Drug traffickers, though, not only look at the rewards; they also weigh the risks. And while trafficking to the United States today is fraught with risk, in Europe, the odds are stacked heavily in the criminals’ favor.
The United States has waged a relentless “war on drugs” in Latin America since the 1980s, and while this has done little to reduce drug consumption or lessen the societal impact of organized crime, the Americans have become highly adept at two things: seizing drugs and locking up drug traffickers. European authorities, in contrast, have a light footprint upstream and have shown limited interest in prioritizing the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of Latin American traffickers.
The differences between the two approaches can be illustrated with figures. According to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONCDP), the United States spends $17.4 billion on supply-side reduction, which includes drug interdiction, law enforcement investigations, and prosecutions. While no such precise figures have been published by the EU, the data available suggests the EU spends between $3 and $4 billion on supply-side reduction.
Extradition numbers also show the contrast. While publicly available data is patchy, it allows for some comparisons. A European Commission study of extradition between Europe and Latin America and the Caribbean between 2008 and 2011 showed European nations extraditing an average of 61 people from the region a year. In contrast, between 2002 and 2010, the United States extradited an average of 137 people a year from Colombia alone, according to an investigation by El Tiempo.
Europe has one final advantage over the United States for the traffickers – it is a far more open market. The Mexican cartels maintain their grip over US borders, controlling them with extreme violence. In doing so, they maintain their monopoly over much of the wholesale cocaine market in the United States, reducing traffickers from other countries to the roles of suppliers and transporters.
But there are no such barriers in Europe, where anyone with the capital, contacts and know-how, can enter the cocaine market. There are also countless routes into the continent. As such, Latin American traffickers can significantly increase their profits by selling on the European wholesale market while reducing their risk – and European mafias can come upstream to increase their share of the profits.