In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section International Drug Trafficking

  • Introduction
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks, Books, and Journals
  • Political Economy of Illegal Drugs
  • Transnational Organized Crime
  • Money Laundering and Corruption
  • Violence
  • Costs and Alternatives to the War on Drugs

Criminology International Drug Trafficking
Erik D. Fritsvold
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0126


The global illegal drug trade is massive in scope with sweeping consequences for the developed and developing world. With an estimated annual value of between $300 billion and $400 billion, international drug trafficking dwarfs the value of many staple legal commodities in the global economy. This massive underground criminal marketplace further destabilizes regions rife with unrest, provides revenue for entrenched organized criminal groups, undermines cornerstone institutions, corrupts law enforcement, infiltrates the financial sector, and further complicates issues of national security. Recent decades have dramatically reconfigured international drug trafficking. While the United States remains the largest consumer of illicit drugs, recent years have witnessed a modest shift away from punitive prohibition policies; several states have relaxed marijuana laws, and there has been a modest deescalation of penalties at the federal level. The last decade has also witnessed significant increases in cocaine use in Europe that has further established this region as a hub in the global market for illicit drugs. In addition, the primary source of the world’s opium has largely relocated from the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia to Afghanistan and the Golden Crescent; this shift has had profound impacts on large-scale conflicts and the political economy of the region. While cocaine production continues to fluctuate, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, and other traditional coca-cultivating countries in South America continue to produce the lion’s share of the world’s cocaine. Colombia remains a leader in the production of cocaine, although the power of the Colombian drug cartels has decreased in recent decades. Originally subcontracted to smuggle drugs into the United States by Colombian cartels, Mexican drug trafficking organizations have emerged as, potentially, the dominant force in the drug economy of the new millennium. These deep-rooted criminal groups established control over longstanding smuggling routes into the United States. Given the scope and mutually constitutive nature of international drug trafficking with global social, economic, and political dynamics, an empirically based understanding of this issue is imperative. Gathering reliable information about an inherently criminal, inherently clandestine industry is challenging. This article seeks to tackle this task by compiling a global, interdisciplinary, and methodologically diverse series of resources. Policy reports from various organizations provide macro-level quantitative data. Historical accounts reveal the social, political, and economic embeddedness of the drug trade. Ethnographies and case studies of drug-dealing groups and peasant farmers provide vivid qualitative data on the lived experience of the underground economy. More specifically, these resources focus on a series of subtopics, including the political economy of illegal drugs, transnational organized crime, money laundering, corruption, violence, and alternative policy. In combination, the following resources attempt to rely on empirical evidence and science in an area that has sometimes been dominated by bombastic claims and fear-driven politics.

Reference Works

International drug trafficking is a broad and multifaceted issue. Accordingly, many of the resources in this section provide encompassing overviews of drug manufacturing, drug distribution, and drug use. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2009 provides a tremendously inclusive and empirically driven history of drug use and drug control worldwide. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2014 presents a near-comprehensive examination of contemporary illegal drug use worldwide. These two reports are excellent starting points for understanding this topic. Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs 2014 provides a more technical examination of illegal drug trafficking in eighty-nine individual countries. International Narcotics Control Board 2013 adds an examination of the global market for the legal scientific or medicinal use of drugs. National Drug Intelligence Center 2011 describes how organized criminal groups within the United States cooperate with transnational organized criminal groups to traffic drugs into the lucrative US market. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2011 is a detailed examination of the global market in cocaine. Each of the reports in this section is empirically rich, searchable, clearly written, and visually interesting; they are excellent, user-friendly resources for the study of international drug trafficking.

  • Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. 2014. International narcotics control strategy report. 2 Vols. Washington, DC: US Department of State.

    In combination, this two-part, 537-page report is more inclusive but also more technical compared to more succinct reports from the United Nations and US Department of Justice. The highlight of this report is a very usable, alphabetized executive summary of illegal drug issues in eighty-nine individual countries. For most countries, information is presented regarding drug manufacturing, distribution, antidrug policies, law enforcement efforts, and relevant laws and treaties.

  • International Narcotics Control Board. 2013. Report of the International Narcotics Control Board. New York: United Nations.

    The International Narcotics Control Board oversees the legal availability of drugs for legitimate use in science and medicine. Under this umbrella, it also analyzes the illegal global trafficking of drugs. The highlights of this annual report include an informative section on drug and corruption and a very user-friendly regional breakdown of the production and distribution of illegal drugs worldwide. This report is rich and reflects a longitudinal understanding of these complex issues, as evident by this marking the forty-fifth annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board.

  • National Drug Intelligence Center. 2011. National drug threat assessment. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice.

    This evidence-driven report details drug use and availability in the United States and accompanying individual and societal consequences. The international production and distribution of drugs are presented, highlighting the linkages between international drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and prison and street gangs within the United States. Additional notable sections include smuggling methods into the United States; movement of individual illegal drugs within the United States; prescription drug diversion; and money laundering in the United States, Mexico, and worldwide.

  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2009. A century of international drug control. Vienna: United Nations.

    A cornerstone resource; potentially the definitive history of worldwide drug use and control efforts over the past century. Beginning with the Chinese opium pandemic in the early 1900s, “the international drug control system is one of the oldest consensus-based multilateral systems in existence” (p. 13). Highlights include rich and usable data; timelines; historical evidence on drug use, production, imports, exports; and legal responses from the international lawmaking community.

  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2011. The transatlantic cocaine market. Vienna: United Nations.

    This is a user-friendly and detailed report on the international cocaine market. Cocaine production, distribution routes, usage data, and financial data are presented using accessible language and visually interesting charts and maps. Report highlights how the market, with a peak value in the 1990s driven by high use rates in the United States, has become more dispersed internationally and less valuable over time.

  • United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. 2014. World drug report 2014. Vienna: United Nations.

    This report is produced annually by the UNODC. This is an outstanding, user-friendly resource for research and teaching on global drug use and drug markets (and searchable if downloaded as a PDF file). The colorful maps and charts are empirically rich and visually interesting. The report is a detailed analysis of contemporary international markets for heroin, cocaine, and amphetamines and a near-comprehensive examination of illegal drug use, and attendant public health consequences worldwide. The complete series is available online.

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