The Nature Of The Threat

Today's illegal drug trade is one of the most lucrative, and therefore powerful, criminal enterprises in history. Drugs generate profits on a scale without historical precedent—especially given their abundance and low production costs. Such financial resources, which are well beyond those of most national budgets, give drug traffickers the means to buy sophisticated arms, aircraft, and electronic and technical equipment available to few countries. More importantly, illegal drug revenues allow trafficking organizations to buy themselves protection at almost every level of government in the drug-producing and drug-transit countries, where drug-related corruption remains the single largest obstacle to effective control programs.

As for the drugs themselves, there is a superabundance. Opium is in especially great supply. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar (formerly Burma) could supply the world's needs several times over with 257.5 metric tons annually. Estimates of heroin consumption in the Unites States range only between 6 and 20 metric tons, less than 10 percent of Myanmar's potential output. In South America, coca production dropped in the 1990s, yet it is enough to satisfy world demand twice over. This surplus is so large that the drug trade easily absorbs losses inflicted by drug-control authorities and still makes enormous profits.

Traffickers have the option of expanding cultivation of drug crops into new areas. For example, although coca plants are currently confined to Latin America, coca once flourished in Indonesia and could do so again if market conditions were right. Opium poppy cultivation is spreading into nontraditional areas, including South America. Gambling on the resurgence of expanding heroin use in the 1990s, South American cocaine-trafficking organizations have been diversifying into opium poppy cultivation. Without active government anti-drug programs, production will grow until the new expanding market is saturated.

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