Earlier this month, the Colombian national police uncovered almost nine tons of cocaine, some of it hidden in a chamber below a banana plantation. The series of seizures produced more than 17,500 pounds of blow, and Colombia's president, Juan Manuel Santos, boasted it was the biggest ever, tweeting that the operation represented "a hit against criminals."
It's the same kind of chest-thumping rhetoric American politicians seem to deploy whenever a massive shipment of drugs gets nabbed at the border. Take, for instance, that time almost exactly a year ago when New York made its biggest-ever heroin bust and the top cop in the state said the "case [would] have a significant impact on the drug trade in New York State and throughout the Northeast."
The problem is that it's awfully hard to fact-check cops and politicians on the significance of these seizures. Questions tend to linger, like whether splashy busts actually put a dent in the global market, and whether they might actually just trigger violence because they mean a cartel boss suddenly can't pay his cronies. For some perspective, I asked Dr. Bruce Bagley, a professor at the University of Miami who studies drug trafficking and security issues, exactly what a big drug seizure means for all the key players in 2016.
VICE: It seems like massive busts remain the most hallowed of achievements for drug warriors in the United States.
Dr. Bruce Bagley: Yeah, they take great pride in major busts. They calculate very often the total tonnage or poundage, and then they project how much it would be worth if you were to sell it by the gram in the streets of New York. So there is a natural tendency for them to be inflated by ambitious bureaucrats who want to overestimate the real impact of major busts.
But what's the impact like for the traffickers?
If you take out a ton or eight or ten, that's a major blow to whoever was the owner of that tonnage. OK? And certainly it can effect the bottom line of certain organizations, but all that it does in the end is to withdraw from the market and create a vacuum, which then drives up the prices for those other smugglers who want to get stuff into the United States. In the final analysis, not only does it not have a long-term productive effect, it causes a rise in the price, which incentivizes additional smugglers to get in on the act.
Earlier this month, Colombia seized seventeen thousand five hundred pounds of cocaine from a drug gang. Will that even make a dent in the local or global market?
That's a big one, and they will make a big deal out of it. It's their job, and it's how they kind of count coup and get merit points, so it makes sense. Look, Colombia increased its total number of hectares [roughly ten thousand square meters] under [coca] cultivation between 2013 and 2014 by forty-four percent. So this upsurge means there's just more being produced and more being shipped. There's much more floating around. And Colombia recently recaptured position number one, after Peru had held the position for several years.
Is there a a seizure big enough that it would actually disrupt the infrastructure of the drug trade?
They have captured storage facilities in California and some other places, and there has still never been a long-term dent, the kind of thing you're talking about. There are temporary blips, because it creates a rise in price through continuing demand. And that rise in price motivates or incentivizes other producers. The only way to sort of stop this procedure is not by periodically cranking up the price through extra economic protectionist barriers, which is what this is—the only way to do it is by legalizing the stuff. Otherwise you have a clandestine market, that clandestine market continues to feed demand in the United States and Canada, as well as in Europe, and there is no end to the demand, so there will be no end to the supply. No matter what they do.
"They better duck, first of all, because the bullets are gonna fly."
They simply shift it around. They shifted it northward, right, from Bolivia and Peru. In 1985, Peru produced sixty-five percent of the world's coca supply and Bolivia produced twenty-five percent. Colombia was a largely irrelevant factor. In 2005, Colombia produced above ninety percent of the world's coca supply. In 2010, Peru outstripped Colombia because of an interdiction effort, and Peru became number one. Through 2013. Between 2013 and 2014, Colombia recovered position number one. And now Colombia and Peru probably produce somewhere in the neighborhood of eighty percent plus between the two of them, with Colombia five percent ahead of Peru in terms of overall production. But from my perspective, which is based on my research and writings, that's not success. What you've done is just contaminate more and more countries.
In retail, there's the concept of shrink, or the assumption that product is gonna be stolen as a part of doing business. Do the cartels work interdiction into their business projections?
Yes, they do. They cooperate among themselves. To give you an example. The Medellín cartel came up with a technique: Rather than any single owner holding one hundred percent of a shipment, the Medellín had five principle members, each of which took twenty percent. So if they lost one shipment, the likelihood of them getting another through and minimizing their losses was very high. The same kinds of things happen within the Sinaloa cartel, within Los Zetas. There are, in effect, shareholders. So they've developed mechanisms to absorb potential losses of ten to fifteen percent, which they calculate in their own models as standard operating procedure, as standard business practice.
So what happens within a cartel when there's a big publicized seizure?
There can be significant impact if there's a single group that owned it. That's going to have a devastating impact. They won't be able to pay their organization very well. There's unrest and discontent. There may actually be in-fighting by various groups jockeying for position, especially if this is accompanied by the arrest of a major leader. They're gonna make somebody responsible for it.
What about among civilians in the area? Are those regions heavily destabilized after a bust?
They better duck, first of all, because the bullets are gonna fly. And they may not get paid if they're transporters, or they watch warehouses, or drive cars. If you lose a lot of money, the organization can become cash-strapped. People like El Chapo and Mayo Zambada from the Sinaloa cartel basically keep people employed. One shipment will not end their efforts to maintain their organization. In more precarious groups, or rising groups, you can find a lot more difficulties. So the younger and less consolidated the group, the less cash they have to spread around and maintain people in place when the profits are not flowing as they hoped. So it's like other businesses––the bigger and badder you are, the more you can weather the storm.
There's a lot of noise made when these big seizures happen––a lot of showing off. Is there any accurate way to assess how the war on drugs is going other than through press releases about busts? Or at least a better one?
The very best way is to look at the price per gram per eight bar per ounce per metric ton in places like Miami or across the country for cocaine or for heroin. And the tendency in the last twenty years, or the last forty years, is for price to decline. The very best indicator is street prices, and the DEA actually publishes a series of street prices. And the tendency has been on the decline. They've actually plotted out these prices over about twenty years and demonstrated that very clearly, despite momentary spikes in prices when there are serious disruptions. When we closed down the borders after 2001, there was a major spike in prices for a short period of time. So all of those things are possible.
Ultimately, interdiction, Peter Reuter wrote in "Sealing the Borders," normally captures between ten to fifteen percent of the total being shipped into the United States. This is only temporary delays. Others have done projections over time of the price, and even with all the major busts, the overall tendency has been a decline in the price in cocaine and heroin in the United States market—precisely because of the reasons I mentioned. And we spend hundreds of millions of dollars per year on interdiction. If you were to plot out how much it costs us––nobody has ever done this––to capture each of these tons in terms of Air Force AWACs and Navy patrols and inspectors and the DEA and everyone else, the cost would be astronomical. If there's an increase in shipments captured, it probably indicates an increased level of shipping into the United States.
We have no benchmark against which to really judge how effective these operations are. I am never impressed with high rates of interdiction.
This interview has been lightly condensed and edited.
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