This wealth—coupled with Havana's renowned hedonism industries of casinos, prostitution, and sex clubs—created a fertile location to test-market cocaine as a leisure drug. Entrepreneurs in Bolivia and Chile began exporting cocaine to Havana for further distribution to the U.S. and beyond. By the mid-1950s, Havana had emerged as the nexus of this intercontinental cocaine trade.

By driving out drug dealers, however, the 1959 Cuban Revolution transformed cocaine distribution. Smuggling corridors disappeared, as this network of traffickers based in Havana sought places of refuge throughout the Americas, from Argentina (to set up operations near Bolivia) to Mexico (to establish distribution facilities) and to Miami (an important entry point to the lucrative U.S. market).

For its part, the illicit drugs trafficking complex in Mexico matured as it became increasingly integrated into local political and social structures.

In 1947, U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall forwarded a report by Harry Anslinger, the U.S. representative on the U.N. Commission on Narcotic Drugs, to the U.S. ambassador in Mexico City. The report focused on opium production in Mexico, noting the principal producing area covered nearly 6,000 square miles, numbered 4,500 fields with an annual production of 32 to 40 metric tons of opium. During the year, the Mexican government was only able to eradicate 200 fields, equal to 90 acres of fields, which paled in comparison to the 10,000 to 12,000 acres under production at the time. There were at least 12 clandestine labs that apparently processed half of the raw opium produced in Mexico into either morphine or heroin.

U.S. criminal groups in Mexico encouraged the cultivation of opium and worked to produce less bulky, yet more valuable derivatives. Traffickers utilized twenty to thirty airfields to facilitate the movement of these drugs into the United States. Air trafficking of drugs intensified in the coming years, prompting the Mexican government to postpone all commercial flights in the states of Chihuahua, Durango, Sinaloa, and Sonora. By the 1960s, officials estimated traffickers used some 300 airfields in northern Mexico alone.

The Rise of Colombia and the "War on Drugs:" 1960s to 1984

The structure of the international drug trade again changed in the 1960s and 1970s as demand for marijuana surged in the 1960s and for cocaine in the 1970s and 1980s.

As traffickers became more sophisticated and demand increased, the U.S. Government declared a War on Drugs in June 1971. And while the United States devoted more resources to eradication, interdiction, and the extradition of traffickers, the level of drug violence in Latin America and the U.S. surged dramatically. This violence was one of the most tragic, unintended outcomes of American anti-drug efforts.

By 1975, the epicenter of marijuana production shifted from long-dominant Mexico to Colombia, spurred on by a sharp rise in demand for marijuana in the U.S. After constant prodding by the U.S., the Mexican government initiated Operation Condor in 1975—cracking down on opium and marijuana production and distribution in the northwestern Mexican states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa. The United States locked down the Mexican border while the Mexican state launched a campaign against its domestic producers.

These policies inadvertently offered Colombian traffickers an opportunity to seize the marijuana market. By the end of 1970s, Colombia owned seventy percent of the marijuana reaching the United States from abroad.

Colombia had a long history at the heart of regional contraband trade and smuggling. This, and a tradition of tremendous political instability, contributed to its ascension to the global apex of the trafficking of illicit drugs. Fabulous inequality of the national wealth coupled with the success of the Cuban Revolution to inspire entrenched guerilla warfare. There were an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 guerilla combatants in Colombia by late 1980s. Left-wing violence produced right-wing responses, with a great expansion in the 1980s, with some 138 organizations, some of which contained retired and active military personnel. Violence became part and parcel of political life.

The marijuana trafficking complex proved critically important for the local economy in Colombia. Between 30,000 and 50,000 small farmers along Colombia's Atlantic coast relied on marijuana cultivation. The system also included as many as 50,000 additional seasonal workers, traffickers, security, financiers, and others.

New moneyed drug elites married into local prominent families, attempted to bribe officials at all levels, and bought up legitimate businesses to launder cash. Unfortunately, as production and profits surged, so did the violence as police and judicial institutions waned.

Cocaine distribution followed the networks established for the marijuana trade. Here, political events in Chile also pushed the drug trade to Colombia. Chile became an important smuggling corridor after cocaine production in Peru was criminalized and Bolivia emerged as a center of coca production in the 1950s. Trade grew until the army, led by Augusto Pinochet, overthrew Salvador Allende in September 1973.

Entrepreneurs from Medellín, Colombia seized on the opportunity presented by the collapse of democracy in Chile and the elimination of Chilean smugglers. And they took drug transportation to new levels. In the mid-1970s, Carlos Lehder and Jorge Luis Ochoa transformed the trafficking of cocaine into huge airlift operations.

After consolidating control of the South American market, the traffickers in Medellín looked to control wholesale distribution in the highly profitable United States. As a result, Miami—the principal port of entry—became a virtual war zone, with a homicide rate of seventy per 100,000 in 1980. (By comparison, the 2010 homicide rate for Miami was fifteen per 100,000 and about six per 100,000 in the U.S. as a whole in 2007.)

By 1981, seventy percent of all marijuana and cocaine coming into the United States passed through South Florida. In 1976, between 14 and 19 metric tons of cocaine were smuggled into the U.S. That number jumped to nearly 45 metric tons annually by 1982. Colombian traffickers generated roughly $1.5 billion in revenue from the marijuana and cocaine trade in 1980 and almost $3 billion in 1985.

Time Magazine's famous November 1981 lament, entitled "Miami: a paradise lost," reported on the problems of trafficking, violence, and money laundering in South Florida, while the television show Miami Vice seared the images of Latin American drug runners, bosses, and heroic law enforcement officers into U.S. popular culture.

The 1981 kidnapping of the sister of Jorge Luis Ochoa, a prominent trafficker based in Medellín, by leftist M-19 guerrillas proved a critical moment in the evolution of Latin American drugs trafficking. The guerillas demanded a $1 million ransom. In response, Ochoa called together the leading traffickers to meet at his family restaurant. There, all agreed that their wealth made them targets of the guerillas and paramilitaries. Each trafficker offered up $7.5 million to form MAS, a Spanish acronym translating to "Death to the Kidnappers."

This agreement started the Medellín cartel and effectively ended the cocaine wars that bloodied the streets of Miami. In addition, each trafficker donated money to build a massive cocaine lab on the Yarí River in southern Colombia.

A division of labor soon emerged. Jorge Luis Ochoa and his two brothers oversaw the distribution networks in Florida and California. Carlos Lehder organized the air transport into the United States, using a Caribbean island as a stopover. The most infamous member of this cartel, Pablo Escobar, served as the muscle. It is believed that he employed 200 gunmen and established two assassin training schools.

Medellín traffickers attempted to expand their social and political sway in an attempt to normalize their business in Colombian society. Traffickers contributed to political campaigns. Several, such as Lehder, bought radio stations and newspapers. Escobar created a welfare program, gave alms to the poor, built low-income housing in the slums, and won election as an alternate congressman on a Liberal Party ballot.

At the same time, the trafficking in drugs supported many legal businesses throughout Latin America. For instance, Argentina experienced a surge in hydrochloric acid exports to Bolivia in the 1980s, an additive in the production of cocaine. (In the earlier part of this century, Argentina witnessed a similar surge in ephedrine exports to Mexico, a critical ingredient in the production of methamphetamines.)

Other events in the early 1980s transformed the landscape of Colombian drug production and distribution. The extradition treaty between Colombia and the United States, which was signed in 1979 and enacted in 1982, provoked a spike in violent crime by the cartel.

In addition, a joint Colombian police-DEA raid on the Yarí River facility in March 1984 netted a seizure of fourteen tons of cocaine (with an estimated street value of $1.2 billion), seven airplanes, and some weapons and production materials. The cartel responded by assassinating the Colombian minister of justice.

Colombia unleashed a crackdown on the Medellín cartel following the assassination, which forced Escobar and the Ochoa brothers to hide in Panama in May 1984. While there, these traffickers attempted to negotiate a settlement with the Colombia government. The men, who controlled three-quarters of the South American cocaine trade, offered to turn over landing strips and labs, promised to invest their capital into national industries, and proposed to pay $15 billion in cash, the equivalent of Colombia's foreign debt. The deal was refused due to pressure from the Reagan administration and Colombian popular resentment to negotiating with the cartel.

As a result of the Colombian government's refusal of their offer, the cartel began to make new connections with Central American traffickers who introduced the cartel to Mexican heroin and marijuana smugglers and Mexican authorities willing to be bribed. These ties opened Colombian cocaine to smuggling routes in the American southwest and set the stage for the rise of violent Mexican trafficking organizations.

Following 1984, the Medellín cartel began to self-destruct, even as its power and attending violence grew. The Ochoa brothers turned themselves into Colombian officials in 1990 for lenient prison sentences and were released in 1996. Pablo Escobar was shot and killed with the help of U.S. material aid in 1993. Carlos Lehder is serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison.

Yet, the connections made by the Medellín cartel with Mexican traffickers while in Panama in 1984 proved to be a turning point, with Mexican groups increasingly ascendant in the movement of drugs into the U.S.

By 1986, traffickers had diverted forty percent of cocaine flowing into the United States from the historical Caribbean routes to transit networks along the U.S.-Mexican border. Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, a former bodyguard of the Sinaloan governor, was the first Mexican trafficker to move Colombian cocaine into the United States across the southwestern border. Today, ninety percent of cocaine smuggled into the United States passes through Mexico.

A Return to Mexico: 1984 to the present

With the demise of the Colombian cartels, which controlled distribution into North America, Mexican drug trafficking organizations now dominate the wholesale drug trade in the United States. The business is extremely lucrative with wholesale illicit drug trade earnings now estimated between $13.6 and $48.4 billion annually. Mexican and Colombian trafficking organizations annually smuggle an estimated $8.3 to $24.9 billion in drug proceeds into Mexico for laundering.

There are four major Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs)—the Gulf, Sinaloa, Juárez, and Tijuana—who have sometimes formed alliances. The Tijuana and Gulf organizations joined forces after their respective leaders struck an agreement in prison. The so-called Federation emerged after agreements by leaders from the Sinaloa, Juarez and Valencia cartels.

Evidence suggests Mexican DTOs are working in conjunction with American gangs to distribute products such as methamphetamines. Mexican operations are mainly interested in the wholesale trade and leave the retail to American gangs.

The emergence of enforcer gangs is a direct consequence of internal fighting among the Mexican DTOs. The most notorious of these gangs are the Zetas, originally employed by the Gulf Cartel as assassins on their behalf (as well as its rivals).

The Zetas were almost certainly formed by a group of 30 officers who deserted from the Mexican military's Special Air Mobile Force Group (GAFES) to the Gulf cartel in the late 1990s. This background allows the Zetas, who number between 31 and 200 men, to carry out more complex operations and use more sophisticated weaponry.

Officials believe this organization controls trafficking routes along the eastern half of the U.S.-Mexico border and have set up airfields in northern Guatemala to assist in logistical support and transportation of cocaine from Colombia.

Mexican and U.S. drug officials now say that the Mexican cartels have closed ranks, including the apparently short-lived "New Federation" that included the Gulf, Federation and La Familia organizations. This new conglomerate has begun to fight the Zetas, who are now viewed as having become too powerful and determined to take over the trade themselves. The violence long associated with Colombian drugs trade now characterizes the Mexican trafficking complex.

Latin America and the Future of Narco-trafficking

The many legal prohibitions and international efforts to eradicate illicit drugs, especially since the "war on drugs" began, have done little to end narco-trafficking.   Instead, they have tended only to influence the location of production and methods of distribution.  Demand for these drugs and their attendant profitability continue to drive the cycles of manufacture and circulation of these products. 

Traffickers are constantly adapting to the state of the market. Of the five principal illicit drugs trafficked into the United States, only cocaine is on the decline.  The trafficking and availability of heroin, methamphetamines, marijuana, and ecstasy are all increasing, and Latin American DTOs are involved in four of the five commodities.  (Ecstasy is the domain of Asian DTOs that use Canada as a gateway into the United States.) 

Colombian DTOs are increasingly identifying new markets for cocaine.  Europe is an attractive destination because profitability is similar to the U.S. market, yet the penalties for trafficking at the wholesale and retail levels are significantly less onerous than in the U.S. legal system. Law enforcement officials have noticed an increase of cocaine trafficked in Spain and United Kingdom as Colombians are using unstable West African states as transit nodes. In addition, Colombians are penetrating Asian markets with greater intensity, using Hong Kong as a gateway into China and Thailand.  Mexican DTOs are now the premier traffickers of methamphetamines into the United States.

The future of narco-trafficking in Mexico remains unclear.  The Mexican state initiated a frontal assault in 2006, under the aegis of President Felipe Calderon.  Since then, more than 23,000 Mexicans have lost their lives.  In 2009, there were 2,100 drug-related murders in Ciudad Juarez—a poignant contrast to El Paso, just on the other side of the Rio Grande, which had only ten homicides that year.

In response to the violence, grieving families have criticized this frontal assault policy, much of which is underwritten by U.S. taxpayer dollars. Some have formed civil-society groups that demand a rethinking of policy and argue that trafficking must be controlled, but not at the expense of the larger Mexican social fabric.

An open question concerns the 2012 Mexican Presidential election.  Certainly, the issue of trafficking will frame the campaign debates as many observers are predicting an almost certain victory for the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), regardless of its candidate.

Addressing the desire to consume these narcotics and stimulants, however, is the issue that must be the basis for designing programs and policies that can diminish the abuse, addiction, and violence associated with the drugs trade. 

As noted in the Global Commission's report, the number of global consumers of opiates, cocaine, and marijuana increased from 1998 to 2008—and this in spite of the billions of dollars spent, the tens of thousands of lives lost, and the hundreds of thousands of people incarcerated for production, distribution, and consumption.

The report also urges countries to rethink how to treat various social groups along the drug commodity chain, such as creating programs for farmers to grow alternative and equally remunerative agricultural products and secure access to markets.

Without the simple admission by the U.S. and other destination markets that demand drives production and distribution, control of this trade is likely to remain a futile endeavor.