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The Persistent and Evolving Threat of Colombian Cocaine into the United States

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By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University

Cocaine drug use remains substantially lower in the United States than that of cannabis and prescription psychotherapeutic drugs. However, cocaine still flows into the United States at an alarming rate.

Colombian Cocaine Production and Export Has Risen since 2015

A 2017 unclassified report by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) finds that cocaine production in Colombia and the supply of Colombian cocaine in the United States is on the rise.  In fact, 92 percent of the cocaine seized in the United States is of Colombian origin. This follows the breakup of the major Colombian drug cartels and the increase of Mexican transnational criminal organizations.

According to the DEA report, there was a 35 percent increase in cocaine production in Colombia between 2015 and 2016. Production rose from 520 metric tons to 710 metric tons in that period.  In addition, U.S. Customs and Border Protection data reveal a 20 percent increase of cocaine seizures during that period.

How Colombian Cocaine Is Smuggled through Mexico and into the US

Cocaine grown and processed in Colombia most commonly enters the United States through the Southwest border. When Colombian cocaine reaches Mexico, Mexican transnational criminal organizations smuggle it into the United States by various means, including through tunnels.

Between 1990 and January 2017, 231 tunnels were discovered along the Southwest border. These tunnels often led to safe houses on the U.S. side.

Seizures of Colombian Cocaine Reached Their Highest Levels in 2016

In 2016, seizures of Colombian cocaine reached their highest levels in nine years. Between 2015 and 2016, cocaine seizures rose from 249 metric tons to 323 metric tons.

By the end of 2016, the DEA reported that an estimated 910 metric tons of cocaine was produced in Colombia. Interestingly, it was during this time that a peace accord was reached between the Colombian government and the largest guerilla organization involved in the drug trade, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Leading up to those peace negotiations, the Colombian government relaxed its eradication operations in regions controlled by the FARC. That change may explain why cocaine production increased.

Under the accord signed on November 24, 2016, the FARC agreed to end its contraband drug operations in exchange for a coca crop substitution and alternative agriculture development plan. At the same time, the Colombian government reserved the right to destroy illegal coca crops grown by farmers who were not in compliance with the accord.

One factor that may adversely affect the goal of reducing cocaine trafficking involves the profits Colombian farmers realize through coca cultivation.

For example, Business Insider reports that the Colombian government has attempted to provide alternative incentives to the nation’s coca farmers. However, these incentives have not discouraged farmers from profiting from coca production. The average Colombian farmer experienced a 120 percent increase in income between 2012 and 2016, Business Insider said.

Whether these internal attempts to stem the flow of Colombian cocaine into the United States are working remain to be seen. A survey earlier this year by Colombia Reports found that cocaine production in Colombia is almost as high as ever.

This Drug Enforcement Administration map reflects the flow of cocaine from South America, with 93 to 94 percent involving the Mexico and Central American corridor.

Source: DEA

To better address the growing threat of Colombian cocaine entering the United States, bilateral agreements and close cooperation between the U.S. and Colombian governments are needed.

In March 2018, Reuters reported that U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas A. Shannon met with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to discuss counter-narcotics strategy to reduce cocaine production. They agreed to work together to reduce the production of cocaine and the cultivation of its raw material, coca leaves, by half within five years.

In the meantime, Colombian cocaine remains a grave health threat to the United States despite decades of effort in the War on Drugs. Drug trafficking and traffickers have become more sophisticated. Colombian cocaine shipment routes have shifted from East Coast ports of entry like Miami to the Southwest border. As a result, the United States and the Central American nations must increase their interdiction efforts to the Southwest border to thwart cocaine shipments from Colombia. Ultimately, Colombian cocaine is driven by consumer demand. To put an end to the problem of cocaine trafficking, the best solution is reducing the domestic demand through education and law enforcement.

About the Author 

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski has been a member of the Coast Guard since 1997. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering. He has received commendations from the Coast Guard. Currently, Jarrod is a supervisor in the Reserve Program and provides leadership to Reserve members who conduct homeland security, search and rescue, and law enforcement missions.

Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor in the School of Security and Global Studies and has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. For more information on Jarrod and links to his social media and website, check out

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