War has dominated the global headlines for more than a year, first in Ukraine and more recently in Gaza. These were stories we had to focus on as they are urgent and tragic, but the coverage of these conflicts has eclipsed many other pressing issues for the world, including one that has directly claimed 600,000 lives globally in a year, according to the World Health Organization: drug trafficking.
Illegal drugs have grown into a $500 billion industry that touches almost every part of the world, fueling violence, corruption, terrorism, environmental damage, public health issues, violations of indigenous rights and many more problems, particularly for the countries in the global south that sacrifice the most in the so-called “war on drugs” but that barely see any benefits.
As a Colombian who grew up during the drug cartel wars of the 90’s I’ve seen the pervasive influence of narcotraffic expand through society, corrupting judges and policymakers, shaping popular culture and targeting journalists who expose their dealings. I’ve also seen multiple administrations implement all sorts of initiatives to curb the cultivation of the coca plant -many of which have brought ruin, health problems and violence to some of the poorest communities in the country – only for cocaine production to increase steadily.
The only constant in the deadly game of cat and mouse that governments and narcos have been playing for the past 40 years is the ability of the drug business to adapt and recover from any disruption. In their latest iteration, criminal organizations have moved from a “centralized” model with identifiable players like El Chapo Guzman and Pablo Escobar before him, into a network of smaller organizations that collaborate to produce, ship, refine and distribute cocaine with an efficiency that makes it hard to combat. “Removing one head does not kill the monster,” said the European police in a 2021 report, likening drug organizations to the mythical hydra.
These are some of the findings of “The Narco Files” an unprecedented collaboration between 40 news organizations, including Report for the World host newsroom Quinto Elemento Lab, that analyzed and investigated how the drug trade has evolved. Using a document leak from the Colombian prosecutor’s office as a base, the project maps how criminal organizations have evolved to avoid or co-opt the authorities, how they have leveraged communications and technological advances to grow unchecked and why the current policies are increasingly inefficient to confront them.
During the last 12 months corps member Violeta Santiago and her colleagues developed an investigation into the way Mexican cartels have expanded their reach beyond the United States into Europe and even opening new markets in Asia, Africa and Oceania. Their work paints a comprehensive, and concerning, picture of the reach and influence of these organizations and how they are intertwining themselves with the economic and social fabric of dozens of countries in a way that resembles the rise of the cartels in Colombia.
Take a moment to read our corps member’s stories and explore the rest of this insightful project.
Their work should serve as a wake up call for governments and everyone involved in the fight against drug trafficking to reevaluate their approaches and consider new strategies that focus on curbing demand for drugs instead of continuing to wage a war that looks increasingly unwinnable.