Drug trafficking refers to the global trade of illegal drugs and is a massive criminal industry that generates hundreds of billions of dollars annually. This illicit trade fuels violence, corruption, and instability across the world as criminal groups compete for control of lucrative drug markets. But where exactly is the most drug trafficking occurring? Which regions and countries serve as key transit points or major markets for traffickers? Here we examine some of the major drug trafficking hubs around the world.
South and Central America
Many South and Central American countries are deeply impacted by drug trafficking due to their proximity to drug producing regions. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the two major cocaine trafficking flows originate in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia and move towards the north via Central America or the Caribbean. Mexico serves as a major trans-shipment point for cocaine headed to the lucrative US market. The UNODC estimates that over 90% of cocaine trafficked to the US passes through Mexico and the Central America corridor first. Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala are plagued by trafficking related violence and high homicide rates as cartels battle for control of drug routes. Brazil is also a major consumer market for drugs and entry point for cocaine and other substances shipped across the Atlantic from Africa. Overall, South and Central America together account for roughly one quarter of the global cocaine seizures between 2014-2018 according to UNODC data.
Notable Countries in South and Central America for Drug Trafficking:
- Colombia – Major producer of cocaine
- Peru – Major producer of cocaine
- Bolivia – Major producer of cocaine
- Mexico – Key transit country for drugs entering the US
- Honduras – Major transit country for cocaine
- Brazil – Large consumer market for cocaine and other drugs
The United States is the largest consumer of illegal drugs in the world. According to the DEA, Americans spent over $100 billion on illicit drugs in 2010 alone. The US appetite for drugs fuels violence and corruption across drug supply chains in Latin America. US Customs and Border Protection reports making over 1.7 million drug seizures at legal ports of entry from 2016-2020. Drugs are also trafficked across remote sections of the US-Mexico border outside legal crossing points. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are increasingly being trafficked directly from China to the US through the mail. Domestic drug trafficking also occurs between states. The DEA notes both Mexican cartels and US-based gangs play major roles distributing drugs within the US.
Key Facts about Drug Trafficking in the US:
- Over 1.7 million drug seizures at legal ports of entry from 2016-2020
- $100+ billion spent annually on illegal drugs
- Fentanyl trafficked through mail from China
- Mexican cartels control much of US distribution
- Inter-state domestic drug trafficking common
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, from which heroin and other opioids are derived. Prior to the US invasion in 2001, the Taliban had banned opium production, causing output to plummet. However, poppy cultivation surged after the regime fell, turning Afghanistan into a narco-state. In 2017, poppy cultivation reached record levels, with 328,000 hectares under cultivation. While recent droughts have caused declines, Afghanistan still accounted for 84% of global opium production in 2020 according to the UNODC. Most Afghan heroin is trafficked through Iran or Central Asia into Russia and Europe. However, there are also major heroin trafficking flows from Afghanistan into neighboring Pakistan as well as into China. Powerful drug cartels with ties to the Taliban generate hundreds of millions in profits from the opiate trade.
Key Facts on Afghan Drug Trafficking:
- World’s largest producer of opium poppy
- 84% of global opium production in 2020
- Key trafficking routes through Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan
- Major destination markets are Europe and Russia
- Trade controlled by Taliban and regional cartels
West Africa has become a hub for cocaine trafficking from South America to Europe in recent years. UNODC data indicates that in 2019, 27% of all cocaine seizures in Europe originated in West Africa compared to just 1% in 2006. Traffickers are increasingly using countries like Guinea-Bissau, Ghana, and Nigeria as transit points to move cocaine shipments by air or sea up to Europe. Corruption and weak rule of law facilitate the use of West Africa as a staging ground. South American traffickers are also exploiting existing smuggling networks in the region used for moving hashish and migrants. While cocaine use was previously low in West Africa, local consumption and inter-regional trafficking have risen sharply. The drug trade through West Africa is destabilizing an already volatile region.
West African Cocaine Trafficking Facts:
- Major hub linking South American cocaine to European markets
- 27% of European cocaine seizures originated in West Africa in 2019
- Trafficking networks exploit corruption and weak institutions
- Increased inter-regional trafficking and local consumption
- Cocaine trade fuels instability in volatile region
Mexico is situated between the world’s largest producer of cocaine (Colombia) and largest consumer of illegal drugs (United States), making it a natural trafficking corridor. Mexican cartels control many aspects of the cross-border drug trade ranging from production to transportation to distribution. Cultivation of opium poppies used to produce heroin has also grown in recent years within Mexico. Cartels have diversified by producing increasingly potent methamphetamine and fentanyl for US markets. Drug trafficking coupled with competition for territory is responsible for elevated violence and record homicide rates in Mexico. Corruption of law enforcement and public officials further enables cartel activity. Mexico’s central role in supplying the voracious US drug market will ensure it remains a top global trafficking hub.
Mexican Drug Trafficking Facts:
- Strategic location between major producer and consumer countries
- Cartels control cocaine and heroin supply chains
- Increased role in meth and opioid production
- Violence between competing cartels
- Widespread official corruption
Southeast Asia has long been a major global hub for heroin and methamphetamine trafficking. The Golden Triangle region where Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand meet is a top opium producing area and feeds heroin supply chains throughout the Asia Pacific. Myanmar is the world’s second largest opium producer after Afghanistan. Methamphetamine production has also grown rapidly in Myanmar and Thailand due to proximity to chemical precursors from China. Meth is both trafficked regionally and smuggled to high-value markets like Australia and Japan. Insurgencies and weak governance facilitate drug production and trafficking from the Golden Triangle. Nearby Cambodia and Laos also serve as important gateways for heroin and meth flowing out of Myanmar.
Notable Facts on Southeast Asian Drug Trafficking:
- Golden Triangle is major global opium and heroin production hub
- Myanmar is the second largest opium producer globally
- Rapid growth of methamphetamine production in the region
- Key transit area supplying meth and heroin to Asia Pacific markets
- Insurgencies and state weakness enable trafficking
Europe is one of the most lucrative markets for illegal drugs anywhere in the world. Its relative affluence and proximity to major production regions in North Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America make it an attractive destination for drug traffickers. Cannabis resin and heroin from North Africa are smuggled into Spain and Portugal before distribution across the continent. Cocaine from South America enters Europe through multiple routes including direct shipment and transit through West Africa. Synthetic drugs are also manufactured in European labs, particularly in the Netherlands and Poland, before being sold domestically or internationally. Drug policy liberalization and growing domestic consumption in parts of Western Europe may further solidify the region’s importance to global drug trafficking.
Key Elements of the European Drug Market:
- Major destination market for cannabis, cocaine, and heroin globally
- Cocaine trafficked from South America directly or through West Africa
- North African hashish enters via Iberian peninsula
- Domestic manufacture of synthetic drugs like methamphetamine
- Liberalized drug policies in some countries
Drug trafficking is a truly global enterprise that spans continents. While there are major producers, transit zones, and consumers, the illicit drug trade touches nearly every region of the world either as a source, destination, or through route. This review highlights some of the most prominent drug trafficking hubs like Afghanistan, Mexico, and West Africa. However, even regions not covered like China, Russia, and India play major roles. Given the tremendous profits involved, criminal networks will continue innovating new methods and routes to deliver their illicit wares to market, ensuring drug trafficking remains both a global scourge and lucrative criminal enterprise.