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War on drugs has helped cocaine traffickers conquer swathes of Central America

The US spends almost $5B a year attempting to intercept shipments of illegal drugs from Central America, but despite the enormous outlay, the quantities of cocaine delivered to the country have continued to rise.

One of the main focuses of American spending is the “transit zone” between Central American sources and US markets. Around $4.7B - or around 18 per cent of total federal drug control spending - was allocated to interdiction in 2016. 

But a new study, which simulated the complex dynamics between drug traffickers and US drug control efforts in Central America, suggests the efforts of successive US governments have led to a “cat-and-mouse arms race”, in which traffickers have massively expanded their networks of operations in ever greater efforts to out-manoeuvre authorities.

“Wholesale cocaine prices in the United States have dropped significantly since 1980, deaths from cocaine overdose are rising, and the dismal rate at which counterdrug forces intercept cocaine shipments is well documented,” the study’s authors said as their research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. [….]The US government’s cocaine interdiction mission in the transit zone of Central America is now in its fifth decade despite its long-demonstrated ineffectiveness, both in cost and results.”

The report calls for a reassessment of how the US tackles illegal imports of narcotics, saying the key reason trafficking is so hard to stop is in fact because of increased interdiction efforts. “Narco-trafficking is as widespread and difficult to eradicate as it is because of interdiction, and increased interdiction will continue to spread traffickers into new areas, allowing them to continue to move drugs north,” it concludes.

The authors added that their model could be of use to authorities in their efforts to cut illegal imports of drugs into the US, saying it “offers a much-needed, evidence-based tool to move this deadlocked issue forward”.