Drug Trafficking and Routes in the U.S.


Drug trafficking is a public problem in the United States. In 2009, the illegal drugs seized in transit in the country were 1626 metric tons. This is an indication that the DTO has succeeded in moving several tons of MDMA, marijuana, heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine into the U.S. annually. Each drug uses a unique transportation and smuggling method. However, UNODC (2015) identifies that generally subsequent transport by vehicle and overland smuggling exceeds other methods. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) defines drug trafficking as “global illicit trade involving the cultivation, manufacture, distribution, and sale of substances, which are subject to drug prohibition laws”

Heroin Trafficking in the U.S.

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) (2018) defines heroin as a rapid-acting opioid that is highly addictive generated from poppy plants, which contain morphine. Some of the countries that grow the poppy plants include Myanmar (Burma), Southeast Asia (Thailand, Laos), Southwest Asia (Pakistan and Afghanistan), South America and Mexico.  DEA (2018) explains that heroin is found in varying forms such as brown powder and black tar from Mexico and primarily white powder from South America and Mexico.  The major trafficker of heroin according to DEA (2018) is Mexican transnational criminal organizations (TCOs). TCOs are the major key producers and supplier of heroin as well as other major drugs in the U.S. (Congressional Research Service, 2019). 

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Congressional Research Service (2019) explains that Mexican TCOs control the flow of heroin in the U.S. borders, which is mostly through [privately owned vehicles] entering the United States at legal ports of entry, followed by tractor-trailers where the heroin is co-mingled with legal goods” (p2). Another major trafficker of heroin is Colombian criminal organizations, which mostly controls the market of heroin in East Coast and Midwest and obtains their supplies from Mexican traffickers.  Accordingly, Dismukes (2018) suggests that the growth of poppy in Mexico increased by 35% from 2016 to 2017 where the total growth was 111 metric tons of pure heroin in 44,100 hectares (Congressional Research Service, 2019). However, in order to reach the local market, Mexican traffickers use gangs in cities to traffic and distribute heroin. In addition, Dismukes (2018) notes that the majority of gangs in the U.S. sources their revenue from the sale of illegal drugs.  

Marijuana Trafficking in the U.S.

DEA (2017) defines marijuana as a psychoactive drug found in Cannabis sativa plant. Some of the countries that grow marijuana in high quantities include Asia, the Caribbean, South America, Mexico, Canada, and the United States. The Controlled Substance Act places marijuana in Schedule I substance, as it is highly abused. Dell (2015) suggests that the primary trafficking route for marijuana in the U.S. is the Tucson Sector in Arizona. Chandra, Yu, and Bihani (2017) add that this is the primary route due to the commercial port of entry in Nogales where 70% of marijuana grown during the winter is transported to the U.S. The second reason is that the area has massive unpatrolled, remote, and unfenced terrain that makes it easier to backpack the drug. 

Trafficking Methamphetamine

Dell (2015) explains that the production and distribution of methamphetamine in the U.S. have been redefined due to the far-reaching involvement of polydrug trafficking organizations and notes that Mexico dominates the market. One of the trafficking methods applied for the drug is the “ant method” where a convoy of like 5 vehicles carries 25 pounds of methamphetamine each to enter a port of entry. Chomchai and Chomchai (2015) mention that some of the major methamphetamine trafficking organization include The Amado CARRILLO (Fuentes organization), ARELLANO (Felix organization), CARO (Quintero organization), and AMEZCUA (Contreras organization). Comchai and Chomchai (2015) add that these groups follow a fluid, flexible, and elastic system. Woody (2017) explains that methamphetamine trafficking follows a Federation form of structure, which originated from Guadalajara cartel where the leaders of the cartels forming the federation makes the major decisions , smuggling is led by division chiefs, ports of entry are controlled by gatekeepers, and family syndicates operate alongside the U.S. border and are the small time brokers. 

Cocaine Trafficking Methods

Cocaine is strongly addictive as it produces intense euphoria and is found in coca leaves produced in Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia. 90% of the total cocaine reaching the U.S. is produced in Columbia. Beittel (2015) explains that cocaine enters the United States through air routes and plying sea in the Caribbean and eastern Pacific. Ships are used to transport cocaine to narco subs or rudimentary submarines, which are constructed by the traffickers in Columbia. Woody (2017) suggests that in Columbia, ‘pangas’ are purposefully made for cocaine transportation and are approximately 25 to 35 feet long. 

Trafficking MDMA

MDMA is a form of psychedelic and stimulant that produces an energizing effect, distorts perception and time, and increases tactile enjoyment. MDMA, which is a chemical produced in a lab, is primarily manufactured in clandestine laboratories in Canada (Chandra, Yu, and Bihani, 2017). Some reports indicate that some express mail services labs have been identified in the Middle East and the United States. Dell (2015) explains that Mexican and Columbian based drug trafficking Dominican Republic organization are part of MDMA trade. Other MDMA traffickers in Latin America include Israeli trafficking syndicates Suriname, the Netherlands Antilles, and the Dominican Republic. Beittel (2015) explains that the primary source of MDMA trafficking in the U.S. is Israeli trafficking syndicates. The Israeli trafficking syndicates smuggle MDMA through airfreight shipments, through couriers aboard commercial airline flights, and express mail services. 


Beittel, J. S. (2015). Mexico: Organized crime and drug trafficking organizations. Washington: Congressional Research Service.

Chandra, S., Yu, Y. L., & Bihani, V. (2017). How MDMA flows across the USA: evidence from price data. Global crime, 18(2), 122-139.

Chomchai, C., & Chomchai, S. (2015). Global patterns of methamphetamine use. Current opinion in psychiatry28(4), 269-274.

Congressional Research Service (2019). Heroin Trafficking in the United States. Congressional Research Service.

Dell, M. (2015). Trafficking networks and the Mexican drug war. American Economic Review105(6), 1738-79.

Dismukes, L. (2018). How Did We Get Here? Heroin and Fentanyl Trafficking Trends. North Carolina Medical Journal, 79(3), pp.181-184.

Drug Enforcement Administration (2018). Drugs of Abuse. U.S. Department of Justice: Drug Enforcement Administration.

Woody, C. (2017). Here’s how drugs are getting smuggled from South America to the US. Business Insider.

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