There is a clear relationship between the expansion of unfettered free markets and participation in the drug trade. Neoliberal policies have led to increasing inequality, insecurity, and a general deterioration of quality of life for the poor and working classes in Latin America. With few other options for survival, these people are easy recruits into the drug trade.  The cocaine trade integrates marginalized territories that have been abandoned by the state into global markets and acts as a driver of development.

And yet, governments have tended to focus on the criminal aspects of drug trafficking rather than the redistributive policy implications of the poverty that drives it. The international community, led by the United States, prioritizes drug crop eradication and interdiction actions in ‘producer’ and ‘transit’ states, imposing disproportionate costs on the countries that are on the front line of the international ‘drug war’.

Colombian counter-narcotics police burn a cocaine paste laboratory near Tumaco, Colombia, June 2008. Credit: AP Photo/William Fernando Martinez

To develop alternatives to the current ‘drug war’ status quo, we first must understand how cocaine fits into a broader supply chain. In ‘Cocaine: from coca fields to the streets,’ we trace out the cocaine supply chain and put emphasis on cocaine’s relative value changes as it progresses from the farm gate to city streets. At each stage our authors, who come from several disciplinary perspectives, focus on the contributions the illicit trade makes to the economic and social life of the places it passes through and the processes of illicit governance that allow the trade to endure in the shadow of the state.

Cocaine starts life as coca leaf, a crop that has been cultivated and consumed by indigenous peoples in the Andes for well over 4000 years. Today, close to a quarter of a million peasant families cultivate the leaf in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia in marginal areas characterized by minimal state presence, limited infrastructure, and high rates of poverty. In addition, thousands of impoverished young men, and increasingly women, labour to process and traffic small quantities of cocaine paste, a first step to refining pure cocaine.

The earnings generated by the coca and cocaine trade at this stage can help to stabilize families’ livelihoods, keep a greater portion of the population in rural areas, and support some existing small businesses. The widespread participation at this stage means that involvement in the drug trade is not stigmatized nor is it seen as socially disruptive. Rather, coca cultivation and cocaine paste production is a rational choice, and for many it is one of the few opportunities to allow some level of social mobility.  At the same time, needing to protect fields from eradication often leads to efforts to control and manage the territory where cultivation takes place, leading to the robust power of organized criminal and insurgent activity in some of these areas, as has occurred in Colombia.  This can contribute to conflict and a great deal of anxiety for growers who must stay close to their crops despite encroaching risks.

From the coca fields the drug is processed and then trafficked to consumer markets, with much of the product first passing through Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Europe and Asia, where the drug retails for higher prices, have grown to become important consumer markets and this has led to the development of new trafficking routes via Brazil, Venezuela, and West Africa. There has also been a significant growth of drug use in South America, particularly in Brazil, which now represents the second largest national drug consumer market after the USA, emblematic of cocaine’s ‘shift south’.

Transhipment markets tend to have a few large market participants who employ a modest number of workers at different skill levels. The nature of the risks contributes to efforts to establish dominance over a market either through an agreement among a few powerful market participants or through outright dominance by a single participant – at times leading to atrocities. The substantial earnings coupled with the relatively small number of market participants leads to significant capital accumulation that can enable illicit entrepreneurs to start or take over licit businesses.

In the urban margins of cities like Managua, Rio de Janiero, San Juan, and Philadelphia the drug trade does not just create violence and disorder (although it does that too), it provides a source of employment, upward mobility, a sense of purpose and affirmation in a context of advanced marginality.

Gangs might offer services, such as free transport or financing day care centres, local security, and dispute resolution, and provide commercial opportunities by organizing large-scale events like the famous ‘Bailes Funk’ in Rio’s favelas. Drugs gangs might engage in governance beyond their core membership, for example by tackling local crime such as theft.  As a result, marginalized communities often-times actively support illicit drug economies.

In these sites of consumption, especially far from transhipment markets, large retail markets tend to produce fragmented and competing structures that lead to ongoing low-grade conflict.  Subject to extensive police oversight, dealers and the populations that live in areas where these activities occur, suffer from heavy handed state actions.  Disputes about the trade are resolved among individuals who are involved in or have been involved in the trade.  Limited income from these activities provides modest support for dealers and their immediate families.

In analysing cocaine supply, the volume makes three substantive contributions: First: by bringing a commodity chain analysis to bear on the drug trade, the book connects the steps of cocaine production, transhipment, and consumption to expose how the flow of commodities impacts lived experience throughout the Americas. This represents a departure from the current literature that overwhelmingly focuses on specific places and views each stage of the drug trade in relative isolation.

Second, our volume employs the notion of the ‘moral economy’ to analyze how the illicit trade is governed by its own internal logic that diverges from dominant economic models but is often deeply implicated in local, normatively regulated, exchanges. The contributors identify and examine several alternative economic systems that emerge outside of, parallel to, in opposition to, or even in conjunction with mainstream capitalist market economies and governance frameworks.

Finally, the book reflects on these findings to consider what a more just and sensible drug control policy might look like in the Americas. Through their case studies, the authors reveal the impacts and limitations of current policy to argue that ‘prohibition’ is no longer sustainable, nor is it desirable. The conclusion to the book makes tentative proposals for alternatives, stressing the need for strategies that emphasise harm reduction and redistributive measures to tackle the root causes of involvement in the drug trade and drug consumption, including poverty, dysfunctional institutions, and lack of constructive state presence.

Taken together the contributions provide a solid evidence base in favour of progressive alternatives with an aim to reduce harms and to disempower violent actors. These are compelling narratives that we hope will be heard by policy makers and politicians alike.

Thomas Grisaffi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sciences, Enrique Desmond Arias is Marxe Chair of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the City University of New York.

This article was first published on the Urban Violence Research Network blog and is republished here with their permission.