Narcoterrorism and the Long Reach of U.S. Law Enforcement

Vanda Felbab-Brown

In testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, Vanda Felbab-Brown speaks on the relationship between drug trade and criminal and belligerent groups in Afghanistan, Mexico, Colombia and West Africa. Felbab-Brown outlines several recommendations for U.S. policy addressing this difficult and complex problem.

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I am honored to have this opportunity to address the Subcommittee on the important issue of the relationship between the drug trade and criminal and belligerent groups. Illicit economies, organized crime, and their impacts on U.S. and local security issues around the world are the domain of my work and the subject of my Brookings book, Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs. I have conducted fieldwork on these issues in Latin America, Asia and Africa. I will focus my comments on the general dynamics of the drug-violent conflict nexus and the role of belligerent actors and crime groups and then provide a survey of the manifestations of these dynamics in Afghanistan, Mexico, Colombia and West Africa. I will conclude with some policy implications for U.S. policies for dealing with this difficult and complex problem.

I. The Complex Dynamics of the Drug-Terror Nexus

Organized crime and illegal economies generate multiple threats to states and societies. They often threaten public safety, at times even national security. Extensive illicit economies can compromise the political systems by increasing corruption and penetration by criminal entities, undermine the legal economies, and eviscerate their judicial and law enforcement capacity.

Yet, although the negative effects of high levels of pervasive street and organized crime on human security are clear, the relationships between human security, crime, illicit economies, and law enforcement are highly complex. Human security includes not only physical safety from violence and crime, but also economic safety from critical poverty, social marginalization, and fundamental under-provision of elemental social and public goods such as infrastructure, education, health care, and rule of law.

Multifaceted institutional weaknesses are at the core of why the relationship between illegality, crime, and human security is so complex. For many, participation in informal economies, if not outright illegal ones, such as the drug trade, is the only way to satisfy their basic livelihood needs and obtain any chance of social advancement, even as they continue to exist in a trap of insecurity, criminality, and marginalization.

The more the state is absent or deficient in the provision of public goods – starting with public safety and suppression of street crime and including the provision of dispute-resolution mechanisms and access to justice, enforcement of contracts, and the provision of socioeconomic public goods, such as infrastructure, access to health care, education, and legal employment – the more communities are susceptible to becoming dependent on and supporters of criminal entities and belligerent actors who sponsor the drug trade and other illegal economies.

By sponsoring illicit economies in areas of state weakness where legal economic opportunities and public goods are seriously lacking, both belligerent and criminal groups frequently enhance some elements of human security of those marginalized populations who depend on illicit economies for basic livelihoods, even while compromising other aspects of their human security and undermining national security. At the same time, simplistic law enforcement measures can and frequently do further degrade human security. These pernicious dynamics become especially severe in the context of violent conflict.

Belligerent groups thus obtain far more than simply increased physical resources from their participation in illicit economies. They also derive significant political capital – legitimacy with and support from local populations – from their sponsorship of the drug and other illicit economies, in addition to obtaining large financial profits. They do so by protecting the local population’s reliable (and frequently sole source of) livelihood from the efforts of the government to repress the illicit economy. They also derive political capital by protecting the farmers (or in the case of other illicit commodities, the producers) from brutal and unreliable traffickers (bargaining with traffickers for better prices on behalf of the farmers), by mobilizing the revenues from the illicit economies to provide otherwise absent social services such as clinics and infrastructure, as well as other public goods, and by being able to claim nationalist credit if a foreign power threatens the local illicit economy.

Criminal groups too provide public goods and social services, suboptimal as they may be. For example, such public goods provision has allowed Brazil’s drug gangs to dominate many of Brazil’s poor urban areas, such as in Rio de Janeiro (at least until the adoption of a government to pacify the slums known as the UPP). Criminal groups and belligerents can even provide socio-economic services, such as health clinics and trash disposal.

In short, sponsorship of illicit economies allows non-state armed groups to function as security providers and economic and political regulators. They are thus able to transform themselves from mere violent actors to actors that take on proto-state functions.

Although the political capital such belligerents obtain is frequently thin, it is nonetheless sufficient to motivate the local population to withhold intelligence on the belligerent group from the government if the government attempts to suppress the illicit economy. Accurate and actionable human intelligence is vital for success in counterterrorist and counterinsurgency efforts as well as law enforcement efforts against crime groups.

Four factors determine the size of the political capital which belligerent groups obtain from their sponsorship of illicit economy: the state of the overall economy; the character of the illicit economy; the presence (or absence) of thuggish traffickers; and the government response to the illicit economy.

  1. The state of the overall economy – poor or rich – determines the availability of alternative sources of income and the number of people in a region who depend on the illicit economy for their basic livelihood.
  2. The character of the illicit economy – labor-intensive or not – determines the extent to which the illicit economy provides employment for the local population. The cultivation of illicit crops, such as of coca in Colombia or Peru, is very labor-intensive and provides employment to hundreds of thousands to millions in a particular country. Production of methamphetamines, for example, such as that controlled by La Familia Michoacana (one of Mexico’s drug trafficking organizations), on the other hand, is not labor-intensive and provides livelihoods to many fewer people.
  3. The presence of thuggish traffickers influences the extent to which the local population needs the protection of the belligerents against the traffickers.
  4. The government responses to the illicit economy (which can range from suppression to laissez-faire to rural development) determine the extent to which the population depends on the belligerents to preserve and regulate the illicit economy.

In a nutshell, supporting the illicit economy will generate the most political capital for belligerents when the state of the overall economy is poor, the illicit economy is labor-intensive, thuggish traffickers are active in the illicit economy, and the government has adopted a harsh strategy, such as eradication, especially in the absence of legal livelihoods and opportunities.

In addition, both criminal entities and belligerent groups also often provide security. Although they are the source of insecurity and crime in the first place, they often regulate the level of violence and suppress street crime, such as robberies, thefts, kidnapping, and even homicides. To function as providers of public order and rules brings criminal groups important support from the community, in addition to facilitating their own illegal business since illicit economies too benefits from reduced transaction costs and increased predictability.

Both organized-crime groups and belligerent actors, such as the Primero Comando da Capital in Sao Paulo’s shantytowns, can also provide dispute resolution mechanisms and even set up unofficial courts and enforce contracts.

The ability of illegal groups to provide real-time, immediate economic improvements to the lives of the population also explains why even criminal groups without ideology can garner strong political capital. This effect is especially strong when the criminal groups couple their distribution of material benefits to poor populations with the provision of otherwise-absent order and minimal security. By being able to outcompete with the state in provision of governance, organized criminal groups can pose significant threats to states in areas or domains where the government’s writ is weak and its presence limited. Consequently, discussions of whether a group is a criminal group or a political one or whether belligerents are motivated by profit, ideology, or grievances are frequently overstated in their significance for devising policy responses.

The extent to which criminal groups and belligerents provide these public goods varies, of course, but it often takes place regardless of whether the non-state entities are politically-motivated actors or criminal enterprises. The more they do provide such public goods, the more they become de facto proto-state governing entities.

Nonetheless even criminal groups without a political ideology often have an important political impact on the lives of communities and on their allegiance to the state. They also often have political agendas, even without having an ideology.

But although criminal groups and belligerent groups often interact with illicit economies in the same way, they have not morphed into a homogenous monolithic entity. Rather a crime-terror nexus is far from stable or necessarily inevitable. Indeed, such relations are often characterized as much by violent conflict between the criminal organizations and the terrorist groups as by cooperation. Moreover, how successfully outside terrorist groups navigate new territories where they may be drawn to because of the presence of illicit economies depends on their intelligence capacity, their cultural and human terrain awareness, their understanding of the complex relationship between official politicians, governing elites and illegal economic networks.

II. Some Key and Some New Areas of the Nexus of Organized Crime and Violent Conflict


Perhaps nowhere in the world does the presence of a large-scale illicit economy threaten U.S. primary security interests as much in Afghanistan. There, the anti-American Taliban strengthens its insurgency campaign by deriving both vast financial profits and great political capital from sponsoring the illicit economy. The strengthened insurgency in turn threatens the vital U.S. objectives of counterterrorism and Afghanistan’s stability plus the lives of U.S. soldiers and civilians deployed there to promote these objectives. However, the Taliban derives large income from many economic activities, taxing anything with areas of its influence – be it poppy, sheep herds, illegal logging, economic aid programs, or trucks carrying supplies to U.S. troops.

Moreover, many actors other than the Taliban derive profits from such war economies, including the drug trade, such as many official and unofficial powerbrokers linked to the Afghan government. The large-scale opium poppy economy thus intensifies widespread preexisting corruption of Afghanistan government and law enforcement, especially the police forces.

A failure to prevail against the insurgency will result in the likely collapse of the national government and Taliban domination of Afghanistan’s south, possibly coupled with civil war. A failure to stabilize Afghanistan will in turn further destabilize Pakistan, emboldening the jihadists in Pakistan and weakening the resolve of Pakistan’s military and intelligence services to take on the jihadists. Pakistan may likely once again calculate that it needs to cultivate its jihadi assets to counter India’s influence in Afghanistan – perceived or actual.

But the seriousness of the threat and the strategic importance of the stakes do not imply that aggressive counternarcotics suppression measures today will enhance U.S. objectives and global stability. Indeed, just the opposite. Premature measures, such as extensive eradication before legal livelihoods are in place, will simply cement the bonds between the rural population dependent on poppy for basic livelihood and the Taliban, limit intelligence flows to Afghan and NATO forces, and further discredit the Afghan government and tribal elites sponsoring eradication. Nor, given the Taliban’s large sources of other income, will eradication bankrupt the Taliban. In fact, eradication so far has failed to accomplish that while already generating the above mentioned counterproductive outcomes.

After years of such inappropriate focus on eradication of the poppy crop, the new counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan, announced by U.S. government officials in summer 2009, overall meshes well with the counterinsurgency and state-building effort. By scaling back eradication and emphasizing interdiction and development, it helps separate the Afghan rural population from the Taliban. A well-designed counternarcotics policy is not on its own sufficient for success in Afghanistan. But it is indispensible. Counterinsurgent forces can prevail against belligerents profiting from the drug trade when they increase their own counterinsurgency resources and improve the strategy.

The Obama strategy appropriately focuses on two tracks – interdiction of Taliban-linked traffickers and rural development to wean the rural population of dependence on poppy. But implementation of the strategy critically influences its effectiveness and there are some elements for concern where better balancing of short-term imperatives and long-term sustainability would be highly desirable.
The interdiction element has been geared toward Taliban-linked traffickers. ISAF forces from those countries that want to participate in the interdiction program – mainly U.S. and U.K. forces – have concentrated on reducing the flows of weapons, money, drugs, precursor agents, and improvised explosive device (IED) components to the Taliban, with the goal of degrading the Taliban’s finances and physical resources through interdiction. Although tens of interdiction raids have now been conducted, especially in the south, and large quantities of opium and IEDs have been seized in these operations, it is questionable whether the impact on the Taliban’s resource flows has been more than local. Large-scale military operations to clear the Taliban from particular areas, such as in Marja, Helmand, have also of course affected the insurgents’ funding capacity and resource flows in those particular areas. But so far, the cumulative effects of the narcotics interdiction effort to suppress financial flows do not appear to be affecting the Taliban at the strategic level. This is because, as explained above, the Taliban fundraising policy has long been to tax any economic activity in the areas where the insurgents operate. The strongest effect of focusing interdiction on Taliban-linked traffickers appears to be at least temporarily to disrupt its logistical chains since many of its logistical operatives handle both IED materials and moving drugs. In combination with ISAF’s targeting focus on mid-level commanders, the prioritization of the counternarcotics-interdiction focus is probably palpably complicating the Taliban’s operational capacity in Afghanistan’s south, where both the military surge and counternarcotics efforts have been prioritized.

Whatever its benefits on disrupting the Taliban’s logistical chains, the interdiction policy also has a negative side-effect of signaling to Afghan powerbrokers that the best way to conduct the drug business in Afghanistan is to be linked to the government of Hamid Karzai, further undermining the domestic legitimacy of the Afghan government and rule of law. But tackling corruption in Afghanistan is a no-easy task because of the international community’s continuing dependence on problematic, but “useful” interlocutors, competing priorities, and the domestic political sensitivities and dependencies of the Karzai government.

A comprehensive sustainable rural and overall economic development is critical for Afghanistan’s future, including for its ability to reduce the drug cultivation and trade in the country. But the so-called economic stabilization programs that are a key aspect of the rural development program are of concern because they are not highly effective and can be counterproductive. Their goal is to keep Afghan males employed so that economic necessities do not drive them to join the Taliban and to secure the allegiance of the population who, ideally, will provide intelligence on the insurgents. Under this concept, U.S. economic development efforts have prioritized the most violent areas. Accordingly, the vast majority of the $250 million USAID Afghanistan budget for 2010 went to only two provinces: Kandahar and Helmand. In Helmand’s Nawa district, for example, USAID spent upward of $30 million within nine months, in what some dubbed “[the] carpet bombing of Nawa with cash.”

Although U.S. government officials emphasize that these stabilization programs have generated tens of thousands of jobs in Afghanistan’s south, many of the efforts have been unsustainable short-lived programs, such as canal cleaning and grain-storage and road building, or small grants, such as for seeds and fertilizers. Characteristically, they collapse as soon as the money runs out, often in the span of several weeks.

There is also little evidence that these programs have secured the allegiance of the population to either the Afghan government or ISAF forces or resulted in increases in intelligence from the population on the Taliban. Nor have these programs yet addressed the structural deficiencies of the rural economy in Afghanistan, including the drivers of poppy cultivation. A microcredit system, for example, continues to be lacking throughout much of Afghanistan. In fact, many of the stabilization efforts, such as wheat distribution or grant programs, directly undermine some of the long-term imperatives for addressing the structural market deficiencies, such as the development of microcredit or the establishment of local Afghan seed-banks and seed markets and rural enterprise and value-added chains. Shortcuts such as the so-called Food Zone in Helmand and similar wheat distribution schemes elsewhere in Afghanistan are symptomatic of the minimal short-term economic and security payoffs (but substantial medium-term costs) mode with which the internationals have operated in Afghanistan. The result: persisting deep market deficiencies and compromised rule of law. There is a delicate three-way balance among long-term development, the need to generate support among the population and alleviate economic deprivation in the short term, and state-building. Merely prioritizing short-term expediency over long-term sustainability and the fostering of good governance – whether on the battlefield in the form of militias or in the agricultural field in the forms of unsustainable quick-impact projects — will ultimately undermine stability and development.


The Obama Administration has also embraced a multifaceted approach to dealing with organized crime and illicit economies. Indeed, a focus on reinforcing the relationship between marginalized communities in Mexico’s cities, such as Cuidad Juarez, and the state is now the fourth pillar of the new orientation of the Merida Initiative, “Beyond Merida.” Beyond Merida recognizes that there are no quick technological fixes to the threat that DTOs pose to the Mexican state and society. It also recognizes that high-value-targeting of drug capos alone, even while backed up by the Mexican military, will not end the power of the Mexican DTOs. Indeed paradoxically, it is one important driver of violence in Mexico, with all its deleterious effects on rule of law and society.

Instead, Beyond Merida focuses on four pillars: a comprehensive effort to weaken the DTOs that goes beyond high-value decapitation; institutional development and capacity building, including in the civilian law enforcement, intelligence, and justice sectors; building a 21st century border to secure communities while encouraging economic trade and growth; and building community resilience against participation in the drug trade or drug consumption. Beyond Merida thus seeks to expand interdiction efforts from a narrow high-value targeting of DTO bosses to a more comprehensive interdiction effort that targets the entire drug organization and giving newly trained police forces the primary street security function once again while gradually putting the military in a background support function. By focusing on the building of a secure but smart U.S.-Mexico border that also facilitates trade, the strategy not only helps U.S. border states for which trade with Mexico often represents an economic lifeline, but also helps generate economic opportunities in Mexico that reduce the citizens’ need to participate in illegality for obtaining basic livelihood. Pillar three then critically meshes with fourth pillar – focused on weaning the population away from the drug traffickers – which again seeks to build resilient communities in Mexico to prevent their takeover by Mexican crime organizations.

Beyond Merida is designed to also significantly enhance the capacity of the government of Mexico. Social programs sponsored by the U.S. fourth pillar, such as Todos Somos Juarez, aim to restore hope for underprivileged Mexicans – 20% of Mexicans live below the extreme poverty line and at least 40% of the Mexican economy is informal – that a better future and possibility of social progress lies ahead if they remain in the legal economy. Such bonds between the community and the state are what at the end of the day will allow the state to prevail and crime to be weakened. But they are very hard to effectuate – especially given the structural deficiencies of Mexico’s economy as well as political obstacles.

Notwithstanding the level of U.S. assistance so far, including having generated over several thousand newly trained Mexican federal police officers, Mexico’s law enforcement remains deeply eviscerated, deficient in combating street and organized crime, and corrupt. Corruption persists even among the newly trained police. Expanding the investigative capacity of Mexico’s police is an imperative yet frequently difficult component of police reform, especially during times of intense criminal violence when law enforcement tends to become overwhelmed, apathetic, and all the more susceptible to corruption. The needed comprehensive police reform will require sustained commitment over a generation at least.
U.S. assistance to Mexico in its reform of the judicial system and implementation of the accusatorial system, including training prosecutors, can be particularly fruitful. Urgent attention also needs to be given to reform of Mexico’s prisons, currently breeding grounds and schools for current and potential members of drug trafficking organizations.

Such a multifaceted approach toward narcotics and crime and emphasizing social policies as one tool to mitigate crime, is increasingly resonating in Latin America beyond Mexico. Socio-economic programs designed to mitigate violence and crime — for example, the Virada Social in Sao Paolo or the socio-economic component of the Pacification (UPP) policy in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas — have been embraced by state governments in Brazil.


In Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos has initiated a range of socioeconomic programs, such as land restitution to victims of forced displacement. The National Consolidation Plan of the Government of Colombia also recognizes the importance of addressing the socio-economic needs of the populations previously controlled by illegal armed actors. But state presence in many areas remains highly limited and many socioeconomic programs often consist of limited one-time handouts, rather than robust socioeconomic development. The government of Colombia also lacks the resources to robustly expand its socioeconomic development efforts and its security and law enforcement presence to all of its territory and even its strategic zones.

Although the size and power of illegal armed groups, such as the leftist guerillas, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) have been substantially reduced, and the guerrillas have been pushed away from strategic corridors, they still maintain a presence of perhaps several thousand, critically undermine security in parts of Colombia, and participate in the drug trade and extortion. Despite the formal demobilization of the paramilitary groups, new paramilitary groups, referred to by the Government of Colombia as bandas criminales, have emerged and by some accounts number ten thousand. They too participate in the drug trade and undermine public safety in ways analogous to the former paramilitaries. Such paramilitary groups have also penetrated the political structures in Colombia at both the local and national levels, distorting democratic processes, accountability, and socioeconomic development, often to the detriment of the most needy. New conflicts over land have increased once again and displacement of populations from land persists at very high levels. Homicides and kidnapping murders are up in Bogotá and Medellín, once hailed as a model success. The government’s provision of security in many areas remains sporadic and spotty.

Yet the government of President Santos needs to be given major credit for recognizing the need to focus rigorously on combating the bandas criminales. The government also deserves credit for focusing on combating street crime and urban violence and for unveiling a well-designed plan for combating urban crime, Plan Nacional de Vigiliancia Comunitaria por Cuadrantes, emphasizing crime prevention, community policing, and local intelligence.

Critically, with all its emphasis on social policies, the Santos Administration has yet to move away from the ineffective and counterproductive zero-coca policy of inherited from Colombia’s previous administration. The zero-coca policy conditions all economic aid on a total eradication of all coca plants in a particular locality. Even a small-scale violation by one family disqualifies an area, such as a municipality, from receiving any economic assistance from the Government of Colombia or from cooperating international partners. Such a policy thus disqualifies the most marginalized and coca-dependent communities from receiving assistance to sustainably abandon illicit crop cultivation, subjects them to food insecurity and often also physical insecurity, pushes them into the hands of illegal armed groups, and adopts the wrong sequencing approach for supply-side counternarcotics policies. In cooperating with the Santos administration in Colombia, the United States government should encourage the new Colombian leadership to drop this counterproductive policy.

Over the past nine years, reflecting the results of U.S. assistance under Plan Colombia and the Andean Counterdrug Initiative, Colombia has experienced very significant progress. Nonetheless, the success remains incomplete. It is important not to be blinded by the success and uncritically present policies adopted in Colombia as a blanket model to be emulated in other parts of the world, including in Mexico. While its accomplishments, including in police reform and the impressive strengthening of the judicial system, need to be recognized and indeed may serve as a model, the limitations of progress equally need to be stressed, for it is important to continue working with Colombia in areas of deficient progress and to avoid repeating mistakes elsewhere around the world.

Furthermore, in counternarcotics and anti-crime policies, as in other aspects of public policy, it is important to recognize that a one-shoe-fits-all approach limits the effectiveness of policy designs. Local institutional and cultural settings will be critical determinants of policy effectiveness; and addressing local drivers of the drug trade and criminal violence and corruption will be necessary for increasing the effectiveness of policies.

West Africa

Although the next section briefly sketches illicit economies in West Africa, it is important to emphasize that despite some overall common characteristics of West African countries, their political arrangements and institutions, patterns of economic (under)development, and integration of illegal economies into the political terrain are hardly uniform. Nor is West Africa a monolithic region. Rather, it is characterized by a great diversity of political, economic, and social institutional arrangements and historic developments and legacies. There are great differences in political institutionalization, the quality of governance, economic performance and potential, and overall state-building trends in the region. Politically, economically, socially, and culturally, Ghana is not the same as Equatorial Guinea, for example. Nor does Senegal’s development over the past twenty years mimic that of Cote d’Ivoire or Liberia. West Africa’s various countries continue to experience divergent trends, with some previously affected by predatory rentier behavior and wars over economic rents showing important progress recently in managing their resources and combating illegal economies, while others have failed to do so.

In West Africa, the level of drug trafficking—especially cocaine from South America en route to Europe—has increased dramatically over the past decade. Driven by the newly intensified demand for cocaine in Western Europe, the shrinking of demand for cocaine in the United States, and the pressure on cocaine smuggling from interdiction operations in the Caribbean, the level of trafficking through West Africa has increased to a quarter of Europe’s annual consumption. With some countries, such as Guinea-Bissau, appearing to be overrun by drugs and significant political instability, coups, and assassinations linked to organized crime and the drug trade in the country, analysts worry about the threat that the drug trade poses to the rule of law, political stability, and the quality of governance in the region.

However, many of these institu