Research on Upper Level Drug Trafficking: A Review
Desroches, Frederick, Journal of Drug Issues
This article examines research on upper level drug traffickers in the U.S., the UK, Canada, and the Netherlands. Included is an analysis and critique of typologies of drug traffickers and theoretical models of organized crime as they apply to upper level drug networks. Studies of higher level drug trafficking indicate that drug markets represent informal and loosely organized associations of relatively small syndicates or crews of independent drug entrepreneurs. They compete for market share and deal primarily or exclusively with trusted associates chosen from ethnic, kinship, and friendship networks. Most dealers are highly cautious, eschew the use of violence, typically make huge profits, attempt to maintain a low profile, rationalize their conduct as business activity, and operate within geographically niche markets.
THE NATURE OF DRUG TRAFFICKING
Drag trafficking is an activity that involves the importation, manufacturing, cultivation, distribution, and/or sale of illicit drags. In this hierarchical system, narcotics are moved from smugglers, growers, or manufacturers to wholesalers who pass the product down through the chain of distribution to retailers and eventually to the consumer or drag user. By its very nature, drag trafficking involves social networks in which several persons engage in an ongoing illegal commercial activity for profit. Traffickers use the terms "supplier" or "source" to refer to the person above them in the distribution chain and from whom they purchase their drugs. Importers typically have connections in source countries and smuggle drags such as cocaine, heroin, hashish, and marijuana into host countries. Growers produce marijuana crops often through sophisticated hydroponic operations while manufacturers produce methamphetamines and other designer drugs in laboratories. The terms "distributor" or "wholesaler" describe dealers who purchase drugs in large quantities and sell them to other distributors or dealers down the chain.
There is no clear consensus as to what constitutes upper level drug trafficking. Terms used in the literature include upper level and higher level drug traffickers, importers, smugglers, middle-level dealers, distributors, suppliers, wholesalers, drug-brokers, go-betweens, and facilitators. This paper examines the research literature on upper level illicit drug markets and defines higher level traffickers as importers, growers, manufacturers, or wholesalers who market large quantities of illicit drugs to other dealers. This definition is relatively clear and broad enough to include the various definitions of upper level drug trafficking in the research literature. The terms dealer, broker, supplier, distributor, and wholesaler are used interchangeably in this paper to refer to higher (upper) level drug traffickers. The paper focuses primarily on those studies that have undertaken empirical research on upper level drug trafficking and on research conducted in North America and Europe. Excluded from the analysis are drug dealers who sell directly to drug users and who are referred to as "retailers," "pushers," "lower level dealers," or "street level dealers." Also excluded are studies of drug trafficking organizations in source and transit countries such as Columbia, Afghanistan, and Mexico.
THE LIMITED RESEARCH ON UPPER LEVEL DRUG TRAFFICKING
There are fewer than a dozen relevant studies worldwide that deal with upper level drug distribution. These include research conducted in the U.S. (Adler, 1985; Hafley & Tewksbury, 1995; Natarajan & Belanger, 1998; Reuter & Haaga, 1989), Britain (Dorn, Murji, & South, 1992; Dorn, Lutz, & White, 1998; Pearson & Hobbs, 2001,2003), the Netherlands (van Duyne, 1996; Zaitch, 2002a, 2002b), and Canada (Desroches, 2005). Reasons for the paucity of research have to do with the highly covert and elusive nature of upper level drug trafficking; the relatively small number of dealers at this level; and the covert, secretive, and often uncooperative nature of law enforcement and intelligence agencies. …