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Cocaine trafficking
Cocaine narcotics reference


( AKA : snow, crack, rock, blow, nose candy, snowball, tornado, wicky stick )

Information: Overview   • Facts   • Health   • Trafficking

Trafficking & Distribution Sources

Cocaine trafficking and abuse continue to threaten the health and safety of American citizens. According to drug abuse indicators, the use of both powder and crack cocaine have stabilized, albeit at high levels. The trafficking, distribution, and abuse of cocaine and crack cocaine have spread from urban environments to smaller cities and suburban areas of the country, bringing a commensurate increase in violence and criminal activity. The level of violence associated with cocaine trafficking today, however, does not compare to the rampant violence of the 1980s when the crack epidemic was at its worst.

Trafficking by Colombian and Mexican Organizations

The U.S./Mexico border is the primary point of entry for cocaine shipments being smuggled into the United States. According to a recent interagency intelligence assessment, approximately 65 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the United States crosses the Southwest border. Cocaine is readily available in nearly all major cities in the United States. Organized crime groups operating in Colombia control the worldwide supply of cocaine. These organizations use a sophisticated infrastructure to move cocaine by land, sea, and air into the United States. In the United States, these Colombia-based groups operate cocaine distribution and drug money laundering networks comprising a vast infrastructure of multiple cells functioning in many major metropolitan areas. Each cell performs a specific function within the organization, e.g., transportation, local distribution, or money movement. Key managers in Colombia continue to oversee the overall operation.

Over the past decade, the Colombia-based drug groups have allowed Mexico-based trafficking organizations to play an increasing role in the U.S. cocaine trade. Throughout most of the 1980s, the criminals in Colombia used the drug smugglers in Mexico to transport cocaine shipments across the Southwest border into the United States. After successfully smuggling the drugs across the border, the Mexican transporters transferred the drugs back to the Colombian groups operating in the United States. However, the seizure of nearly 21 metric tons of cocaine in 1989 led to a new arrangement between transportation organizations operating from Mexico and the organized crime groups operating from Colombia. This new arrangement radically changed the role and sphere of influence of the Mexico-based trafficking organizations in the U.S. cocaine trade. By the mid-1990s, Mexico-based transportation groups were receiving up to half the cocaine shipment they smuggled for the Colombia-based groups in exchange for their services. Both sides realized that this strategy eliminated the vulnerabilities and complex logistics associated with large cash transactions. The Colombia-based groups also realized that relinquishing part of each cocaine shipment to their associates operating from Mexico ceded a share of the wholesale cocaine market in the United States.

Today, traffickers operating from Colombia continue to control wholesale-level cocaine distribution throughout the heavily populated northeastern United States and along the eastern seaboard in cities such as Boston, Miami, Newark, New York, and Philadelphia. There are indications, however, that other drug trafficking organizations are playing a larger role in the distribution of cocaine in conjunction with the Colombian organizations. Dominican drug trafficking organizations have traditionally been responsible for the street-level distribution of cocaine. The DEA Philadelphia Field Division reports that the primary sources of supply for cocaine in the city are Colombian and Dominican organizations, which are capable of moving multikilogram quantities. The DEA Boston Field Division reports that Dominican traffickers are expanding their roles in cocaine distribution, and have been instrumental in obtaining multikilogram quantities of cocaine for distribution in New England. In New York City, Colombian, Dominican, and Mexican drug trafficking organizations distribute multikilogram quantities of cocaine. Furthermore, Mexican drug trafficking organizations are increasingly responsible for the transportation of cocaine from the Southwest border to the New York market.

Traffickers operating from Mexico now control wholesale cocaine distribution throughout the western and midwestern United States. Mexico-based trafficking groups in cities such as Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Diego, San Francisco, and Seattle control the distribution of multiton quantities of cocaine, once dominated by the Colombia-based drug groups. In the early 1990s, when the organized crime groups from Mexico were expanding their roles as cocaine transporters and wholesale-level distributors, most of their U.S.-based command and control operations were in southern California. Today, Chicago is also a key command and control center for their cocaine operations, and Atlanta is increasingly important as a trafficking hub for cocaine movement. Currently, these traffickers control cocaine shipments from the time they are smuggled across the border until they are distributed to markets across the country.

The role of Mexico-based trafficking organizations is continuing to evolve. Recent reports suggest that some major international criminals in Colombia are further distancing themselves from day-to-day wholesale-level cocaine distribution in the United States by turning this task over, at least occasionally, to the organizations operating from Mexico. A likely motivation for this change is the non-retroactive extradition law enacted by the Colombian National Assembly in December 1997. Accordingly, Colombian traffickers now face the prospect of extradition for overt acts committed on or after the date (December 17, 1997) that the extradition amendment went into effect. By distancing themselves from overt acts in the United States, Colombian drug lords hope to minimize the threat that the United States will gather sufficient evidence to support an extradition request. This shift does not mean to suggest that traffickers operating from Colombia will abandon the U.S. cocaine market en masse. Emerging drug lords-who do not face the difficulties in micro-managing operations as do the jailed Cali criminal leaders-have little reason to forego the profits generated by the wholesale U.S. cocaine market.

Colombian drug trafficking organizations increasingly rely upon the eastern Pacific Ocean as a trafficking route to move cocaine to the United States. Law enforcement and intelligence community sources estimate 65 percent of the cocaine shipped to the United States moves through the Central America-Mexico corridor, primarily by vessels operating in the eastern Pacific. Colombian traffickers utilize fishing vessels to transport bulk shipments of cocaine from Colombia to the west coast of Mexico and, to a lesser extent, the Yucatan Peninsula. The cocaine is off-loaded to go-fast vessels for the final shipment to the Mexican coast. The loads are subsequently broken down into smaller quantities to be moved across the Southwest border.

However, cocaine continues to be transported through the Caribbean; Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti are the predominant transshipment points for Colombian cocaine transiting the Caribbean. Because of lawlessness and deteriorating economic conditions, Haiti is a growing transshipment point for Colombian cocaine destined for eastern U.S. markets. Haitian drug traffickers, utilizing maritime shipments to transport cocaine to South Florida, are becoming a major threat. Law enforcement reporting indicates that Jamaica is an increasingly significant transshipment point for cocaine destined for the United States since it is located midway between South America and the United States. Cocaine is primarily smuggled into Jamaica by maritime methods, and the cocaine transshipped through Jamaica often is destined for the Canadian, European, and U.S. markets. Cocaine destined for the United States is usually smuggled from Jamaica to the Bahamas aboard go-fast boats. The cocaine is subsequently smuggled to the Florida coast using go-fast boats, pleasure craft, and fishing vessels.

Crack Cocaine Trafficking

Crack, the inexpensive, smokable form of cocaine, continues to be distributed and used in most major cities. While cocaine use in the United States has declined over the past decade, the rate of use in recent years has stabilized at high levels. Crack cocaine usage, which initially drove these rates, has similarly stabilized, and shows some indications of declining although it also remains at a high level. Street gangs, such as the Crips and the Bloods, and criminal groups of ethnic Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and Jamaicans dominate the retail market for crack cocaine nationwide. The directed expansion of these gangs to smaller U.S. cities and rural areas, as well as a growth in street gangs that imitate their urban counterparts, results in an increase in homicides, armed robberies, and assaults as gang members use physical violence to maintain their drug distribution monopolies.

Prices and Purity

Cocaine prices in 2001 remained low and stable, suggesting a steady supply to the United States. Nationwide, wholesale cocaine prices ranged from $12,000 to $35,000 per kilogram. In most major metropolitan areas, however, the price of a kilogram of cocaine ranged from $13,000 to $25,000. Average purity for cocaine at the gram, ounce, and kilogram levels remained stable at high levels. In 2001, the average purity of a kilogram of cocaine was 73 percent. Typically, cocaine HCl is converted into crack cocaine, or "rock," within the United States by the secondary wholesaler or retailer. Crack cocaine is often packaged in vials, glassine bags, and film canisters. The size of a crack rock can vary, but generally ranges from 1/10 to 1/2 gram. Rocks can sell for as low as $3 to as high as $50, but prices generally range from $10 to $20.


According to the Federal-wide Drug Seizure System (FDSS), U.S. federal authorities seized over 111 metric tons of cocaine in Calendar Year 2001. This moderate increase over the nearly 107 metric tons seized in 2000 is due in part to an increase in maritime seizures in the Southwest Pacific. Maritime seizures in this region increased by 9 metric tons between CY 2000 and CY 2001. Two of the more notable seizures in the Eastern Pacific corridor in CY 2001 reflect the importance of the region in cocaine movement to the United States. In February 2001, the fishing vessel Forever My Friend was intercepted with over 17 metric tons of cocaine. In May 2001, the fishing vessel Svesda Maru was seized with another 17 metric tons of cocaine on board.

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Cocaine Trafficking Data Source: US Department of Justice, DEA