Drug trafficking Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Drug trafficking and immigration are strongly correlated because most of the illegal drugs that enter the United States originate outside the country. Thousands of undocumented immigrants from various countries work as couriers, smuggling narcotic and other banned drugs into the United States.

The drug trade in illegal drugs began reaching epidemic proportions during the 1990’s. Scholars have estimated that profits from international drug trafficking were nearing $10 trillion dollars annually by the twenty-first century. The United States is meanwhile the most lucrative market for international drug traffickers, with tons of illegal drugs smuggled into the country every day. Many of the couriers who are paid to bring in the drugs are themselves illegal immigrants.Drug traffickingCrime;drug traffickingDrug traffickingCrime;drug trafficking[cat]CRIME;Drug trafficking[01440][cat]BUSINESS;Drug trafficking[01440]

Illegal drug trafficking has become a global black market consisting of the farming, processing, distribution, and sale of illegal narcotics. Most countries throughout the world prohibit trade, except under license, of many types of illegal drugs. The illicit drug trade operates much like other illegal underground markets. Drug gangs and cartels specialize in the separate processes along the supply chain, sometimes involving multiple countries. The cartels vary in size, ethnic and racial membership, organizational structure, and country of origin. Supply chains range from low-level street dealers to mid-level street gangs and couriers, up to multinational drug empires. Illegal drugs can be grown and processed almost anywhere: in the wilderness, on farms and plantations, in residential gardens, inside residential homes, and in labs secreted inside such structures as abandoned city buildings in major urban districts or rural mobile home parks. The most common element connecting these places of production is that all the locations must remain secret to avoid detection by law enforcement. Much of the twenty-first century illegal drug cultivation and processing takes place in developing nations; however, some is done in such developed nations as the United States, Canada, Germany, and France. Consumption of illegal drugs is widespread globally and has beenregarded as having reached epidemic proportions within the United States.

Although consumers of illegal drugs avoid taxes by buying their drugs on black markets, the high costs of illegal narcotics comes from the money necessary to protect trade and trafficking routes from law enforcement. Those who carry the drugs from country to country tend to be undocumented migrants who work as low-level employees for known drug cartels. Illegal immigrants are recruited and used on a daily basis to transport drugs over national borders, especially into the United States. Mexico;drug traffickingMexico is particularly well known for the growing, processing, and distribution of various illegal narcotics including Marijuanamarijuana, Cocainecocaine, Heroinheroin, and Methamphetaminesmethamphetamines. Because the U.S. demand is huge, Mexican drug cartels can easily recruit Mexicans and Central Americans seeking better lives in the United States to carry the contraband north when they attempt to enter the United States. When these people succeed in crossing the border, they may choose either to continue to transport drugs for the cartel or to remain in the United Statesillegally. Although most illegal immigrants who come to the United States are not involved in drug trafficking, thousands are.

Sources of Illegal Drugs

Many diverse groups traffic and dispense illegal drugs in the United States. Criminal gangs operating in South America smuggle thousands of pounds of Cocainecocaine and Heroinheroin into the United States via a variety of entry points, including land routes through Mexico, offshore routes along Mexico’s east and west coasts, open-sea routes through the Caribbean Islands, and air routes. Violent criminal drug gangs operating out of Mexico;drug traffickingMexico transport millions of pounds of various narcotics into the U.S annually. Some of these groups began smuggling and distributing drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and Marijuanamarijuana across the U.S.-Mexican border during the mid-1970’s. After successfully distributing drugs in western and midwestern American states, Mexican drug cartels have begun expanding their markets into southeastern, eastern, and northeastern states.

Other countries have also gained footholds in the U.S. drug market. Israeli immigrants;drug traffickingIsraeli and Russian immigrants;drug traffickingRussian drug cartels along with other western European drug traffickers have been using illegal immigrants to traffic a drug known on the street as "Ecstasy"[ecstasy]“ecstasy” in the United States. This drug is usually manufactured in underground labs in both eastern and western Europe, whence it is transported to the United States, usually in commercial airliners. Criminal gangs located in Southeast and Southwest Asia smuggle thousands of pounds of Heroinheroin into the United States every year. Using New York City and Philadelphia as their primary distribution points, these gangs move heroin up and down the eastern United States with the help of illegal immigrants.

Drug Trafficking and Illegal Immigration

Drug smuggling and money laundering have been practiced for hundreds of years, but globalization has raised drug trafficking to a multi-trillion dollar international business. U.S. authorities have witnessed and felt the deleterious effects of both the narcotics trade and the illegal immigrants who transport the drugs into the country. The illegal drug market in the United States is one of the most lucrative in the world. Consequently, the country attracts the most merciless, sophisticated, and insistent drug traffickers. Federal, state, and local law-enforcement agencies face intimidating challenges in protecting the national borders.

Roadblock set up by U.S. border officials checking for drugs on Interstate-5 near San Diego, California, in early 2009.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

According to early twenty-first century U.S. Customs Service figures, 70 million people enter the United States on more than 700,000 commercial and private flights every year. Another 6.5 million arrive by sea, and millions more arrive by land. Nearly 120 million vehicles cross U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico. More than 90,000 merchant and passenger ships dock at U.S. ports, carrying 10 million shipping containers loaded with more than 400 million tons of cargo. Another 160,000 small vessels visit many U.S. coastal towns. There are thus ample methods for transporting illegal narcotics into the United States.

According to federal government figures, roughly 12 million illegal immigrants were living in the United States in 2008. About 75 percent of all illegal immigrants who made the United States their new home between 2000 and 2008 came from Mexico. By the end of 2008, CaliforniaCalifornia;illegal immigration alone had about 3 million illegal immigrants residing within its boundaries. On the frontline of illegal immigrant and drug trafficking is the United States Border Patrol, U.S.;responsibilitiesBorder Patrol. Along with legal entry points, the Border Patrol is responsible for patrolling nearly 6,000 miles of both the Mexican and Canadian land borders and more than 2,000 miles of coastal waters surrounding Puerto Rico and the Florida peninsula.

On average, more than 500,000 illegal immigrants were arrested every year during the early twenty-first century, either while they were in the United States or while they tried to cross the border. In 2007 alone, Border Patrol agents arrested more than 850,000 people attempting to enter the country illegally. Because the federal government estimates that only 10-20 percent of all illegal immigrants are apprehended, as many as 4 million undocumented immigrants may enter the country undetected every year. Federal officials have also estimated that nearly 80-90 percent of illegal drugs entering the United States come from Mexico;drug traffickingMexico. Most of these drugs are smuggled in by illegal immigrants.

In 2005, federal law-enforcement seizure counts for Cocainecocaine and Marijuanamarijuana alone were astounding. The government stated that 1.13 million pounds of cocaine and 6.9 million pounds of marijuana with a total estimated street value of more than $80 billion dollars was seized. Additionally, federal law-enforcement officials estimated that only 20 percent of the drugs coming into the country is seized.

Because of increasing drug-smuggling activities along the southwestern border, the Border Patrol, U.S.;and drug trafficking[drug trafficking]Border Patrol has also become a frontline agency in the war on drugs. Between October, 2006, and February, 2007, Border Patrol agents seized 299,154 pounds of marijuana–an amount averaging more than a ton a day. These totals represented a 31 percent increase over the same period during the previous fiscal year, when the amount of marijuana seized shattered previous records. Using the federal law-enforcement seizure rate of 20 percent, federal agents and officers fail to seize close to 4 million pounds of marijuana a year. By the end of 2007, Border Patrol agents seized modest amounts of both cocaine (14,000 pounds) and marijuana (1.8 million pounds). The total street value of drugs confiscated by the Border Patrol in 2007 alone was placed around $1.6 billion. However, the estimated total street value of cocaine and marijuana that actually made it into the United States during that fiscal year was placed around $100 billion.Drug traffickingCrime;drug trafficking

Further Reading
  • Bailey, Bruce, and William Walker, eds. Drug Trafficking in the Americas. Miami, Fla.: University of Miami, North/South Center Press, 1994. Compilation of various research efforts of both North and South American scholars on the illicit drug trade and its effects on both continents. Each chapter provides a different perspective on the problem, including the use of illegal immigrants as drug couriers.
  • Bhattacharyya, Gargi. Traffick: The Illicit Movement of People and Things. London: Pluto Press, 2002. Broad overview of global trafficking in contraband, with a particularly emphasis on drugs, counterfeit products, and people. The author candidly explains how the world’s official economy has become dependant on illegal trade, without which globalization cannot access cheap labor, reach vulnerable new markets, or finance development in poor countries.
  • Decker, Scott, and Margaret Chapman. Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling: Lessons from the Inside. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. Scholarly work offering firsthand accounts of drug smugglers. Drawing on numerous interviews with convicted drug traffickers, the authors provide powerful insights into the dark underworld of drug trafficking, including the use of illegal immigrants as drug “mules.”
  • Friman, H. Richard, and Peter Andreas, eds. The Illicit Global Economy and State Power. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. Detailed look at the global economic impact of illegal commerce throughout the world, with considerable detail on drug trafficking profits and the trade’s ties to some national governments.
  • Morgan, Lee. The Reaper’s Line: Life and Death on the Mexican Border. Tucson, Ariz.: Rio Nuevo Press, 2006. Firsthand account of life on the front line of the U.S.-Mexican border. With more than two decades of experience as a U.S. Border Patrol and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officer, Morgan chronicles various true-life tales of both success and horrific failures along the border, providing revealing insights into bribery, corruption, and other crimes involving government agents, American politicians, and Mexican and American drug lords.
  • Naim, Moises. Illicit: How Smugglers, Traffickers, and Copycats Are Hijacking the Global Economy. New York: Anchor Books, 2007. Uncensored look at the global impact of the drug trade during the previous decade. Special attention is given to the people who are recruited to smuggle drugs across international borders, especially in the United States.

Border fence

Border Patrol, U.S.

Coast Guard, U.S.

Colombian immigrants


Criminal immigrants

Homeland Security, Department of

Illegal immigration

9/11 and U.S. immigration policy

Patriot Act of 2001

Smuggling of immigrants

Categories: History