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Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling

Lessons from the Inside

Scott H. Decker

Publication Year: 2008

Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling features interviews with 34 convicted drug smugglers -- most of them once major operators -- detailing exactly how drugs are smuggled into the U.S. from Latin America.  These sources provide tangible evidence of the risks, rewards, and organization of international drug smuggling.

Quoting frequently from their interviews, Decker and Chapman explain how individuals are recruited into smuggling, why they stay in it, and how their roles change over time.  They describe the specific strategies their interviewees employed to bring drugs into the country and how they previously escaped apprehension.  Over-all, the authors find that drug smuggling is organized in a series of networks which are usually unconnected.

This extraordinarily informative book will be of particular interest to law enforcement officials and policymakers, but it will appeal to anyone who wants to know how the drug business actually works.

Published by: Temple University Press


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

We are grateful to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), and U.S. Customs Service, who funded the research presented in this book. In particular, Commander John Manning, U.S. Navy, Dr. Michael Cala from ONDCP, Senior Special Agent Fred Stacey of the U.S. Customs Service, and Commander Brian Kelley, USCG, were all instrumental to the success of ...

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1. Motivation for the Study

Drug use is a major issue in the United States. Prior research has linked it to a host of social ills, including involvement in crime, destabilization and decline of neighborhoods, and family instability. In addition, drug importation represents a major threat to the political security of both the United States and source countries and impedes economic development ...

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Understanding Drug Smuggling

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pp. 3-12

Our work is premised on the belief that key knowledge about drug smuggling comes from those who smuggle drugs.To date, most of our understanding of drug smuggling and the impact of drug interdiction policy on smugglers comes from the perspective of those charged with the task of intercepting, arresting, and ...

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Impact of Drug Interdiction Efforts

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pp. 13-14

A limited number of studies have examined the impact of interdiction and eradication efforts on drug smuggling. This is, of course, a difficult enterprise, as it requires measuring changes in drug production, drug prices, and transit routes and costs. Reuter, Crawford, and Cave (1988) measured the impact of ...

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pp. 15-19

These studies taken together provide some insights into drug smuggling organizations, methods used to transport drugs, and deterrence capabilities for drug interdiction efforts. This brief review has established several common themes, including smuggler organizational structure, smuggler intelligence, and deterrence. ...

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2. Organization of the Study

A primary goal of this book is to examine the effect of interdiction and other drug enforcement activities on drug smuggling. The objective of the interview component of our work was to gather information on perceptions of the relationship between interdiction operations in the drug source, ...

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Study Design

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pp. 21-24

There were two primary goals of this study.The first was to collect information on drug smuggler organizations, transportation methods, and smuggler roles as background to understanding how sample subjects perceived and managed the risks associated with smuggling drugs.The second was to explore points at which ...

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Interview Sample

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pp. 25-30

Although eighty-one smugglers were originally identified as being located at the selected institutions, only seventy-three were approached for interviews.7 Of them, thirty-four agreed to participate—a 52 percent refusal rate. Most of those who refused did not want to help (56 percent), while the others had lawyers ...

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pp. 31-32

A thoughtful selection process successfully identified some of the highest-level drug smugglers in federal prison at the time of our study. Access to the PSRs proved invaluable in both the selection of the sample and as preparation for the interviews. As a result, interviewers were able to begin the interviews with some familiarity ...

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3. Drug Smuggling Organizations

Although the interviews were not focused on describing smuggling organizations, it was impossible to avoid the subject in conversations about how loads were organized, who owned the drugs, and how information was communicated across groups. Many of the smugglers also had long ...

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Movement Away from Cartels

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pp. 34-35

Past research has shown that the structure of drug organizations in Colombia has evolved over the past twenty years (DEA, 1997; Bunker and Sullivan, 1998). Drug distribution groups in Colombia became formal organizations under the leaders of the Medellin cartel. These organizations operated in much the same way as traditional ...

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Structure and Movement of Drugs

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pp. 36-57

In this section, we use the information from the smugglers about the structure of smuggling operations to describe how the different groups organize loads and transport them to the United States. ...

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pp. 58-61

Our sample of high-level drug smugglers was able to confirm information about how drug smuggling operations have evolved since the demise of cartels in the 1990s. The smugglers confirmed the shift away from large centralized groups to smaller groups working together to organize loads and transport drugs ...

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4. Movement of Drugs

Individuals were asked to describe, based on their experience, typical drug smuggling events from source country to the United States. These descriptions and information about the offenses for which the smugglers were convicted provide specifics of the ways drugs are transported into the United States, as well as of the ways smugglers avoid being detected.The information ...

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Transportation Routes

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pp. 62-68

Colombians are in charge of transporting loads of drugs out of Colombia. Most often, the drugs are moved from Colombia to a mid-shipment location using a transporter hired and overseen by Colombians. The method of transport described by smugglers most often was by airplane, with the load either dropped or ...

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Methods of Transport

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pp. 69-84

Based on smugglers’ direct experiences, we collected details on the different methods used to transport drugs, the risks specific to those methods, and the strategies used to minimize risks. Since most of the smugglers transported drugs into Florida, it is not surprising that we were able to collect the most detail on transporting ...

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pp. 85-87

Of note is the response to interviewer questions about the easiest and most difficult points of entry into the United States. The smugglers identified the Mexican border as among the easiest because of its size and the potential for corruption, and also any point of entry on the water, especially when using private vessels, because of the volume ...

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5. Roles, Recruitment into, and Remaining Involved in the Drug Smuggling Trade

In this chapter, we introduce the various roles the smugglers played in operations and the way each became involved in the drug smuggling trade. These conversations allowed us to identify the way individuals are recruited, the way roles evolve over time, and reasons for continued involvement, including smuggler’s ...

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Drug Smuggling Roles

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pp. 89-94

We purposely included individuals at high levels in terms of the quantity of drugs they smuggled, the length of time they were involved, and their roles. Given the selection criteria, it is not surprising to find that most smugglers in our sample were in the upper echelons of drug smuggling. Most played significant ...

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Recruitment into Drug Smuggling

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pp. 95-103

This section of the chapter documents the drug smugglers’ responses to questions about the process by which they became involved in drug smuggling. Involvement occurs at two levels: recruitment into the initial act of drug smuggling, and recruitment into subsequent smuggling activities and new roles. Where ...

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Motivation for Drug Smuggling

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pp. 104-108

The next few sections describe the motivation for continuing to be involved in drug smuggling operations, the way roles might shift over time, and personal perceptions of involvement over time. It is commonly presumed that the motivation for involvement in crime is monolithic. That is, most observers infer that ...

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Leaving Drug Smuggling

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pp. 109-110

In almost every case, smugglers did not seem inclined to leave smuggling until they had experienced prison for a length of time. Two mentioned that the loads they were caught with were going to be their last loads. Only one smuggler indicated that he might go back to smuggling after his release, and three smugglers mentioned ...

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pp. 111-113

It is important for law enforcement to understand the way smugglers are recruited into the business. When the smuggling operation was run by cartels, it was seen as well organized and efficient. With the demise of cartels and the separation of responsibility, the operation is less centralized and involves more entities ...

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6. Balancing Risk and Reward

In our conversations with smugglers regarding methods, roles, and recruitment, it became clear that the smuggler community engages in a number of strategies to minimize risk and avoid detection. Some of the strategies appeared to be universal, while others were specific to the size of the load, the method of transport, and the transportation route. In this chapter we describe these strategies, their increasing importance after ...

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Minimizing Risks

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pp. 114-116

The number one rule for almost all smugglers is to keep the size of the crew small, for both practical and precautionary reasons. Eight to ten people are usually involved in organizing a load, but a crew may consist of only four members. Limiting the number of people involved in an operation reduces the chance ...

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Avoiding Detection

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pp. 117-122

Some of the techniques the managers we interviewed used to avoid suspicion included switching boats to prevent any one boat from getting “hot,” maintaining an element of surprise by changing patterns or switching to an alternate method of transport or offload, and blending with other traffic by transporting during ...

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Changes in Smuggling Activities in Response to Risk

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pp. 123-126

Many of the smugglers referred to the “early days of smuggling drugs” as the time when the primary drug Colombia exported to the United States was marijuana and smugglers brought in boats with thousands of pounds of marijuana sitting on the deck. Many mentioned that law enforcement just did not care then and ...

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Getting Caught

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pp. 127-132

Despite the research and precautions, all the smugglers we interviewed had been caught and were serving time in prison for conspiring to transport illegal drugs into the United States or for actually transporting them. Although three smugglers claimed that they were innocent of wrongdoing and nine claimed that ...

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Assessing Risk

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pp. 133-135

Drug smugglers operate by balancing risk against reward. We spent considerable time querying subjects about these topics. We attempted to have them discuss their perceptions of risk and reward for their first, a typical, and their most recent drug smuggling trips. It quickly became evident that sophisticated balancing ...

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Perceptions of the U.S. Criminal Justice System

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pp. 136-140

In addition to discussing levels of risk, we also discussed perceptions of the criminal justice process based on the smugglers’ direct experiences. Specifically, we were interested in their perceptions of their capture, arrest, conviction, and sentencing, as well as of the way their experiences might affect their return to the drug smuggling trade. ...

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If You Were in Charge

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pp. 141-142

Near the conclusion of each interview, we asked the subject a question that usually surprised him. We turned the tables on this group of drug smugglers and asked them for their recommendations about dealing with the drug problem in the United States. We asked for their policy recommendations, the steps they would ...

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pp. 143-144

The information presented in this chapter confirms that U.S. enforcement efforts have required smugglers to take precautions to minimize perceived risks and avoid detection. The result has been increasing sophistication of their operations, which increases the number of people involved and therefore the risks to ...

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7. Making Sense of Drug Smuggling: Conclusions and Summary

Studies of crime and deviance typically begin with the question,“ Why do people commit crime?” However, in the case of international drug smuggling, it may be more appropriate to ask why people do not smuggle drugs. Hirschi (1969) and Gottfredson and Hirschi (1979) point out that conformity, not ...

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Organizational Structure

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pp. 146-150

We interviewed 34 drug smugglers, reviewed the case files of 297 drug smugglers, interviewed federal agents, and reviewed dozens of official documents and studies of international drug smuggling. These analyses produce a view of the organizational structure of international drug smuggling that is at variance with the ...

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Managing Risk

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pp. 151-153

Like most offenders, drug smugglers search for a way to believe that they will not get caught. We refer to this process as risk management. Smugglers try to find a comfort zone in which they believe that the odds of getting away with the crime are in their favor. After all, they could not and would not smuggle if they did not ...

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Potential Responses by Law Enforcement

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pp. 154-162

A key challenge to law enforcement is the high profitability of cocaine smuggling. However, the profits are not evenly distributed across the roles involved in growth, production, shipping, and wholesaling the drug. As MacCoun and Reuter (2001) found for street-level crack distribution, the profits from such ...

Appendix 1. Instrumentation Study Design

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pp. 163-180

Appendix 2. Study Design

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pp. 181-198


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pp. 199-204


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pp. 203-206


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pp. 207-209

E-ISBN-13: 9781592136445
Print-ISBN-13: 9781592136438

Publication Year: 2008