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The BBC's Philip Fiske
"Lucrative markets in the west ensure there is no prospect of this supply drying out"
 real 28k

Friday, 9 June, 2000, 22:16 GMT 23:16 UK
Drugs: A global business
Police swoop on a marijuana plantation
By Philip Fiske

Cupping a match in his hands, Sergeant Joe Ferrera of the Trinidadian police stoops to light the base of an unconventional bonfire.

The kindling takes, and after a few seconds he steps back - a broad grin on his face - to admire his work.

With impressive nonchalance, he has just set alight about $1m worth of finest Trinidadian marijiuana crop.

Police destroy another plantation
'Yes, it feels a little strange' he says, 'but at least this way the drug dealers won't get the money'.

Ferrera and his team spend much of their week on eradication missions like this.

Clad in US army fatigues and body armour, they hop between remote plantations - sharpened machetes and kerosene cans in hand - doing their best to stem a constant but illegal tide of drugs.

A darker shadow

For many in the Caribbean, drugs have become a way of life.

Smoking marijuana is a Rastafarian tradition

While a culture of relatively benign Rastafarianism has encouraged the local growth and consumption of marijuana - something some in the region feel should be tolerated - the drugs trade generally has in recent years started to cast a darker shadow.

The Caribbean is one of the principal smuggling routes for cocaine from the Andes region of South America towards North America and Europe.

Under the scrutiny of Colombian gangs, small-time Caribbean gangsters have been moving large quantities of cocaine by boat, air and person through the region.

The trade has a profoundly negative effect on the area.

Smugglers are paid in cocaine rather than cash and have created local 'addict' markets to offload their merchandise.

Drug production is rife in the Caribbean

Gangsters have sought to influence local governments using dollars and bullets.

Single mothers with hungry children to feed have been imprisoned for trying to traffic drugs into Europe.

All because drug users in London or New York are prepared to pay so much for their 'fix'.

A global business

Drugs are big business. The United Nations estimates there are more than 50 million regular users of heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs like 'ecstasy' world-wide.

The global illegal trade could be worth as much as $400 billion dollars a year - almost as much as the international tourist trade - creating employment for tens of thousands of people both legally and illegally.

Farmers, security guards, chemists, accountants, pilots, lawyers, bankers, dealers, policemen and health-workers are all kept busy supporting or combating the trade.

child and woman
Drug production occupies thousands worldwide

The economics of the drugs business function like any other industry.

If there's a shortage of raw material, be it coca leaf or opium, the price of the drug goes up. If there's too much, the price goes down.

Just as any self-respecting multinational corporation has marketing departments or strategic think-tanks to plan for the future, so international drug gangs do too.

South American drug cartels have, for years, been using highly qualified marketing and economic graduates to maximise their 'industrial output'.

European-educated whizzkids now sit in plush offices, scratching their heads and wondering how best to 'market' their product internationally.

Market research

One of the most frightening 'marketing exercises' was that conducted in Puerto Rico about a decade ago.

Keen to move into the lucrative US heroin supply business, which until the late 1980s had been cornered by the Thais and Burmese, Colombian gangs began producing high quality heroin on home soil.

Seized cocaine: But drug trafficking is easier than ever before

Before moving into the US market they wanted a 'guinea pig' to test their product - to make sure it would sell.

Using their established distribution network they started shipping heroin to Puerto Rico, an island with heavy American cultural influence, which the Colombian cartels felt provided a market representative of the US.

The idea was to 'test the water' - if Colombian heroin sold well in Puerto Rico, the cartels would expand into the heroin business in North America.

Street dealers were given samples of heroin to give away whenever they sold any cocaine. Free 'taster' packs for potential users - the ultimate marketing ploy.

Colombian cartels are the largest single heroin supplier to the North American market

Very soon people who had until then only been using cocaine became regular heroin users - and regular heroin buyers.

The ploy was a success,
and the market evidently ripe. The gangs moved quickly.

Today, Puerto Rico has a large population of heroin addicts - created from scratch - and Colombian cartels are the largest single supplier of heroin to the North American market. Business in action.

International network

Of course, the Colombian cartels are just one element in a huge international network.

Drugs are produced, trafficked and consumed in most countries of the world - by many different nationalities, and via many different places.

The end of the Cold War and consequent greater global economic freedom has facilitated the traffic.

It is easier to move legal or illegal goods around the world now than ever before.

Camels are used to smuggle heroin through Iran and Central Asia

Heroin and opium produced in war-weary Afghanistan flows west through Iran or Central Asia into Turkey and Eastern Europe and on to markets in Britain, Holland or Germany.

Cocaine produced in Peru moves east into Brazil, across the Atlantic to Nigeria, down to South Africa and northwards to Europe.

Even laboratory-produced synthetic drugs like Ecstasy are being trafficked out of Europe to parts of Africa and Middle East.

This last phenomenon is perhaps the most worrying.

A new challenge

Ecstasy pills' popularity has created new problems

For years, international governments and organisations have sought to disrupt the movement of drugs between developing countries like Afghanistan and the lucrative markets in the West.

The fact that drugs have had to travel so far means that it is harder for them to reach their markets, and that they are relatively expensive.

The development of chemical drugs like ecstasy, which are easy and cheap to produce and which can be produced very close to their markets, presents a new and frightening challenge.

The international anti-drugs community can be forgiven for biting its nails. They know their strategies will have to change.

In future, the old-fashioned toil of policemen like Joe Ferrera, machete in hand, may become an embarrassing irrelevance.

Philip Fiske's series The Shadow Trade will be broadcast by BBC World Service later this month

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