Reliable drug war data: The Consolidated Counterdrug Database and cocaine interdiction in the “Transit Zone”

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May 13, 2020
Kendra McSweeney



For almost three decades, a U.S. government dataset has vetted and recorded all known cocaine trafficking events in the massive Western Hemisphere ‘transit zone’ (including Central America, the Caribbean, eastern Pacific, and Mexico) and tracked all cocaine seizures reported by counternarcotic forces there. This is the “cocaine module” of the Consolidated Counterdrug Database (CCDB), and by U.S. law it is the exclusive source for performance data on key aspects of the drug interdiction mission, one of the foundations of U.S. supply-side drug policy. Nevertheless, the dataset remains poorly known or used among drug policy researchers despite being unclassified. To make the existence and strengths of this dataset better known, this paper describes its provenance, ongoing production, and analytical utility.

The analysis draws on the archive of reports produced by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, non-partisan entity that has been tracking U.S. government agencies’ drug war accounting for almost 50 years. The analysis also relies on third-party assessments of interdiction, and on correspondence with staff in the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The CCDB emerged in the 1990s following two decades of drug war failures in the transit zone. It is an “all source” product, which curates data from a variety of sources produced by the 26 U.S. agencies and 20 foreign partners involved in transit zone interdiction. There is a high threshold for inclusion of cocaine trafficking events into the CCDB; it therefore offers a highly reliable yet conservative representation of cocaine trafficking and counternarcotic response. Instances of CCDB data in the public record yield several insights: a) the volume of cocaine moving annually through the transit zone has for the past decade well exceeded 1,000 MT/year; b) cocaine seizures in the transit zone are greater than anywhere else, and significantly higher than indicated by the UNODC's World Drug Reports; c) interdiction appears to have little to no effect on cocaine prices in the U.S.; d) interdiction is highly “outcome-ineffective”; in FY2018, for example, the U.S. and partners intercepted only 6% of the cocaine trafficking events known to have occurred in the transit zone that year; e) traffickers respond quickly and constantly to interdiction by shifting their routes and transport strategies.

The CCDB deserves greater attention from researchers as a high-quality dataset that: a) challenges the “unknowability” of illicit activities and underscores the need for better sharing of unclassified government data; b) opens up new ways of exploring drug enforcement policies and actions in transit areas; c) contradicts rosy assessments of drug interdiction effectiveness by unequivocally demonstrating interdiction's longstanding and persistent failure and thus the need for fundamentally different approaches.

Read the article in International Journal of Drug Policy.

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