extortion, for example – is rarely made public, and may indeed be unknown.

Secondly, a broad global overview of countries on the main drug trafficking arteries, above all of heroin and cocaine, reveal extreme variations in violence linked to illicit markets. To simplify matters, a categorization can be devised around two main variables linked to the drugs trade: political violence (violence used in efforts to obtain and defend public power), and citizen insecurity (based on murder rates, for want of any better measure). For the sake of further simplicity, this categorization also omits from consideration the hybrid violence generated by armed insurgent groups operating in certain drug production zones, such as Afghanistan. On these bases, the following four categories can be delineated:

  • Political violence and factionalism without effects on citizen insecurity: Guinea-Bissau, Balkans (particularly Kosovo).
  • Citizen insecurity without effect on national political violence: Colombia (post-Escobar), Guatemala.
  • Political violence and citizen insecurity (even when these may be difficult tell apart): Honduras, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. Arguably, violence in criminalized municipalities of Colombia, Mexico and Central America may be included here.
  • Neither political violence nor citizen insecurity: Bolivia, Nicaragua.

While acknowledging the imperfections in these distinctions – Nicaragua is still violent relative to West Europe, for instance, and its drug trafficking zones on the Atlantic Coast are growing markedly more insecure – the categorization broadly holds. It is a matter for conjecture and debate, however, whether countries affected by drug trafficking do not tend towards one of these categories. It is also worth adding that extremes of civil violence can arise in contexts where drug trafficking contributes only marginally to rates of insecurity: Karachi and Caracas are perhaps the best examples.

Thirdly, it is important to underline that organized crime depends for its operations on a certain level of social order and a public sector presence, in the same way that it is parasitic on established trading routes, licit financial markets and flows, and technological advances. Indeed, the institutionalization of criminalized governance – e.g. the Italian mafia, or Colombian post-paramilitary groups – would appear to go hand in hand with declining levels of violence, or more accurately, greater selectivity in the use of violence to promote economic goals and ensure the subjugation of local populations (a process aided by the quasi-legitimacy provided by handouts, patronage and mediation with the state). In other words, the entrenchment of drug trafficking in certain geographic zones such as northern Mexico, especially when accompanied by systemic corruption of the local state and security forces, might be expected to reduce violence.

Explaining the shifts in violence

These three caveats, namely statistical ignorance, varieties of violence, and the long-term embedding of criminal activity in governance, would indicate that a country’s enlistment in the transnational drug trade is no guarantee that bloodshed will rise, or that communities will be directly affected. However, the simultaneous ascent of the narcotics trade and extreme violence within a number of countries and regions, above all Mexico, Central America and Central Asia, appears to conform to a model of extremely close interdependence. In light of the counter-examples above and other exceptions, it is worthwhile trying to identify factors that serve to exacerbate the insecurity generated by illicit activities, or alternatively, to constrain it. Five of these factors stand out:

  1. A segmented enterprise. Although evidence is not overwhelming (for practical reasons), there are indications that the “business” side of international drug trafficking is relatively non-violent. For example, a Home Office study of convicted drug traffickers in British jails[i] found that “violence was more prevalent in the lower market levels, and that the motivations was to control customers and areas.” Transnational trafficking seems to rely on a mobile and very affluent class of mediators and networkers, exemplified in arrests such as those of an Argentine group carrying one tonne of cocaine to Europe by private jet through Barcelona (two of them sons of Argentina’s former Air Force chief), as well as a permanent class of producers, complicit firms, cross-border facilitators and money launderers. Violence, on the other hand, stems from the struggle for territorial control, and (as in Colombia) for protection and ownership of the trafficking enterprise. Where there is no dispute over territory or control, or where these issues are contested solely by factions of the state, violence against civilians should correspondingly be much lower.
  2. The key role of competition. The general character of “networked” criminal organizations lends itself to fragmentation and opportunism. Coercive territorial expansion by a drug-trafficking organization – such as the Zetas into Guatemala or Sinaloa into Honduras post-2008 – generate very high levels of inter-group violence, with effects on local citizens through intensive efforts by rival organizations to co-opt parcels of the state and security forces. Fierce competition, aggravated by a splintering of organizations resulting from the elimination of kingpins and internal divisions (e.g. separation of Zetas from the Gulf Cartel), is evidently the principal source of violence in Mexico, where an estimated 79 percent of organized crime homicides in 2011 resulted from clashes between criminal groups.[ii] In Jamaica, the multiplicity of criminal gangs (estimated total: 268), operating in narrowly defined turfs with quasi-political powers, has served to increase insecurity despite the country’s growing irrelevance within the transnational drug trade.
  3. Links to security forces. Where criminal groups are closely allied with state security forces – or, in extremis, where security forces seek to shape and control competitive illicit markets – their intervention serves as a multiplier of violence. Collusion between the police forces and criminal enterprise in Honduras and Guatemala has been profound, generating, inter alia, easy availability of firearms, manipulation of gang crimes, “liberated spaces” in prisons and extremely high rates of impunity (in Honduras, rates of impunity for close to 50,000 murders over the last decade stand at 80 percent). Furthermore, citizens will prefer not to report on criminal activities if they know that the police are in cahoots with criminal gangs, and that they risk being classified by these organizations as informers. In Jamaica, according to a 2006 survey, 80 percent of those who witness a murder did not report it to the police.[iii]
  4. Levels of community engagement. A critical dimension of criminal violence, and one with numerous context-dependent characteristics, is the nature of the community’s relations with drug traffickers. Very broadly speaking, imbrication between community and trafficking organizations, greater willingness of these groups to defend local interests and welfare, and weak or ad hoc links with transnational structures make it less likely that a criminal enterprise will express itself in acts of violence against citizens. However, this relationship is rich in nuance: Jamaican dons claim to defend their “garrison” communities even though it would appear they have captured these areas for private ends. Furthermore, the relations between community and criminal organizations frequently change shape, particularly in terms of the understanding of community defence. The transition from armed groups defending the integrity of their community into protection rackets and small-scale drugs trafficking is one that is common throughout Central America. In Central Asia, the drug trade, having initially played a role as a post-Soviet coping mechanism, recently appears to have motivated the inter-ethnic violence of southern Kyrgyzstan in 2010.
  5. Spillover. A key determinant of levels of violence is the nature of the criminal linkages emanating from the power and wealth of drug trafficking organizations. Aside from northern Mexico, drug trafficking is not always the most violent criminal activity in a country: there are many more murders in the urbanized south-west of Guatemala, home to the main protection rackets and gang-led activities, than in the principal zones of narco-trafficking (although some of these have the highest murder rates). El Salvador’s high murder rate, meanwhile, is no reflection of its lesser role in the Central American drug trade. But narco-trafficking would seem to play an important role as a source of funding for new enterprises, a co-ordinating mechanism, and as a seed for the spread of extremely violent practices. This has been noted in the case of Mexico. More widely, it has been shown that a repressive policy of law enforcement against the drug trade tend to exacerbate levels of criminal violence.[iv]


Drug-trafficking per se bears no direct relation to levels of criminal violence. In fact, the country that just over a decade ago was a key link in the European heroin trade, and which arguably now displays the clearest signs of weak and criminalized governance in Europe, Kosovo, has low rates for general crimes and for murder, as does all of the post-conflict Balkans. However, close analysis of countries where drug trafficking has become a major source of income and livelihood, as well as an illicit partner to security forces and the state, suggests there must be some sort of relationship between violence and transnational crime.

Importantly, it seems that the trends in global drug trafficking – towards smaller profit-driven networked organizations, towards clustering around key bottlenecks, and towards exploitation of weakly run countries with divided and fractured societies – will accentuate the disposition to violence of these groups. If the lines of causation described above are true, responding to these developments with a security clampdown while seeking to distance communities from illicit trade may serve to hasten the deterioration in citizen security rather than halt it.

[i] Matrix Knowledge Group. 2007. The illicit drug trade in the United Kingdom. London: Home Office. Particularly pp 44-46.

[ii] Figures from Trans-Border Institute. 2012. Drug Violence in Mexico. San Diego: University of San Diego. These statistics apply to murders between January and September 2011.

[iii] Leslie, Glaister. 2010. Confronting the Don: The Political Economy of Gang Violence in Jamaica. Geneva: Small Arms Survey, p. 63.

[iv] Web, Dan et al. 2011. “Effect of drug law enforcement on drug market violence: A systematic review.” In International Journal of Drug Policy, February 2011.

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