“For illicit drugs, organized crime is sine qua non. In other words, organized crime can exist without drug trafficking, but illicit drugs cannot live without organized crime.” This quote illustrates the long standing and infamously mutually beneficial relationship between organized crime and illicit drug trafficking. While the public threat of this relationship is long recognized and well understood, the solution is far less clear-cut. While the majority of the international community has stood with the consensus of prohibition and enforcement, in recent years countries have begun to reexamine this approach for a variety of reasons.  Proponents of replacing prohibition with regulation have cited a variety of social issues to support their arguments, such as limiting violence from criminal organization and reducing illicit drug use. This article will briefly survey the relationship between drug trafficking and modern organized crime and the modern controlling international law on illicit drugs. Then, the article will examine the effect, if any, of two different styles of drug laws on combatting organized crime through Uruguay’s landmark policy of marijuana decriminalization and Mexico’s hard-lined approach to drug enforcement and organized crime.
Modern Organized Crime and the Illicit Drug Market
The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime defines organized crime, as “a structured group of three or more persons, existing for a period of time and acting in concert with the aim of committing one or more serious crimes or offences established in accordance with this Convention, in order to obtain, directly or indirectly, a financial or other material benefit…”  The very nature of transnational illicit drug trafficking, which typically involves multiple actors committing drug trafficking offenses over a period of time, motivated by financial gain, results in the majority of drug trafficking groups fitting into the U.N.’s definition of organized crime.
Given the profit-driven focus of most drug traffickers, the illicit drug trade is often seen as the most lucrative activity. This high profitability is attributed largely to the nature of drug consumption; unlike firearms, gems, or even human beings, drugs are constantly consumed and are hence in need of continuous supply renewal. In fact, in 2014, between one third to one fifth of all revenue attributed to transnational organized crime groups was estimated to have been from drug sales.
Modern organized crime has continued to evolve and shift in form and function to both survive increased efforts by law enforcement while harnessing new technology to expand drug markets and increase trafficking efficiency. Recent statistics show that many criminal organizations have started to move away from the traditional rigid hierarchical organizational model, to looser “horizontal” networks, in response to efforts of law enforcement to remove key individuals and disrupt the organizational hierarchy. This reorganization has allowed these groups to quickly restructure when individuals have been detained. The adaptation has continued to increase across organizations. Currently thirty to forty percent of criminal organizations identified in 2017 were made up of loose criminal networks. Furthermore, transnational criminal organizations have utilized advances in communication technology, transportation, and even the dark web to expand their ability to smuggle larger quantities of illegal drugs, making it more difficult for law enforcement to detect and disrupt these activities.
Current International Drug Laws
For over 100 years, the international community has formally recognized and condemned the use of certain drugs. The 1912 Hague International Opium Convention became the first official international effort to control drug use and illicit drug trade. Since then, several multilateral treaties have taken this idea and expanded its scope well beyond opium. The 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, which currently includes 189 parties and eighty seven signatories, focuses primarily on developing a strategy to combat transnational organized crime by creating mandates for member states to mitigate and disrupt the international drug trade. The Convention requires signatories to take steps to eliminate demand within their respective countries for illegal drugs and other psychotropic substances. To fulfill these objectives, the treaty maintains that member states should take steps to implement domestic criminal laws outlawing “possession, purchase or cultivation of narcotic drugs or psychotropic substances for personal consumption.”
Mexico: A Policy of Prohibition
Mexico first outlawed marijuana use in 1920, seventeen years before the United States. Over the last few decades, Mexico, in response to the well published rise in organized crime, has taken several different approaches towards marijuana and drug trafficking to curb cartel operations. During the reign of President Felipe Calderon, from 2009- 2012, the Mexican government took a strong approach to prohibition enforcement, targeting high level organization members, increasing drug interdiction at the U.S./Mexico border, and utilizing the Mexican army to combat criminal activities. This led to an explosion in drug related killings, from 1,080 in 2001 to 6,587 in 2009. Some experts attribute this spike to the increased interdiction efforts, saying that removing powerful organizational leaders creates a power vacuum that results in infighting, encroachment by rival organizations, and organizational splintering.
In response to this spike in gang-related violence, Mexico has taken surprising steps towards relaxing their drug laws and reforming their criminal justice system. In 2009, Mexico passed a law legalizing the possession of small amounts of drugs, including 5 grams of marijuana. This appears to have had minimal immediate effect on the illegal drug trade; in 2010 the FBI reported Mexico as the number one importer of marijuana into the U.S. In 2015, the Mexican supreme court handed down a landmark decision in marijuana legalization, ruling that it is the right of individuals to grow and use cannabis for personal recreational use. While this has not overruled the black letter law of the country, it is seen by many as a significant step towards legalization. In April 2016, in response to both the 2015 supreme court ruling and increasing disenchantment of the population towards the ongoing violence from the cartel wars, President Enrique Pena Nieto sent a proposal to the Mexican congress calling for an increase to the allowance of personal possession of marijuana from 5 grams to 28 grams.
While these measures seemed promising, with homicide rates declining from 2013-2014, the homicide rate again exploded. 2016 saw an estimated 7,000-11,000 homicides (25-40% of the nationwide total) attributed to organized crime. The steps taken towards marijuana legalization were named as a reason for this upswing, due in part to organized crime changing their focus from trafficking marijuana to harder drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Uruguay: Leading Latin America towards Marijuana Legalization
On December 24, 2013, Uruguay passed a law legalizing the purchase, possession, and growing of small to moderate quantities of marijuana. The law allows registered users to buy up to 40 grams of marijuana a month from licensed dealers, registered growers to keep up to six plants; and “cannabis clubs” of up to 45 members to cultivate as many as 99 plants. When the bill was first introduced in 2012, supporters of the bill cited both promotion of public health and reduction of organized crime among the top reasons for the supporting of the initiative.
This law has been met with limited success since its inception. The price for legal marijuana undercut its illegal counterpart sold on the street, resulting in the drastic drop in price of “black market” marijuana. As of 2011, 66% of all marijuana users reported they were still purchasing their marijuana from illegal dealers. Despite assurances from independent sources and officials that the illegal drug market will subside over time, there has been a recent increase in organized crime activity in the county. In the past several years, the number of foreign organized crime group members arrested in Uruguay rose. Officials believe that this is because of recent intensified international efforts to limit Pacific drug smuggling routes, which shifted these routes to the Atlantic. This triggered fear among Uruguayan officials that the country would subsequently then be used as a primary “springboard” for drug trafficking from the Americas to Europe. Recent statistics seem to support this fear. In 1999, only ten kilograms of illegal cocaine were sized in the country; in 2013, this exploded into over one ton of the drug being seized. The annual homicide rate for Uruguay, which historically has been astonishingly low at around 180 homicides per year, nearly doubled to 289 in 2015. Finally, officials have reported that the style of killings has likewise changed drastically, with the majority of the recent murders bearing the signature of organized crime: daylight assassinations and execution style killings.
Conclusion & Recommendations
The evidence discussed here supports a variety of conclusions and recommendations. First, due to the evolving nature of organized crime via loose organizational structures, advanced technologies, diversified drug trade, and global markets, legalization of only one drug within one country has a minimal impact on transnational organized crime. Additionally, policies of pure prohibition backed by hard-lined enforcement techniques do little except increase violence amongst organized criminal groups. This evidence suggests that to be effective, decriminalization needs to be on a global scale followed up with targeted enforcement. Decriminalization not only limits income sources to drug traffickers, it also frees up valuable law enforcement resources to concentrate on combatting other profit sources for organized crime. Finally, the requirements in the 1988 Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances should be adjusted to allow for member states to include legalization and decriminalization policies as part of their plan to eliminate the demand for illegal drugs. Implementing these lessons learned from Uruguay and Mexico will allow nations across the world to take a collective step at eliminating transnational criminal organizations.
- Engin Dumagol, The Role of Drugs in Terrorism and Organized Crime, 2 Ankara B. Rev. 46, 61 (2009), http://www.ankarabarosu.org.tr/siteler/AnkaraBarReview/tekmakale/2009-2/6.pdf.↑
- Dan web, et el, Effect of Drug Law Enforcement on Drug-Related Violence: Evidence from a Scientific Review 56-57 (2010), http://www.countthecosts.org/sites/default/ICSDP-1%20-%20FINAL.pdf.↑
- Id. at 20↑
- United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2007, 170 (United Nations Publication Sales No. E. 07.XI.5 ISBN 978-92-1-148222-5.N).↑
- Dumagol, supra note 1, at 54.↑
- Dan Web, et el, supra note 2, at 58.↑
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2017, 9 (ISBN: 978-92-1-148291-1, eISBN: 978-92-1-060623-3, United Nations publication, Sales No. E.17.XI.6).↑
- Id. at 16.↑
- Id. (citing European Union Serious and Organised Crime Threat Assessment 2017, Europol, at 14 (2017), https://www.europol.europa.eu/activities-services/main-reports/european-union-serious-and-organised-crime-threat-assessment-2017.↑
- Id. at 16-17.↑
- U.N. Office on Drug and Crime, The 1912 Hague International Opium Convention, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/the-1912-hague-international-opium-convention.html.↑
- Status of United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, United Nations Treaty Collection (Sep. 10, 2017, 7:30 AM), https://treaties.un.org/Pages/ViewDetails.aspx?src=TREATY&mtdsg_no=VI-19&chapter=6&clang=_en.↑
- United Nations Convention Against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances [hereinafter The Convention], art. 2, Dec. 20, 1988, 28 I.L.M. 493.↑
- The Convention, supra note 15, at 495.↑
- The Convention, supra note 15, at 494.↑
- Matt Thompson, The Mysterious History of ‘Marijuana,’ NPR (July 22, 2013, 11:46 AM), http://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2013/07/14/201981025/the-mysterious-history-of-marijuana.↑
- David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis from 2001-2009 3, 9 (2010) https://justiceinmexico.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/09/2010_DVM.pdf.↑
- Id. at 9.↑
- Kimerly Heinle , Cory Molzahn & David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis through 2014 (2015) https://justiceinmexico.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/2015-Drug-Violence-in-Mexico-final.pdf.↑
- Ionn Grillp, Mexico’s Drug Law May Set an Example, Time (Aug. 26, 2009), http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1918725,00.html.↑
- Drug Trafficking Violence in Mexico: Implications for the United States: Before the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, 111th Cong., (2010) (statement of Kevin L. Perkins and Anthony P. Placido, Assistant Director, Criminal Investigative Division and Assistant Administrator for Intelligence Drug Enforcement Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation), https://archives.fbi.gov/archives/news/testimony/drug-trafficking-violence-in-mexico-implications-for-the-united-states.↑
- Elizabeth Malkin & Azam Ahmed, Ruling in Mexico Sets in Motion Legal Marijuana, N.Y. Times, Nov. 23, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/05/world/americas/mexico-supreme-court-marijuana-ruling.html?_r=2.↑
- Mexico President Pena Nieto proposes relaxing marijuana laws, BBC News (Apr. 22, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-36107947 (last visited Sep. 10, 2017).↑
- Kimberly Heinle, Octavio Rodríguez Ferreira & David A. Shirk, Drug Violence in Mexico: Data and Analysis Through 2016 2-3 (2017), https://justiceinmexico.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/2017_DrugViolenceinMexico.pdf.↑
- Id. at 46.↑
- John Walsh & Geoff Ramsey, Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges 7 (May 9, 2015), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/Walsh-Uruguay-final.pdf.↑
- Dario Klein, Catherine E. Shoichet & Rafael Romo, Uruguay to legalize marijuana, Senate says, CNN (Dec. 10, 2017 9:42 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2013/12/10/world/americas/uruguay-marijuana-legalization/index.html?iref=allsearch.↑
- Uruguay’s Year In Marijuana: 3 Successes, 3 Burning Questions, NBC News (Jan. 7, 2015), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/uruguays-year-marijuana-3-successes-3-burning-questions-n281311.↑
- Guillermo G. Espinosa, Delays in Uruguay Marijuana Law Leave Door Ajar for Drug Trafficking, Insight Crime (Jan. 23, 2017), http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/delay-marijuana-law-uruguay-leaves-door-ajar-drug-trafficking.↑
- Michael Lohmuller, Is Uruguay the New Argentina of Drug Trafficking?, Insight Crime (May 23, 2016), http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/is-uruguay-the-new-argentina-of-drug-trafficking.↑
- Gabriel Pereyra, Organized Crime is Here, El Observador Newspaper, May 23, 2016, http://www.elobservador.com.uy/el-crimen-organizado-ya-esta-aqui-n914361.↑