Amandine Scherrer and James W. Sheptycki


Policing and Society

Vol. 15 No. 4, December 2005, pp. 448-454



Géopolitique des drogues illicites

1er trimester 2004, N° 112

Hérodote: Géopolitique des drogues illicites, 1er trimestre 2004, n° 112
Published in Policing and Society Vol. 15 No. 4, pp. 448-454

The volume under review, Géopolitique des drogues illicites, is a special issue of the French journal Hérodote, the premiere French language journal for geography and geopolitics. The issue is devoted to the analysis of the geopolitics of drugs and it represents a significant departure from the previous paradigm of scholarship on the topic, at least in French circles. For this reason, if for no other, it is worth appreciating its contents. In the present age, sometimes called the age of globalisation, the ‘drug issue’ is no longer (if it ever was) a matter of simply national interest and, as national thought-styles give way under the influence of global currents, we are all looking for clues about the nature of the problem. Some important ones are to be found here. This special issue is the project of Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy and Laurent Laniel, two young, up-and-coming French scholars. It gathers together French, English, Italian and Spanish language scholarship on the topic and presents, for the first time to our knowledge, a critical global perspective on the problem of clandestine drugs in the French language.
The issue begins with a brief introduction by Yves Lacoste (directeur de Hérodote) in which he examines the ‘cancer of illicit drugs’. Although brief, in it Lacoste manages to exemplify most of the traditional understanding of the drug issue among French academics and the public at large, a view that many knowledgeable observers of the scene report to be on the wane. He notes the long history of international drug prohibition, and appreciates the leadership role played by the United States in propounding this global strategy to ‘wipe out the cancer’. Among other things, Lacoste observes that the number of prisoners incarcerated in US jails on drug-related charges increased by 487 percent between the years 1985 and 1995. He reports to his readers, that the official view in US policy circles is that programme of repression resulted in a diminution in drug use in the United States, without either confirming or challenging the claim. Actually, as readers of this journal are probably aware, the available American data for the period shows precisely the opposite. It is true that reliance on law enforcement does produce large numbers of arrests, incarcerations and seizures. However, it is also the case that other indicators relating to the problem of illicit drugs do not suggest that the problem is getting any better. In the United States drug overdose deaths increased 540% between 1980 and 1998 while drug availability and life-time use rates increased and prices fell (Drucker, 1998). Lacoste, like all of those who are in accord with the enforcement of drug prohibition, ends by arguing that ‘the cancer of drugs will continue to propagate itself’ and warning of the continuing need to guard against this through strong law enforcement measures, continued surveillance and public education about the dangers of drugs.
Although Lacoste’s introduction still speaks with what counts for many in France as traditional common sense, the articles chosen by Chouvy and Laniel represent a radical deconstruction of these widely held assumptions. The first article, by Chouvy and Laniel titled ‘The geopolitics of illicit drugs’ sets the tone. They begin by again noting that the project of global drug prohibition is largely an American construct. They cast the readers’ minds back to the era when the idea was originally promulgated (at the very beginning of the 20th century), when protestant religious values which derogated pleasure were in the ascendant, and suggest that these cultural values gave rise to the sensibilities from which prohibition derived. Since that time, they argue, moral entrepreneurs have spread the fear of drugs and they have done so by focusing on specific social and cultural groups (that is: poor people and people of colour). Originally these groups were subordinate to the dominant American WASP power elite and the taking of illicit drugs was “un-American”. Now, in the global age, drugs continue to be metaphorically linked to the dangerous “alien” and it is possible to see that everywhere people facing the worst excesses of repression under the auspices of the drug war are poor people and people of colour. This, the authors note, can be seen in the statistics regarding social and ethnic composition of imprisoned drug users worldwide.

Chouvy and Laniel argue that the distinction between licit/illicit drugs has no scientific basis, but rather is the consequence of moral, ideological, and geopolitical distinctions. They argue that the prohibitionist regime is based on a false assumption that the use of drugs is dangerous for everyone, everywhere and forever. This assumption exaggerates the chemical properties and dangers of drugs while denying the fact that their effects depend also on the social representations that describe their use. Drugs, they argue, should be considered primarily as socio-cultural objects. Prohibition, however, has served to establish the basis for the illicit market in some drugs, with drastic consequences for the socio-cultural reproduction of drug use. They focus especially on how illicit drugs have been used by a range of social and political actors in the context of war. They observe that drugs labelled illicit have been used to enhance military capabilities; for example morphine has been used by the military as a painkiller for over a century and amphetamines have been used to enhance battle performance for at least half a century. Then too, money from illicit drug sales has been used to fund clandestine wars in south-east Asia, Afghanistan, Central America and elsewhere. Also drug prohibition has justified the pursuit of political goals, for example in the post-Cold War period the drug war was used to justify American involvement in Colombia when anti-Communism no longer provided useful ideological coverage. Laniel and Chouvey go further and note that, with the Free Trade Area of the Americas, launched in 2005, it now appears as though US Colombian policy aims at imposing a violent pacification in a country that offers many natural resources essential to the FTAA success.
The authors deconstruct the generally shared assumption that drug production is a problem in the ‘underdeveloped’ southern hemisphere whereas drug consumption is a problem for the ‘developed’ North. Global drug prohibition means that countries and territories everywhere are implicated in the illicit economy – as producers, consumers, and transit routes. They argue that illicit drug markets are born out of the geography of global, regional and local inequities and that it is these inequities that underscore the distribution, variation and evolution of these markets, not the patterns of the North-South divide that development economists think about. Chouvy and Laniel show how, globally, prohibition has made illicit trade in illicit drugs profitable (remember, under conditions of globalisation, there is an illicit trade in licit drugs too – but that is another matter). Geopolitically, involvement in this clandestine trade has justified the imposition of embargos and more drastic types of sanction that in turn, and perversely, seem only to have encouraged further development of the market. Generally speaking, they argue, the global regime of prohibition has encouraged the illicit economy by making it more profitable. Ultimately, the One Hundred Years War on Drugs in the United States has been shown to be ineffective in stopping the use of these substances. US policy can be criticized because of its discriminatory consequences on minorities and the poorest populations domestically, while in South America and other regions, the war against drugs is perceived as a tool of domination, of interference, which only reinvigorates local warlords.
Subsequent contributions to this issue of Hérodote put more meat on the bones of the analysis pursued by Chouvy and Laniel. Alain Labrousse, looks specifically at the situation in Colombia. Labrousse is a sociologist by background and is one of principal founders of the Observatoire géopolitique des drogues and author of the Dictionnaire géopolitique des drogues (2003). He provides a detailed analysis of the role that the cocaine economy has played in the internal conflicts in Colombia from 1978 to the present. According to this analysis, cocaine began as the sinews of the conflict, but became its stakes. In other words, where once cocaine provided a source of funding for the pursuance of civil war, now the very reason for the continuance of the conflict is to control (and profit from) those resources. According to this contributor, the only way to get rid of this scourge would be to legalize the use of drugs. Legalization, he feels, at least would have an economic impact, by undermining the profitability of the drugs, and would also allow a better treatment of drug takers.
The next contribution, by Luis Astorga a researcher at the Institute of Social Research at the Autonomous National University of Mexico, looks in great detail at the situation in Mexico. He traces the drug economy in its development from the early years of the 20th century, but pays special attention to the period beginning in the 1980s. This is when the profitability of cocaine began to soar, and not coincidentally, when the extra-territorial activities of the US Drug Enforcement Agency began to be develop in earnest. He looks in particular detail at the activities of the DEA in relation to the networks of criminal entrepreneurs and corrupt politicians in Mexico. During the presidency of Carlos Salinas once dominant crime groups based in the Sinaloa State (in the north of the country on the pacific coast, opposite the southern tip of the Baja peninsula) lost their dominance to groups in Tamaulipas State (in the north east of the country, on the Gulf of Mexico, directly bordering on Texas). With the election of Vicente Fox in 2000, the ministry of Defence came to play an increasing role in the fight against drug trafficking, but problems of corruption and ineffectiveness remained. The precise structure of the criminal groups who dominate the cross-border trade continue to shift and change, partly as a result of a number of high-profile arrests, but the trade never diminished. Astorga ends by noting that the intensification of security measures taken at the US-Mexico border have not altered the basic laws of supply and demand, and thus have had little effect on drug prices and availability on the US market.
Paul Gootenberg, Professor of History and Director of Caribbean and Latin American Studies at the State University of New York (Stony Brook) provides the next offering. This is an historical analysis of the cocaine trade, which he divides into three periods. According to Gootenberg, in the early period (1860-1910), coca was an openly available product with widely recognised medicinal, nutritive and stimulation effects, and its use was promoted throughout the world. The Germans dominated the international trade at this time and in the USA coca was widely marketed. However, in the early 1900s, dominant governmental and medical opinion began to shift and there was a growing reluctance to acknowledge it beneficial uses. Instead a new discourse which focused on cocaine’s “evil” uses among poor populations or among certain ethnic communities began to be articulated. The author stresses the coincidence of this shift in discourse in a broader context which includes the extension of US geo-political influence in the Andean region. The success of cocaine’s vilification led to a gradual decline in the medical use of the drug over the course of the second phase during which, according to Gootenberg, US foreign policy regarding cocaine pursued an “anti-narcotic diplomacy”. Under US influence an anti-coca consensus emerged in the UN after the WWII and so, whereas the 19th Century had legitimised the coca trade, the 20th Century structured its criminalization. In the third phase (1950-2000) criminal networks became more structured as a consequence of prohibition. According to Gootenberg, national and international prohibition pushed the once licit coca trade into the illicit sphere. Thus, the illicit cocaine trade first emerged between 1947 and 1964, then turned into a socially integrated economy between 1964 and 1975, and finally achieved its acme during the “war on drugs” context. At every step, repression only served to further increase criminal profits, even while it pushed trafficking into a world of violence.
Next, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy turns the analysis on to developments in Asia. The Golden Triangle and Golden Crescent hold common linguistic currency in both English and French, and are synonymous with representations of heroin production, but these are not distinct and bounded geographical locations. Rather, Chouvy argues, they are a complex overlapping of sovereign territories and claims. These designations, the Golden Triangle and the Golden Crescent, are constituted by our pre-occupations with the present economies of war, poverty and underdevelopment wherein, as in the Colombian example, drugs have evolved from sinews to stakes. Chouvy’s article is nicely complemented by David Mansfield’s contribution. Mansfield, currently Drugs Advisor for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, provides an analysis of the failure of alternative development in Afghanistan. According to him, since the 80’s, the production of opium in Afghanistan has had an increasing role in the survival strategy of the poor rural communities wracked by war. All the alternative development programs initiated (mostly by UN agencies) have tried and failed because they are an inadequate answer to the economic advantages of opium. Program failure results from the lack of support policies, of institutions, of public funds and, of course, because of continuing conflict. The long-term strategy for alternative development, according to Mansfield, should focus on governance and civil society rehabilitation. According to him, it must be recognized that political and social stability, along with an economic growth, are essential conditions to reduce opium production in the longer term.
Western analysis of the drug trade frequently ignores trends and developments in sub-Saharan Africa, and so the next contribution, by Laurent Laniel and Pascale Perez, is especially interesting. Perez holds a Ph.D. in geography and has worked at the Observatoire géopolitique des drogues where she held special responsibility for the Africa portfolio. This article shows that, since the 1980s there has been an increase in cannabis production, traffic, and consumption in Africa. This is said to be due to economic degradation which, itself, is held to be the consequence of IMF sponsored structural adjustment plans. The authors suggest that, from an agro-economic point of view, cannabis prohibition simply acts to raise prices. In sub-Saharan Africa, this expected shift happened in the more general context of the already mentioned economic degradation, wherein few legitimate agro-economic activities were profitable. Thus cannabis became doubly attractive as an agro-product. The illicit cannabis trade is important to contemporary sub-Saharan Africa in other ways. The trade itself has functioned to integrate regional trade routes. Pre-existing commercial systems (for example those around coco and peanut production) have been adapted, new commercial systems have been created, and there has been an increasing grass roots involvement of cannabis producers in the trade. Consumption itself has increased, perhaps partly fuelled by the poor living conditions of the majority of the Africans and by the multiplication of armed conflicts on the continent. It would not do to essentialise African cannabis use as purely pathological, and this analysis does not. The authors note that African cannabis consumption is structured around 3 features: “playtime” use, magical/therapeutic use, and strategic use. The former two may be granted some social utility; the authors focus more on the third which, it may be argued, is where the pathologies arise. The strategic use is linked with the psycho-pharmacological effects of cannabis, of that there can be no doubt. Its use can help endure the hard conditions of living in general, and can stimulate warriors during conflict. The consequence is that cannabis becomes a strategic product. For example, the production and the traffic of cannabis can be used for financing armed groups that challenge the state’s monopoly of the use of force. Conversely, the fight against cannabis can also be invoked in order to justify military incursions into rebel-controlled territory. Thus, the control of cannabis supply and production then becomes another stake in the game of regional geo-politics.
Analysis of drug trade routes are brought closer to the heartland of Europe in the next article by Philippe Chassagne, a Ph.D. candidate in geography at Paris-I, Sorbonne. Chassagne begins by noting that the Balkan route is not new, and has become a criminal matter only with recent international legislation. According to this analysis, legislation has had the perverse effect of creating structures of opportunity for international networks involved in illicit trafficking. Clandestine trade was facilitated by networks that have their historic roots in the Ottoman period which were later elaborated by diasporic communities. In the inter-war period, social and political conditions in the Balkans enabled clandestine trade across the region because of the instability and incapacity of local political regimes. The reinforcement of international legislation after WWII, and the economic and political changes after the end of communism, only exacerbated criminalized trade in the region. Difficulties manifest through transition, wars and embargos have stimulated illicit trade involving ever greater numbers of small criminal enterprises which, inevitably draw in and coalesce around the politically powerful in a web of corruption. More recently, the evolution of clandestine markets has been conditioned by new political factors. The introduction of multiparty democracy, along with attendant crises and conflicts, has strengthened relationships between criminal and political networks. The author reminds readers that, formerly, criminal activities were partly under the influence of the State apparatus. Such activities are now controlled by criminal groups that may rely on this apparatus, but are not subordinate to it. The overall lack of democratic culture, the existence of certain groups that became military forces (as in Albania), and the geographical division of States make law enforcement in pursuit of illicit drugs in the Balkans ever more difficult.

Giuseppe Muti provides the penultimate contribution to the collection. For him, prohibition has led to the emergence of complex organisations that are able to escape from institutional controls and to connect illicit spaces of production and illicit spaces of consumption. This is the case of the Cosa Nostra, an organisation he views as a true geopolitical actor which has played its own historic role in drug trafficking. The success of the Cosa Nostra, according to Muti, can be explained by its control over the Sicilian territory, by the efficiency of its diasporic networks and finally by the high level of political protection it has benefited from. According to Muti this group established the first worldwide money laundering networks. Thus, the author points out, the Cosa Nostra contributed to early globalising dynamics of financial and speculative capital and may, in fact, have preceded them. The final contribution to the collection is a short ‘letter from Belgrade’ on the ‘contraband routes of southeast Europe’ and the ‘new slavery’ by Laurence Hunzinger. This is a short meditation on what has been conceptualised in English under a variety of hotly charged terms: illegal migration, human smuggling, human trafficking, to name some of the more prominent. It reminds reader’s of Hérodote that the clandestine drug trade shares commonalities with other geo-political realties.
A key conceptual device is frequently deployed throughout this special issue and that is the concept of instrumentalisation, a term that is not easily translatable into English. Of the many clues uncovered in this volume about the geo-politics of illicit drugs, perhaps this conceptual device is the most provocative. Its meaning reveals the critical edge of much of the analysis pursued here and is important to many debates in contemporary French political science. It denotes the creation of phenomena as tools in the furtherance of other, often unarticulated, governmental objectives. In other words, the instrumentalisation process provides ideological cover for otherwise hidden objectives. The instrumentalisation of the drug war justifies interference in the internal politics of weak states, and is used to target vulnerable and risky populations (the poor and ethnic minorities). Drug prohibition has been justified on the basis of protecting society from the harmful effects of drug use, but has had the opposite effect and has multiplied social harms as well as created criminal opportunities which in turn justify strong state action. The paradoxical effects of drug war instrumentalisation is that illicit trade is now more profitable than ever and illicit drug use continues to increase even while enforcement regimes increase in capacity. Moreover, as all of the analyses and extensive empirical evidence presented attests, this process of instrumentalisation is a global phenomenon. Paradoxes, it seems, drive the increase of drug-law-enforcement capacity globally (not the diminution of social harm due to drug use which is felt locally) and so, in the geo-politics of the drug war, nothing succeeds like failure.

Amandine Scherrer
Ph.D. Candidate Sciences Po, Paris
and Visiting Scholar at the Munk Centre, University of Toronto


James Sheptycki
Associate Professor of Criminology
York University, Toronto

Drucker, Ernest. (1998, Jan./Feb.). Public Health Reports, "Drug Prohibition and Public Health." U.S. Public Health Service. Vol. 114.