Drugs Around the Corner: Domestic Drug Markets and Violence in Colombia and Mexico

June 15, 2016

During the past decade, drug consumption surveys and expert analyses have warned about growing drug use in Latin America. According to the 2013 World Drug Report, cocaine use in Latin America increased significantly during the first decade of the 2000s while the U.S. cocaine market, although still the largest in the world, has been declining. Similar upward trends exist in marijuana, synthetic, and prescription drug use. These trends are seen as unprecedented as they affect primary drug producers, such as Colombia and Mexico, and are seen as generating significant violence. In Mexico between 2002 and 2008, annual prevalence of cocaine use increased by 66 percent, while annual prevalence of marijuana increased by 100 percent and the government linked growing domestic drug markets with the intense violence experienced since 2006.  In Colombia, between 1996 and 2008 annual prevalence increased by 148 percent for cocaine and 83 percent for marijuana, and the government has associated local drug markets with urban violence since 2008.

While growing drug use undoubtedly challenges governments lacking appropriate instruments to confront drug use as a public health and to tackle its security impact, the prevailing understanding of the problem among policy makers and analysts entails two problematic assumptions: that the growth of domestic drug markets is recent and that it is automatically linked to violence. In a recently published article I challenge these two assumptions. Using survey and fieldwork evidence in Medellín, Ciudad Juárez, Culiacán and Tijuana I show that growth in drug consumption is not recent but instead has evolved incrementally. I argue that violence in retail markets (lethal disputes associated with local drug sales and control over sale locations) depends on whether large Drug-Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) devoted to international trafficking control low-level street dealers, and on whether these DTOs hold a market monopoly in a given location.

A recent problem?

Recent drug surveys in Latin America corroborate an increase in drug use since the late 2000s when compared with the early 2000s. Likewise, as the 2013 UNDP Human Development Report shows, Latin America is the world’s most violent region, and according to some observers local drug markets are one factor contributing to violence.  Prevailing explanations tend to associate increasing drug use in Latin America to three main factors. First, as drug routes diversify, drug traffickers pay workers along the route in kind with drugs, thus augmenting the availability for local use.  Second, key policy changes, such as the depenalization of drugs for personal use, approved in Colombia in 1994 and in Mexico in 2005, are thought by some policymakers to encourage drug use and the growth of local markets. Third, effective law enforcement (interdiction campaigns, frequent capture of drug lords) has forced DTOs to diversify portfolios and create alternative income by entering, and sometimes promoting, local drug markets. This, in turn, has instigated violence as traffickers fight for controlling domestic markets. One underlying theme in prevailing explanations is that increasing drug use results from traffickers’ attempts to promote drug use and then profit out of it.

The difficulty with these statements is that they tend to ignore longer-term trends and cases of significant local markets that are not associated with high violence. To  substantiate this claim and estimate drug use trends I created a time series calculating the number of new illegal drug users per year, based on the most recent use surveys in Colombia and Mexico. I used the reported age at which a given respondent first used any drug to calculate the year of that person’s first use. I then added the number of new drug users per year.  The results in figures 1 and 2 suggest that drug consumption started to increase in both countries in the 1990s. Although this is a rough estimation subject to large standard errors, it suggests that sizable domestic drug markets are not an entirely new phenomenon of the 2000s, as conventional wisdom suggest.

Figure 1. Drug Use Trends in Colombia 1958–2011 (New Drug Users Per Year)


Source: Author’s calculations based on 2008 and 2013 National Study of Psychoactive substances in Colombia.

Figure 2. Drug Use Trends in Mexico 1968–2008 (New Drug Users Per Year)


Source: Author’s elaboration based on 2008 National Addiction Survey (ENA) México.

Of course, the abovementioned factors have contributed to growing use, but in general, domestic markets have consolidated over extended periods of time and as a result of multiple factors, ranging from individual characteristics to social and cultural perceptions of drugs. Also, these factors are not always clearly associated to more drug use. For example, evidence of in-kind payments dates back at least to the early 1980s, and there are many trafficking routes that have not developed local drug markets.  Similarly, the fact that spikes in use appear in Colombia and Mexico before the depenalization of drug use shows that legal changes are not the driving force of drug use.  And although enforcement pressures can indeed force international DTOs to diversify income sources and become more reliant on domestic markets, at least in theory while Colombians’ profits have decreased, those of Mexican traffickers have increased as they become more prominent in cocaine trafficking. Therefore it would not make much sense to argue that in both cases traffickers have resorted to domestic distribution just to supplement income. International traffickers may have helped expand existing local drug markets, yet such expansion is not new and is not entirely driven or promoted by traffickers. DTOs may attempt to control retail sales for other reasons I discuss below.

Once a longer trend of growth in drug markets is acknowledged, a direct connection between them and violence appears tenuous. Figures 3 and 4 illustrate that homicide rates and drug use trends do not map out neatly. The qualitative evidence, illustrates that domestic drug markets have indeed become more violent in recent years, even though they have existed for a long time. The question then is: if such markets have existed for some time, what explains the rise in violence associated with them?

Figure 3. Drug use and homicide rates in Colombia (1985–2013)

Source: Author’s elaboration based on 2013 National Study of Psychoactive substances in Colombia and Medicina Legal Colombia

Figure 4. New drug users and homicide rates in Mexico

Source: Instituto Nacional de Geografía y Estadística INEGI, México, and 2008 National Addiction Survey (ENA) México.

Explaining local drug markets and violence

I found that when domestic (retail) drug markets and international trafficking organizations coexist, violence depends on whether DTOs control low-level street dealers and on whether DTOs hold a local market monopoly. Control refers to situations in which dealers do not manage the profits they receive from sales, the location of sale points, or the procedures for distribution, and are not autonomous in determining sale locations or protocols. When control exists, dealers not only buy product from larger organizations but are forced to pay an informal tax over sales, or even to turn over their entire profits and then receive a “salary” for their work. Monopoly refers to situations when one organization dominates a given territory; a market is contested when more than one organization aims to control market or territory.

When domestic and international markets coexist, the growth of local markets does not necessarily generate lethal violence because the dealers’ violent behavior can be activated or inhibited by larger criminal groups. The most violence associated with retail markets appears when international trafficking organizations control dealers and are competing for territorial control. The connections between dealers and larger trafficking groups and the overall dynamics of violence thus depend on the broader incentives DTOs have to use or to inhibit violence, derived from aspects such as the structure of state power, law enforcement, market competition, and social dynamics. For example when criminals receive reliable state protection or hold monopolies they are less likely to be violent than when they do not receive such protection from state actors. In these circumstances even if DTOs control dealers, they will try to regulate their violence.

When DTOs compete for market control they may attempt to control dealers to expand income but also because dealers can be used as soldiers and eyes on the ground to monitor rivals’ movements and gain territories. This occurred in many Mexican cities after 2006 when competition among large DTOs made drug sale points crucial sources of both territorial control and income. In such a scenario, DTOs’ lack of interest in disciplining dealers’ behavior, DTOs’ arming of dealers, and the greater significance that local sale points acquired for territorial control increased violence in retail markets.  Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana illustrate this situation. Back in 1993, these cities had the highest rates of drug abuse in Mexico and received particular attention in addiction surveys. Yet, local markets were not controlled by DTOs and, according to some accounts, traffickers like Amado Carrillo prohibited drug use in their areas of control. As a result, while violence could erupt between dealers it tended to be sporadic and not lethal. This situation changed radically in 2006, when the disputes between major trafficking groups exploded.  When the Sinaloa DTO, one of the rivals of the Juárez DTO, “invaded” Ciudad Juárez, the most violent period in Juárez’s history ensued. Both organizations resorted to existing gangs such as the Mexicles, Artistas Asesinos and Aztecas. These gangs became intermediaries between larger DTOs and smaller gangs and provided “soldiers” for war. Such intermediation also entailed tighter control over local dealers, who became a source of power for high-ranking criminal leaders. According to a former gang member in Juárez, “[by 2008] the Aztecas controlled everything. In the past, everyone was selling independently, and nowadays if you don’t work for them, they don’t let you work.”   As a result, dealers no longer engaged in fist or knife fights to defend turf, as one informant told me, they rather articulated their disputes to more lethal DTO fights. Similarly, in Tijuana, Víctor, a self-identified “independent drug dealer”, described to me how, at the peak of the violence in 2008, all retail was controlled by the large Sinaloa and Arellano Felix organizations. As violence receded, traffickers requested only derecho de piso—a fee for the right to operate—but did not try to subordinate dealers.

Medellín in the 1980s and 1990s illustrates that DTO competition alone does not always create the incentive for criminals to control dealers. At the time the city displayed drug use above national rates; it was also experiencing an intense period of competition between armed groups and the Medellin DTO under Pablo Escobar’s leadership. By 1988, it was estimated that there were at least one thousand low-level drug dealers (jíbaros), especially of crack cocaine (basuco) in the city. Retail drug markets were dispersed and generally independent from DTOs, partially because the income they generated was small when compared to international trafficking. At the pinnacle of his power Escobar did not seek to directly profit from the local drug markets, and counted with significant personnel to fight his wars, coming from local gangs. As a result, although Medellín experienced extreme violence, the deaths directly derived from fights over local markets were not as prominent.

Medellín between 2003 and 2007 also illustrates that the control of local markets alone cannot account for high violence either. DTOs can control dealers attempting to mitigate their violent behavior. This occurs when criminals receive reliable state protection or have a monopoly, because they have incentives and capacity to minimize potential sources of violence and control local markets while disciplining the violent behavior of their members.During that period one criminal faction controlled by paramilitary/trafficking leader Diego Murillo, aka Don Berna. controlled all illegal markets in the city. Because Murillo was involved in a demobilization process with the government as a paramilitary, he had incentives to reduce and regulate the use of violence. A young man described the situation as follows “Paramilitaries on many occasions told young kids that they could not drink or use psychoactive substances in certain areas, but at the same time told them where they could do it.” This type of control inhibited the violence directly derived from local markets, and contributed to a reduction of about 45% in homicides in the city over that period. In sum, it is only when control and DTO contestation coexist that domestic drug markets generate high violence.


Drug consumption in Latin America is worrisome but not entirely new. Recognizing the longer history of drug use is essential to separate it from the violence it may generate, even though such violence has become more prominent in some places. Violence in drug markets is not the result of their sheer size but of how they interact with broader trafficking dynamics in places like Colombia and Mexico,where drug production, international trafficking, and use intertwine. This argument may not apply to cases where international DTOs are not prevalent, but it highlights the importance of unpacking the relationship between drug use and violence.

This argument suggests that governments should address the complex causes of drug use, recognizing that the problem grew while unattended for several years, rather than presenting it as recent epidemic. Furthermore, it highlights that directly connecting violence and domestic drug markets can further criminalize drug users. This is essential considering that even though more countries in Latin America increasingly support a redefinition of the war on drugs, they have assumed a highly militarized response to local drug markets

About Author(s)

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Angelica Duran-Martinez
Angélica Durán-Martínez is an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell. She obtained a Ph.D. in Political Science at Brown University, a B.A. from Universidad Nacional de Colombia and an M.A. from New York University. Her research has received funding from the USIP, the SSRC, and the Drugs, Security, and Democracy fellowship. She has published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, Journal of Peace Research, Latin American Politics and Society, among other journals. Her current book project is entitled “Criminals, Cops, and Politicians: Drug Violence in Colombia and Mexico.”