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Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega, following his arrest by U.S. authorities.

Narco-state (also narco-capitalism or narco-economy[a]) is a political and economic term applied to countries where all legitimate institutions become penetrated by the power and wealth of the illegal drug trade.[2] The term was first used to describe Bolivia following the 1980 coup of Luis García Meza which was seen to be primarily financed with the help of narcotics traffickers.[3] Examples of some narco-states are described below. Other well-known examples are Mexico, Colombia, and Guinea-Bissau, where drug cartels produce, ship and sell drugs such as cocaine and marijuana.

The term is often seen as ambiguous because of the differentiation between narco-states. The overall description would consist of illegal organisations that either produce, ship or sell drugs and hold a grip on the legitimate institutions through force, bribe or blackmail.[4] This situation can arise in different forms. For instance, Colombia, where drug lord Pablo Escobar ran the Medellín Cartel (named after his birthplace) during most of the 1970s and 1980s, producing and trafficking cocaine to the United States of America. Escobar managed to take over control of most of the police forces in Medellín and surrounding areas due to bribery, allowing him to expand his drug trafficking business.[5]

Nowadays scholars argue that the term “narco-state” is oversimplified because of the underlying networks running the drug trafficking organisations.[6] For example, the Guadalajara cartel in Mexico, led by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, who managed to combine several small drug trafficking families into one overarching cartel[7] controlling the Marijuana production in the rural areas of Mexico[8] while trafficking Colombian cocaine to the U.S.A at the same time.[9]

Over time the cocaine market expanded to Europe, leading to new routes being discovered from Colombia through Brazil or Venezuela and Western Africa. These new routes proved to be more profitable and successful than shipping from North-America and turned African states such as Nigeria, Ghana and (later on) Guinea-Bissau into actual narco-states.[10] While cocaine was transported through Western Africa, the Taliban produced opium in the rural areas of Afghanistan using the revenues to fund their guerrilla war. Despite American and NATO efforts to impose laws on the Afghan opium production, the early 2000s incumbent Afghan governments shielded the opium trade from foreign policies as much as possible.[11]

Ongoing discussions divide scholars into separate groups either claiming or disclaiming the resemblance between narco-states and failed states. Depending on which properties are assigned to the definition of a failed state, the definition is in accordance with the narco-state. While most narco-states show signs of high rates of corruption, violence and murder, properties that are also assigned to failed states, it is not always clear if violence can be traced back to drug trafficking.[12] Obvious to say is that failed states are not consequently narco-states, but uncertain is whether all narco-states are also failed states.


It has been argued that narco-states can be divided into five categories depending on their level of dependence on the narcotics trade and the threat the narcotics trade in said country poses to domestic and international stability. These five categories are (in ascending order): incipient, developing, serious, critical, and advanced.[13]

However, recent use of the term narco-state has been questioned by some for being too widely and uncritically applied, particularly following the widespread media attention given to Guinea-Bissau as "the world's first narco-state" in 2008,[14] and should instead refer only to those countries in which the narcotics trade is state-sponsored and constitutes the majority of a country's overall GDP.[15]



Guinea-Bissau, in West Africa, has been called a narco-state due to government officials often being bribed by traffickers to ignore the illegal trade.[16] Colombian drug cartels used the West African coast as Jamaica and Panama increased policing. The Guardian noted Guinea-Bissau's lack of prisons, few police, and poverty attracted the traffickers.[17] An article in Foreign Policy questioned the effectiveness of money from the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations designated to combat the illegal trade.[18]


Honduras has been labeled as a narco-state due to drug trafficking involvement of president Juan Orlando Hernández and his brother Tony Hernández, who was a congressman. Tony Hernández was captured in 2018 in the United States and was accused of conspiracy of cocaine trafficking to the US in 2019.[19] Also Fabio Lobo, who is the son of former president Porfirio Lobo was arrested by DEA agents in Haiti in 2015. All of them are members of the conservative right-wing National Party of Honduras.


Corruption within the Mexican government has been a problem within Mexico for decades. The Mexican cartels have been known to be quite influential within Mexican politics, going so far as to pump large sums of money into Mexican electoral campaigns, supporting candidates sensitive to bribery in order to keep their businesses safe.[20] As far back as the early 20th century, drug trafficking had been tolerated by the Mexican government. Since 1929, the dominant party of Mexico, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) forged ties with various groups in order to gain political influence. Among them were the drug traffickers. The ties between the PRI and the drug lords became so close that the PRI even went so far as to have an alliance with the drug traffickers and sanctioned their activities.[21]

During the 1980s and 1990s the drug scene in Mexico accelerated. Before the 1980s most of Mexico's drug production yielded marijuana and small bits of heroin. Cocaine mostly reached the U.S.A. through the Bahamas and the Caribbean. After the U.S.A. shut down the routes that entered the state from Florida, Colombian drug cartels established a partnership with Mexican traffickers and cartels, finding new routes smuggling cocaine over land into North-America. A few small Mexican cartels merged into the Guadalajara cartel, led by Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, increasing the volumes of marijuana production and drug trafficking. The Guadalajara cartel trafficked the cocaine produced by the Colombian Calí cartel, while expanding the marijuana production in the rural areas of Mexico at the same time.[22]

The U.S.A. established a special force, named the Drug Enforcement Administration (D.E.A.), to fight the war on drugs within their own borders and beyond. The D.E.A. office situated in Mexico received extra resources to investigate the murder of one of their own; Enrique "Kiki" Camarena, who was abducted, tortured and murdered by a state police officer paid by members of the cartel. These insights confirmed the corruption rate that grasped Mexico during the 1980s and 1990s. Although, not only police officers on payroll obeyed to Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo and his cartel. Investigations show transactions to high officers in federal government, such as the Federal Directorate of Security and the Mexican Federal Judicial Police.[23][24]

The beginning of the Mexican Drug War in 2006 was the first time any significant government effort took place to fight the drug cartels in Mexico and was initiated by Mexico's newly elected president, Felipe Calderón. Calderón's predecessor, Vicente Fox, who was elected in 2000, marked the first time Mexico had a president who was not from the PRI. However, despite Calderón's efforts, the PRI was returned to power in 2012 with the election of Enrique Peña Nieto.

During the court hearing for the most wanted cartel leader, Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, it was alleged that former president Enrique Peña Nieto had accepted a $100 million bribe from the drug kingpin.[25]

On 1 December 2018, Mexico elected a new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO). Despite presenting himself as being non-established, AMLO was a member of the PRI from 1976 to 1989.


Suriname has been labeled as a narco-state due to President Dési Bouterse and his family involvement in drug trafficking. Bouterse was sentenced in absentia in the Netherlands to 11 years' imprisonment after being convicted of trafficking 474 kg (1,045 lb) of cocaine.[26] His son Dino Bouterse has been arrested twice in three different countries and currently serving 16 years imprisonment in the United States on charge of drug trafficking.


Syria was labeled as a narco-state by the United States for nearly a decade until 1997, during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon when they controlled the cannabis cultivation in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.[27] During the Syrian Civil War, several shipments containing tonnes of amphetamines were seized in different countries smuggled from Syria,[28] those shipments had sometimes millions of pills of Fenethylline which is also known as Captagon.[29] In November 2020, two drug shipments of hashish coming from Syria were seized by Egyptian authorities, the first shipment which arrived to Alexandria, included 2 tonnes of hashish,[30] while the second shipment had 6 tonnes and was found at the Damietta port.[31]

United Kingdom[edit]

The United Kingdom has been called the first narco-state: thanks to the Opium Wars, the UK became a powerful force in the traffic of illegal drugs in the mid to late 19th century.[32]


More recently, Venezuela has been labeled a narco-state, due to the relations between some Venezuelan government officials to drug cartels and criminal factions all across Latin America. For example, former vice president of Venezuela Tareck el Aissami has been accused of supporting drug trafficking and helping Mexican drug cartels. El Aissami has been sanctioned by the United States since 2017.[33] The nephews and sons of Venezuela's president Nicolas Maduro are also being accused of financing drug trades and being involved in the Narcosobrinos affair. In November 2017, the United States's UN ambassador Nikki Haley accused Venezuela of being a "dangerous narco-state".[34]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The terms are standard words with the prefix "narco-", defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "associated with the trade in illegal drugs".[1]


  1. ^ "narco-". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ Islamic State of Afghanistan: Rebuilding a Macroeconomic Framework for Reconstruction and Growth (Report). International Monetary Fund. 2003.
  3. ^ Weiner, Matt (August 2004). An Afghan 'Narco-State'?: Dynamics, Assessment and Security Implications of the Afghan Opium Industry. Canberra Papers on Strategy and Defence (Report). Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  4. ^ Kohnert, Dirk. "Democratisation via elections in an African 'narco state'? The case of Guinea-Bissau". Deutsche Zentralbibliothek für Wirtschaftswissenschaften. hdl:10419/118635. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  5. ^ Kenney, Michael (2003). "From Pablo to Osama: Counter-terrorism Lessons from the War on Drugs". Survival. 45 (3): 187–206. doi:10.1093/survival/45.3.187.
  6. ^ Kenney, Michael (2007). "The Architecture of Drug Trafficking: Network Forms of Organisation in the Colombian Cocaine Trade". Global Crime. 8 (3): 233. doi:10.1080/17440570701507794. S2CID 143677315.
  7. ^ J.D. Saldaña & T. Payan. "The Evolution of Cartels in Mexico, 1980-2015" (PDF). México Center: Rice University's Institute for Public Policy. Retrieved 12 May 2020.
  8. ^ Grillo, Ioan (2012). El Narco. The Bloody Rise of Mexican Drug Cartels. London, Delhi, New York & Sydney: Bloomsbury.
  9. ^ Bonner, Robert C. (July–August 2010). "The New Cocaine Boys. How to Defeat Mexico's Drug Cartels" (PDF). Foreign Affairs. 89 (4). Retrieved 11 May 2020.
  10. ^ Kohnert, Dirk. "Democratisation via elections in an African 'narco state'? The case of Guinea-Bissau". Deutsche Zentralbibliothek für Wirtschaftswissenschaften. hdl:10419/118635. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  11. ^ Schweich, Thomas (2008). "Is Afghanistan a Narco-state?". The New York Times.
  12. ^ Grayson, George W. (2011). Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (4th ed.). New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9781412815512. Retrieved 9 May 2020.
  13. ^ Kan, Paul Rexton (2016). Drug Trafficking and International Security. Latham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield. pp. 48–61. ISBN 9781442247581. OCLC 1026718619.
  14. ^ Vulliamy, Ed (9 March 2008). "How a tiny West African country became the world's first narco state". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 28 January 2018.
  15. ^ Chouvy, Pierre-Arnaud (2016). "The myth of the narco-state". Space & Polity. 20 (Issue 1: Drugs, law, people, place and the state: ongoing regulation, resistance and change): 26–38. doi:10.1080/13562576.2015.1052348. S2CID 142714114.
  16. ^ Washington Post newspaper: Guinea-Bissau coup: Prime minister arrested for helping drug trade, military says 13 April 2012 "Analysts told the AP that in Guinea-Bissau, traffickers have bought off members of the government and military, turning the country into a 'narcostate.'"
  17. ^ Vulliamy, Ed (9 March 2008). "How a tiny West African country became the world's first narco state". The Guardian.
  18. ^ "How Not to Fix an African Narco-State".
  19. ^ "Will drug conspiracy allegations end US support for Honduras president?". Insight Crime. 5 August 2019.
  20. ^ Agren, David (10 November 2017). "Mexico drug cartel's grip on politicians and police revealed in Texas court files" – via
  21. ^ Bonner, Robert C. (July–August 2010). "The New Cocaine Cowboys. How to Defeat Mexico's Drug Cartels". Foreign Affairs. 89 (4).
  22. ^ Bonner, Robert C. (July–August 2010). "The New Cocaine Cowboys. How to Defeat Mexico's Drug Cartels". Foreign Affairs. 89 (4).
  23. ^ Bonner, Robert C. (July–August 2010). "The New Cocaine Cowboys. How to Defeat Mexico's Drug Cartels". Foreign Affairs. 89 (4).
  24. ^ Grayson, George W. (2011). Mexico: Narco-Violence and a Failed State? (4th ed.). New Brunswick & London: Transaction Publishers. ISBN 9781412815512. Retrieved 9 May 2020.
  25. ^ "El Chapo paid $100m bribe to former Mexican president Peña Nieto, witness says". 15 January 2019 – via
  26. ^ "NOVA – detail – Nieuws – Hoge raad bevestigt veroordeling bouterse". Archived from the original on 5 October 2013. Retrieved 9 June 2012.
  27. ^ "Removing Syria from the Narcotics List: A Signal to Damascus?". The Washington Institution. 10 November 1997.
  28. ^ "Meet Captagon, the nightmare drug fuelling Syria's civil war". 2 June 2017.
  29. ^ "Italian police seize €1bn amphetamine haul from Syria". The Guardian. 1 July 2020.
  30. ^ "Egyptian customs seize large drug shipment from Syria in port of Alexandria". SyriacPress. 22 November 2020.
  31. ^ "بـ30 مليون جنيه.. ضبط 6 أطنان حشيش داخل حاوية بميناء دمياط". (in Arabic). 22 November 2020.
  32. ^ "Global Britain was built as a narco-empire". The Spectator. Retrieved 19 December 2019.
  33. ^ "US accuses Venezuelan vice-president of role in global drug trafficking". The Guardian. London. Associated Press. 14 February 2017. Retrieved 14 July 2019.
  34. ^ Evansky, Ben (14 November 2017). "Trump Administration praised by democracy activists for calling Venezuela a 'narco-state'". Fox News. Retrieved 14 July 2019.

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