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The Drug Trade: A Comparative Analysis of Colombia and Afghanistan

Cocaine and Colombia

The Colombian drug trade, which consists mostly of cocaine, was widely publicized under Ronald Regan’s administration as the public became more concerned about rising drug usage levels. This was the era of the Medellín Cartel (1976–1993) and its famous leader Pablo Escobar. At its height, the Medellín Cartel was supplying the World Map of prevalence of cocaine use by countryworld’s largest drug market, the United States, with around 80% of its cocaine at a profit of over $4 billion dollars per year (WSJ, 2018). Escobar took great effort to win the hearts and minds of the Colombian people. Like many criminal leaders, Escobar pointed to US corruption and imperialism to justify his criminal activities. He also won the support of impoverished citizens through charitable donations and public works projects.[1] Escobar was killed in 1993 after a long conflict with the Colombian government which operated against the Medellín cartel with US support.

After the fall of the Medellín Cartel, and later the Cali Cartel, Colombian drug traffickers continued shipping cocaine out of the country in massive quantities. According to Colombia Reports “Most of Colombia’s current drug trafficking organizations were formed a decade ago by mid-level commanders of state-aligned paramilitary groups that were active Chart of distribution of gross profits of U.S. Cocaine Marketbetween the 1980s and the early 2000s.” (CR fact sheet, 2018). Cocaine and other drugs are transported out of Colombia by air, land and sea. Drug traffickers are involved in a constant arms race with law enforcement to develop new methods of covert transportation. Since the dismantling of the Colombian based cartels, Mexican cartels have become increasingly involved in the North American cocaine market, as have other transnational criminal organizations.

In an effort to disrupt the supply of cocaine, the Colombian government has attempted to destroy coca crops before the plants can be harvested and processed. In 2016, the Colombian government reported it had manually destroyed over 128,492 acres of coca plants, 4,613 laboratories involved in the extraction of cocaine paste, and 229 cocaine purification labs. Law enforcement agencies had also been dumping chemical agents from aircraft over areas of jungle believed to be used for coca cultivation until aerial fumigation was discontinued in 2016. Although some of these successes are unprecedented, they have been only marginally effective in reducing coca cultivation in Colombia, and they have not substantially impacted the cocaine market as a whole. Despite a decrease in mean levels of Columbian coca production in the 10 years prior to 2016, the market has adjusted to meet cocaine demand. Coca production has increased rapidly in other Central and South American countries such as Peru (38% increase) and Bolivia (112% increase) according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (UNODC, 2010). Colombia itself has seen a rebound in coca production which seems to coincide with the decision to discontinue aerial fumigation of the crop. In 2016 production of the coca plant had reached levels not seen since 2001, and the enrichment of cocaine from Colombian coca had also reached record levels. Although overall cocaine production has increased, the UNODC notes that the increase in coca cultivation from 2016 to 2017 has been largely focused in areas where coca production was already prevalent. (UNODC, 2016 B.) Still, despite the best efforts of law enforcement Colombia remains a large source of cocaine and the global demand for the drug continues to be met by Central and South American producers.

Bar chart of coca eradication by year

Afghanistan and Opium

Like Colombia, Afghanistan is a leading exporter of hard drugs. In Afghanistan, Opium derived from Poppy plants comprises a large percentage of the gross domestic product (16% in 2016 according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). The Afghanistan opium trade took off in the 1980’s and has grown substantially since the US invasion in 2001. Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world’s opium and is currently at record levels. (UNODC, 2017) One explanation for the large increase is the effect of reginal conflict on Afghanistan’s economy. The opium industry provides Afghan citizens with an estimated 235,100 full time jobs, more than any other industry in the country. (UNODC, 2016 B.) The Taliban have also become increasingly dependent on income from the opium market. As the Afghanistan security forces attempt to find and destroy poppy fields in an effort to combat the growing drug trade, Taliban fighters protect the fields in exchange for payment from the farmers and drug smugglers.

Levels of poppy cultivation are growing despite recent government efforts to ramp up crop eradication. In 2017, about 1,853 acers of poppy were eradicated by police forces compared with 877 acers in 2016. Despite this, poppy cultivation has increased by 63% from 2016 to 2017. Eradication has had little to no effect on cultivation levels because the fields that were eradicated represent an extremely small sample of the total poppy market. For example, the 2017 Afghanistan opium survey states Since 2016, there has not been any eradication in Hilmand, which is the province with the highest levels of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.” (UNODC, 2017). Cultivation in the Hilmand province alone reached 355,876 acers in 2017, which puts in perspective how large the poppy market actually is.

Money earned from the opium trade has a tendency to find its way into the hands of government officials. Farmers who rely on their poppy fields for income can pay police to leave their crop alone, and high-ranking members of government are just as corrupt. In 2014, Afghanistan security forces were able to make a rare and valuableBar Chart of Opium Poppy Cultivation by Year arrest. Drug kingpin Haji Lal Jan Ishaqzai, who controlled much of the drug trade in southern Afghanistan, was captured by police forces and put on trial in a drug court created with help from the US. (New York Times, 2015) The court, which receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the US and Britain, found Haji Lal Jan Ishaqzai guilty of drug smuggling and sentenced him to 20 years in prison. He was soon released after bribing Afghan officials in the amount of 14 million dollars.

Government corruption makes combating the opium trade exceedingly difficult, and the economic reality in Afghanistan further suggests that stemming the tide of opium will be a serious, long term, challenge. At every level, the economic incentives create an environment that supports illegal activity and corruption. There is simply no industry that is currently capable of meeting the economic demand that is satisfied by the opium trade.

Lessons from the War on Drugs

Colombia and Afghanistan are both leading drug producers and both have seen increased cultivation and export of illegal drugs in recent years. The United States and other western democracies have responded by attempting to disrupt drug markets on the supply side. The main strategies that have been employed are 1) the seizure and destruction of drugs, 2) the prosecution of drug producers and smugglers, 3) providing financial and political support to the Afghanistan and Columbian governments. Despite these efforts, exports of both cocaine and opium have increased. As such, this failure should be examined, and it should be determined weather reducing drug production in these countries is a practical or worthwhile goal.

Reducing drug production in Afghanistan and Colombia will primarily benefit the populations in those countries. By reducing local reliance on illegal economic activity and combating the high levels of corruption that are inherent in all illegal industries, lowering drug production would allow the domestic economy to develop. This is especially true in Afghanistan where the effect of the drug trade is particularly abhorrent. Reducing drug production in Afghanistan might also serve western interests by cutting off a source of funding that terrorist organizations like the Taliban rely on. Despite these benefits, it is unlikely that reducing drug production in these countries will result in a long-term decrease in the global drug supply because without implementing demand reduction strategies in drug consuming countries, global demand, and therefor supply, will remain high. That being said, we should examine ways to disrupt drug production in Colombia and Afghanistan given the benefits of achieving that objective.

Successfully reducing the production of opium in Afghanistan depends on establishing stable political and economic institutions in the country. Creating economic diversity and legal job opportunities is necessary to reduce local reliance on poppy cultivation. In the 2016 Afghanistan opium survey report the UNODC states “Drug-control policies need to focus on improving rural economic diversification strategies, job creation, and skills training for rural workers. The significant number of people employed in opium poppy cultivation need to find opportunities in the licit labor market”. (UNODC 2016 A, pg. 42). Political stability is also crucial if long term success is to be achieved. Over time, institutions that support the rule of law must replace norms that perpetuate corruption. It is likely to be very difficult if not impossible for these institutions to materialize without outside monetary and political support. The UNODC calls long term political and financial support “essential” for lasting success in Afghanistan.

In Colombia, government institutions are more mature and drug cultivation comprises a much smaller percentage of GDP. Although corruption is still a problem, Colombia is much more capable than Afghanistan in terms of its ability to prevent drug production from significantly impacting Colombian economic and political institutions. Unlike Afghanistan, Colombia maintains a well-funded and relatively effective drug enforcement apparatus. The Colombian Ministry for Justice and Law is responsible for overseeing all drug enforcement operations and has ramped up anti-drug activities in recent years. Despite having many political and economic advantages over Afghanistan, Columbia has also been unable to significantly reduce the amount of drugs it produces.

In analyzing the flow of illegal drugs from countries like Colombia and Afghanistan, we see that the supply of these drugs has consistently found a way to meet consumer demand. Even when government drug enforcement operations are effective, as is marginally true in Colombia, the market adjusts by increasing production in places with lover levels of risk. We have seen a substantial increase in cocaine production in Peru and Bolivia which is likely to continue now that drug smuggling networks and infrastructure have been established in those countries. Only so much progress can be made through strategies that attempt to disrupt drug production and supply. Western countries should investigate ways to reduce domestic demand for drugs like cocaine and heroin. Strategies such as mental health programs, affordable rehab clinics, and decriminalization may be effective in reducing the demand for illegal drugs.

Illegal drugs continue to effect millions around the globe, especially in countries like Columbia and Afghanistan, whose populations have been most affected by these substances. If authorities are to successfully reduce the production and export of drugs in Afghanistan and Columbia, they must employ strategies that take into account the political and economic realities in these countries, as well as the global demand for the drugs they produce.

[1] Pablo Escobar is still praised today by people in Colombia whose families benefited from his philanthropy. Among his public works projects is an apartment complex built in a poor neighborhood in Medellín that still bears his name. Ironically, Escobar is remembered both for acts of terrorism toward Colombian citizens, and his charitable contributions to parts of the Colombian community.


  1. Sponsor Content: Cocainenomics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 13, 2018, from
  2. (2018, February 04). Colombia drug trafficking | Fact sheet. Retrieved April 13, 2018, from
  3. UNODC, World Drug Report 2010 (United Nations Publication, Sales No. E.10.XI.13).
  4. (n.d.). United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Retrieved April 14, 2018, from–up-87-per-cent_-survey.html
  5. Goldstein, J. (2014, December 31). Bribery Frees a Drug Kingpin in Afghanistan, Where Cash Often Overrules Justice. Retrieved April 14, 2018, from
  6. Afghanistan Opium Survey 2016 – Sustainable development in an opium production environment. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2018, from
  7. Survey of territories affected by illicit crops 2016. (n.d.). Retrieved April 14, 2018, from

Keywords: Lessons from the war on drugs, Afghanistan and Opium, Cocaine and Colombia, Analysis of the supply of and demand for hard drugs



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