Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling: Lessons from the Inside
Scott H. Decker & Margaret Townsend Chapman
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008
Subject, Methods, Database:
This book presents an interview based study on drug smuggling into the United States. The sample comprises individuals who were sentenced by U.S. federal courts for serious drug offences between 1992 and 1998. Out of a total of 73 individuals who were approached, 34 agreed to be interviewed. These respondents, the authors assume, were among "the highest-level drug smugglers confined in federal institutions" at the time of the study (p. 3). Two described themselves as "managers of operations" who were running a whole operation. The majority of respondents, 22 out of 34, were involved with the transportation of the drugs, describing their role as that of either "transportation manager" (14), "transporter" (6) or "off-loader" (2). Five respondents functioned as brokers between Colombian suppliers and U.S. buyers and two were involved in money laundering. Three individuals in the sample did not admit to any specific roles. At the time of sentencing, no respondent had been younger than 26 years with most having been in their 30s and 40s and eight respondents beyond the age of 50. All respondents are male, most of them Hispanics, among which Cubans and Colombians form the two largest groups, comprising 10 and 7 individuals, respectively. The semi-structured, open-ended face-to-face interviews were recorded and transcribed, using a translator "when needed" (p. 21). As the authors explain, they have confidence in the veracity of the information provided as the "vast majority of interviewees were forthcoming, and responses rarely contradicted the information provided" by the presentence reports which had been used to select interviewees (p. 30).
The declared purpose of the study is, first of all, to explore how the interviewed drug smugglers operated and what they did to reduce the risks of being caught. Following from these observations, the study also aims at formulating interdiction strategies that exploit situations in "which a smuggler may have been deterred from smuggling drugs into the United States" (p. 21). The findings of the study, some of which have been previously published in an Abt Associates, Inc., report to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (Layne et al., 2001), create a quite vivid and detailed picture of drug smuggling into the United States, specifically of marijuana and cocaine smuggling via the Caribbean by plane and boat during the 1980s and 1990s. Extensive direct quotations from the interviews are presented along with summaries of the respondents' statements. A number of interesting aspects are addressed in this way, including the modus operandi of drug smuggling into the U.S., the structure of smuggling enterprises, and the relations between different groups and individuals collaborating in some form or other in the process of a given smuggling venture, and the risk perceptions of drug smugglers. Most of the respondents (21) had been involved in smuggling operations that used private boats for bringing drugs into the United States. Private planes were also used by smugglers in some cases, but in response to the deployment of AWACS planes by the U.S. government in its War on Drugs these planes made air-drops in mid-shipment locations rather than to bring drugs directly to the United States. Commercial ships or commercial planes, respectively, were less commonly chosen as means of transport. The authors note that only few individuals in the sample were familiar with smuggling across the U.S.-Mexico border which they see as a function of the fact that many of them were arrested before Mexico became an important transit country. Many of the smugglers reported that until the mid 1980s the primary drug exported from Colombia to the United States was marijuana and that in the absence of strict controls thousands of pounds of marijuana sitting on the deck could be brought into the country by boat. It was only in response to increasing interdiction efforts that smugglers switched to cocaine as the more valuable and easier to transport drug. The basic modus operandi most often described in the interviews involved drugs being brought by Colombians to mid-shipment points in countries closer to the United States, such as the Bahamas, Cuba, Aruba, Haiti, Honduras, and Puerto Rico. The Bahamas had been a favorite mid-shipment point for transport of both marijuana and cocaine because of the large number of uninhabited islands which make it difficult for Bahamian authorities and American law enforcement to monitor and control movement. However, the presence of pirates made the Bahamas also a risky place for drug smugglers to operate. Cuba was used by at least four of the interviewed smugglers who stated that it was the most secure mid-shipment point, since the Cuban government could be paid off and U.S. authorities could not enter the flight zone around Cuba while at the same time it is only a short distance from Miami. From the mid-shipment points the drugs would mostly be transported by boat to Florida. There the drugs would either be offloaded directly or, when the drugs were hidden in a compartment, as seems to have been common by the mid 1990s, the boat would be taken out of the water and cut open to remove the drugs. The smugglers in the sample claimed that compartments could be designed in such a way that they would not be detected in most cases a boat is boarded by law enforcement. Five respondents cited commercial freighters as the easiest and safest way to bring drugs, especially large shipments of up to five thousand kilograms, into the United States. However, while this method takes advantage of the sheer volume of international trade, reportedly it is also more costly and requires a higher level of coordination between a higher number of individuals compared to other smuggling schemes. Smuggling drugs through airports is considered more risky and at the same time less profitable because only small loads can be transported on a passenger's body or in the luggage. As the authors explain, the interviews were not focused on describing smuggling operations. Still, they were able to collect some information on the structure of drug smuggling enterprises which they view as supporting the notion that a shift has occurred away from centralized "cartels" to numerous "less organized groups" (p. 34). One interviewee is quoted as saying the following: "It all spread around. It was worse because in the beginning there is an organization. There's people being organized. Now you got people everywhere, you know? And it doesn't mean that's going to generate seven hundred kilos for every little person that is left. No, these people-this one might deal with ten and the other ten." (p. 35). The authors describe the new structure as that of "two-tiered networks made up of core and periphery members" (p. 36). The core networks are made up of what the interviewees described as "offices", a term which apparently is to be taken quite literally. These "offices" organize specific aspects of an operation, such as supply, packaging, transportation, distribution and money management. A description of an "office" is contained in the following interview quote: "When you get there, the first thing you see when you come in, it says no gambling, no drinking. Then you go in there and there is pool tables. People are sitting around and talking, and then there's a blackboard with arrivals and departures, and it says like ... Brothers leaving the twentieth, half a load, have space for four hundred kilos, and then, you know, anybody would come in and stake out what they want to send." (p. 44). A second key role in the overall network is played by "brokers" who may combine the drugs from several small suppliers into one large shipment. Other tasks include linking different "offices" and "offices" with buyers in the United States. Cooperative relations appear to be fairly short lived with the exception of the links between an "office" or a "broker" and a "transportation manager". As the authors explain, working for one person was common because of the need for trust given that loads were fronted to the transportation team (p. 47). Organizing an operation from assembling a shipment, selecting a mid-shipment point and determining the means of transport to the offloading in the United States entails the coordination of a large number of people. It was described in the interviews as time consuming, ranging from a few weeks to as much as a year, even though many aspects are not centrally managed. For example, transport managers who are hired for taking part in a specific operation are responsible for hiring a crew or several crews, depending on what stages of the transport between Colombia and the United States they are supposed to handle. At each stage, as many as ten to fifteen persons may be involved. Given the contractual relationships linking the main functional components of a smuggling operation, it is interesting to see how problems with contract fulfillment are being dealt with. Most interviewees were familiar with the repercussions of losing a load. In general, the transport manager was held liable if the load was lost while it was in his possession unless the load was lost to law enforcement. However, the overriding interest of Colombian suppliers seems to have been to maintain a functioning smuggling route rather than to discipline business partners. As one smuggler explained in the interview: "There's a lot of myths about that ... you get killed ... you know, it depends on the person. If they think you ripped somebody of, you know, but if something happened, it happens. Then you don't have to pay." (p. 53). Smugglers reported a number of techniques to minimize the risk of detection and apprehension. These included limiting interaction to a small number of trusted individuals, using only well maintained equipment, and avoiding suspicion by frequently changing smuggling patterns. These security strategies were successful in the sense that a number of the respondents had been active in the drug smuggling business for many years. 18 interviewees had been involved in ten or more "smuggling events", seven even admitted to involvement in more than 50 events (p. 29). On the other hand, no security measures prevented the respondents from eventually being caught. Interestingly, almost three-quarters were caught through members of their own crew who were either confidential informants (17) or cooperating defendants (7) (p. 127). It is also interesting to note that many of the interviewed smugglers expressed a lack of knowledge of U.S. enforcement tactics, of the possibility to be convicted on conspiracy charges even when no drugs are present, and of the severity of punishment for drug offences in the United States. As the authors point out, not one of the interviewees was aware of the length of the sentence awaiting him at the conclusion of the trial. As one smuggler explained: "I was 99 percent sure that law enforcement couldn't find the hidden compartment. But I didn't even know the penalty for bringing in cocaine. I thought if you were sophisticated enough and you had the right people, there was no limit to what you could [get away with]." (p. 122). In the end, the authors come to the conclusion that for the most part "drug smuggling efforts are not well organized" (p. 146). They recommend that (potential) drug smugglers should be made more aware of the legal arsenal in place against drug trafficking to increase its deterrent effect. However, they also assume that interdiction efforts alone will fail as long there is a demand for drugs in the United States.
This book gives a straightforward account of drug smuggling through the eyes of incarcerated, mostly high-level drug smugglers. It is less concerned with fitting findings into a pre-existing theoretical framework than with letting the interviewees speak directly to the reader. There is a lot of detailed information to be discovered both for students of the history of drug smuggling between Colombia and the United States, and for students of smuggling, illegal markets and organized crime in general.
"Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling" is a significant addition to the growing interview-based research literature on organized crime.
Desroches, F. J. (2005). The Crime That Pays: Drug Trafficking and Organized Crime in Canada. Canadian Scholars' Press.
Layne, M., Bruen, A., Johnson, P., Rhodes, W., Decker, S., Townsend, M., Chester, C., Schaffer, G. & Lavin, J. (2001). Measuring the Deterrent Effect of Enforcement Operations on Drug Smuggling, 1991-1999. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Special Issue on Interviewing 'Organized Criminals', Trends in Organized Crime 11(1), 2008
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