The Importance of International Cooperation in the Fight Against Narcotrafficking

The Importance of International Cooperation in the Fight Against Narcotrafficking

By Silvia Amélia Fonseca de Oliveira, officer of the Brazilian Federal Police
December 14, 2020

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On July 10, 2020, during a visit to U.S. Southern Command, U.S. President Donald J. Trump emphasized the importance of interagency coordination and international cooperation in the fight against narcotrafficking in the Caribbean and Latin America.

Although this problem is not exclusive to the region, Latin America suffers numerous consequences due to narcotrafficking. The main cocaine producing countries are on the subcontinent, adding to the social and economic factors that create a breeding ground for the growth of criminal organizations specialized in narcotrafficking.

For decades, public authorities of different countries have been using financial, human, and technological resources to fight this enemy, which leaves a trail of blood behind. Does this mean that the war on drugs is a lost battle?

Let it be clear that the answer is no, and that above all, public authorities must not move away from their responsibility in this fight. This is because, aside to the high level of destruction that drugs cause people, the social and economic consequences of narcotrafficking push countries to act on a problem of such magnitude. Brazil’s fundamental role in the war on drugs is undeniable, considering that it has one of the largest consumer markets and is a significant transit country.

Supply reduction

A Brazilian Federal Police helicopter flies over the city of Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Photo: Brazilian Federal Police)

To reduce supply, it is imperative to use all resources and special investigation techniques available under national law. The investigation should seek to identify the criminal organization, know its methods, members, production and distribution chain, so that drugs and criminals can be tracked down. For this purpose, it is fundamental to ensure coordinated work between different agencies and international cooperation between countries.

First, the production chain must be targeted. The production of each drug involves different methods. While cocaine is refined, marijuana is commercialized without added substances, and methamphetamine is manufactured in labs.

As such, eradication is the first step to reduce the supply of marijuana. Brazil has been working on eradicating drug crops in its northeastern region since the 90s. In 2019, authorities carried out operations to eradicate the drug in Paraguay with operational support from the Brazilian Federal Police (PF, in Portuguese), coordinated in partnership with the Brazilian police attaché in Paraguay.

The results in the destruction of crops were significant, as they interrupted criminal chain continuity — that is, distribution and sale. Along the same lines of police forces’ cooperation, Brazil and Bolivia use techniques to identify crops in restricted locations and surplus of coca leaves. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime produces an annual report containing all the results of these monitoring activities.

The PF carries out intensive controls on chemical precursors to stop the cocaine refining process. Although the manufacture of synthetic drugs is not concentrated in the region, Brazil has been intensively fighting this issue. Investigations to locate, arrest, and punish criminals involved, have increased.

Increasingly active networks

In addition, the swift inclusion of new psychoactive substances to the list of prohibited substances is an example of interagency measures that contribute to the fight against drugs. A well-established process, with rapid information exchange between the technical-scientific investigation and regulatory units, is essential to increase the results in the fight against the manufacture of synthetic substances.

International cooperation networks are increasingly active because the information to fight this crime must go beyond borders. For instance, The International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) provides its 194 members with what is known as Notices. The Red Notice, the most well known, is issued to inform all that a certain individual is wanted and, if found, should be arrested pending extradition.

Mozambique’s National Criminal Investigation Service used this tool in April 2020, to arrest an important Brazilian drug dealer in Maputo. The operation was possible following information exchange and collaboration between the PF, the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and Mozambican authorities.

A few months prior, another member of the same criminal organization was arrested in Paraguay. The arrest was the result of international cooperation between both countries, and carried out by the International Police Cooperation Center. The PF oversees this unit, which consists of police officers from Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru.

The Purple Notice is another important tool that provides information on modus operandi, objects, devices, or hiding places that criminals use. This rapid information exchange between law enforcement agencies improves the fight on crime. An example of its use in the fight on drugs is Israel’s 2019 issuance of a Purple Notice, concerning the arrest of members of a criminal organization that engaged in drug distribution using smartphone applications.

Drug distribution

Drugs seized by the Brazilian Federal Police during an operation on the border with Paraguay. (Photo: Brazilian Federal Police)

Concerning drug distribution, it is essential to carry out border controls of people and merchandise. Brazil has been working on strengthening this control, despite the daunting challenge of monitoring a 16,000-kilometer land border and a more than 7,000-kilometer maritime border, in addition to numerous international airports. International cooperation and coordination between federal and state agencies to better control this vast territory (land, sea, and air) is a must.

The National Commission for Public Security at Ports, Terminals, and Waterways (CONPORTOS, in Portuguese) is a good example of that coordination. In partnership with the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, and Interior (PF), Defense (Brazilian Navy), Economy (Brazilian Federal Revenue Service), Infrastructure, and the National Waterways Transport Agency, the commission keeps up with the system of prevention and crackdown on illegal acts at ports, terminals, and waterways. The integrated work in Brazilian ports has been essential to increase seizure of drugs bound for Africa, Europe, and countries of the Middle East and Asia.


Airport control is another aspect. Guarulhos municipality (São Paulo state) has the largest airport in Latin America, which is an important transit point in the region. Seeking to increase the success rate of drug detection and seizures at airports, the PF relies on the INTERCOPS Program since 2014, which focuses on theoretical and hands-on training for police officers from countries worldwide.

International technical cooperation is an indispensable tool to improve the fight against drugs. The promotion of investigative techniques and working methods enables police officers worldwide to know about the resources criminals use to attempt to avoid inspection. In addition, the program facilitates the exchange of future information between members of the network.

Asset forfeiture against criminal organizations

In addition to identifying and arresting criminals, authorities must strike the finances of criminal organizations. Identifying the assets resulting from narcotrafficking is just as important as seizing and destroying the drugs.

The fight against money laundering is key to prevent criminals from using with more ease the resources derived from the drug trade, as they gain the appearance of legality. Crime will always focus on maximum profit, either for members of the organization’s personal gain, or for new investments in the illicit market. It is up to authorities to prevent this financial flow so as to make the business less advantageous and riskier for those who choose the path of illegality.

In this context, international cooperation allows the identification of properties and assets allocated in countries other than the one in which the criminal activities take place. The PF works in close partnership with U.S. agencies for constant information exchange on international narcotrafficking, among other topics. The presence of Brazilian liaison officers at the National Targeting Center, the El Paso Intelligence Center, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, enables an efficient workflow, delivering significant results in the war on drugs.

As demonstrated, success in the fight against narcotrafficking depends on interagency coordination, international cooperation, and asset forfeiture against criminal organizations. Information exchange, the pursuit of combined operations, training, and exchange of special investigative techniques, including the fight against money laundering, are crucial elements to expand state power against crime.