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'Mom and Pop' Drug Runners Replace Cartels

The international drug trade is booming. But it's also changing, dramatically.

The large cartels that ship thousands of tons cocaine, heroin, and marijuana through clandestine international corridors to your neighborhood street corner are increasingly being replaced with smaller organizations. Some are less sophisticated "mom and pop" operations, others are highly refined spinoffs of the traditional mafias.

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Experts credit law enforcement's success in targeting the larger cartels for much of the change. But the ironic result is that more drugs are moving across porous borders in smaller bundles. And law enforcement has just made its own job even harder.

"There is very little good news to report on the war on drugs," says Alain Labrousse, director of the Observatoire Geopolitique de Drogues (OGD), an independent Paris-based think tank that tracks the drug trade.

Every year, OGD takes a snapshot of the world drug trade using information collected from a 60-country network of law-enforcement contacts, private think tanks, academics, and the media. OGD's report, World Geopolitics of Drugs, was released yesterday and concluded there are still large cartels in Mexico and Burma, and medium-sized organizations in Colombia, Brazil, and Pakistan, but a "massive" number of smaller operations have sprung up along side of them.

Colombia is a case in point. For years it was dominated by the Medellin and Cali cartels. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, they were targeted by a sophisticated international antidrug operation that cracked the cartels' hierarchical center.

Today, officials estimate there are 40 medium-sized organizations and an astounding 3,000 "mom and pop" operations filling the cartels' void. Those groups are made up of small-time thugs, but also families who send a relative living abroad a kilo or two of cocaine to sell. As a result, the same amount of drugs is exported, but in smaller, more-difficult-to-detect amounts.

"It also generates more violence in the industry," says Francisco Thoumi, an expert on the Latin American drug trade. "You have a lot more people and a lot less control, so you have more conflicts."

The sudden plethora of organizations also makes it more difficult for law enforcement. With two large cartels, police only need to infiltrate two organizations. It takes more money and agents to track, understand, and undermine 40 operations.

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The type of corruption involved has also changed. It is much easier for large cartels to quietly give officials large payoffs to turn a blind eye, says Mr. Thoumi. The smaller groups can grease smaller, less effective palms. The positive effect is that seizures of small stashes of cocaine are up, but the same quantity of drugs still gets through.

The OGD report also ties changes in the drug trade to increases in local conflicts and booming production. It is estimated that in the late 1980s Latin America produced between 500 and 700 metric tons of cocaine base. In 1996, that jumped to between 800 and 1,200 tons. In 1988, Burma and Afghanistan were producing an estimated 1,600 to 2,000 metric tons of opium. In 1996, production had jumped to 4,500 tons.

Warring factions in Yugoslavia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and other hot spots have tapped some of those increases, says Mr. Labrousse. "They'll do anything to pay to continue their struggles, but they're amateurs." Nonetheless, they're adding to the world drug trade and the complex international politics that some experts credit for undermining the war on drugs.

"No one wants to talk about the corrupt government officials in places like Mexico and other countries they're trying to influence. It's too difficult," says Jack Blum, an international expert on drug trafficking and money-laundering. As a result, he says, there are plenty of good speeches about fighting the war on drugs, but not enough real political will or daring to actually win it.

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