A Writer Writes — “The Other Immigration Crisis” by Charles Fortin (Brazil)


The Other Immigration Crisis

Charles Fortin (Brazil 1968-70)

“Cocaine . . . is typically available in urban, suburban, and rural drug markets throughout the United States . . .  and cocaine supplies are relatively stable at levels sufficient to meet current user demand.”

United States Drug Enforcement Administration,
National Drug Threat Assessment


The heavily-accented voice on the line said she was acting on a tip. A friend of mine with whom I had worked in Bulgaria had given her my name.  She was calling to get my help with drugs in Latin American and the Caribbean. I took a deep breath. Then, I relaxed as my caller explained she wanted to hire me as a consultant to report on the drug trade, not to participate in it.

In the Balkans, my friend had called on me to give a training module to doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators on international cooperation. They learned how to prepare proposals to fund their programs. My friend also knew that for several years I had worked with an international bank conducting evaluations of agencies that executed development projects. I had no expertise with drugs. That’s why the organization hired me. They needed an independent outsider.


The intriguing world of drugs was new to me, and bewildering. Early on, I had been schooled to make some sense out of chaos in part from philosophical discussions at Notre Dame. During those years, studies in sociology (my favorite was “deviant behavior”) also showed me just how twisted lives can become especially in risky circumstances. Only much later, however, did I come to appreciate the value of these insights as I entered the realm of addictive narcotics.

During my undergraduate days, liquid refreshments held sway. Afterwards, however, at my state university marijuana and hashish consumption was widespread. My experiences were similar on the tropical, muddy streets of my Peace Corps settlement. The same unmistakable aroma often filtered through my roof of loosely arranged ceramic tiles.

I used to teach at a Brazilian university. There, I became aware of substance abuse among some faculty members and students. Late at night glue-sniffing street kids would sit on the curb just below my apartment window. They were the elementary school dropout equivalents. I knew wealthy sons and daughters of families who owned the local textile plant and sugar mills. They could afford more expensive cocaine products.

Popular films colored my impressions of vicious drug lords (Clear and Present Danger), crooked cops, desperate addicts, scorched poppy fields, and mules, including pedigree puppies and human swallowers (Maria Full of Grace). I had notions about recreational inhalation but nothing about intractable addiction. Only later did I learn of brain cell disintegration in 15-year-olds, the intricate and crafty drug supply chain, systemic violence, and the collateral costs to fragile societies of Latin America and elsewhere.


As consultant, I set out to discover what eight Latin American and Caribbean countries were doing to prevent drug abuse and to squeeze the drug trade. In the end, I was charged to come up with recommendations about what help local agencies still needed against the chairmen of “narco-corporation.” These high expectations made me extremely uneasy. But I took the plunge into “drug world” not knowing what I would find or who would find me. I had to deal with these fears in the field.

I first needed to know more about drug production. A lieutenant colonel of one small country traced the path from marijuana cultivation through processing and distribution. In our conversations, he explained to me that production begins with a single poor farmer high on the hillside.

He works his small parcel planting cannabis and subsistence crops for his family along with several neighbors. They are all indentured servants, dependent on their middleman contact for their upkeep and on what he decides to pay them. He finances their food and supplies and deducts what they owe from their $3 daily wage.

I tried to imagine what 9,000 tons of marijuana looked like. He told me that this was the yield during the five-month high season. Migrant laborers converge for the harvest. Children are taken out of their classrooms to help gather the crop. From the mountains campesinos then shoulder their horses with 35-kilo sacks of dried cannabis to the collection camp.

He explained that “campesinos have cell phones and even local community radio stations send out coded messages of warning when drug busts are imminent. Surprising traffickers is especially difficult because local police officers often have their own marijuana fields.” I realized that in drug world you never know who you’re talking to.

From the local collection camps throughout the region, bundles of marijuana are stacked on the side of the road for pick-up. Trucks deliver these now-enormous quantities of cannabis to a larger facility. This is often a small farm with a warehouse and plenty of room for a small army of workers to process, refine, and press the drug into tight packages of equal weight.

A $10-kilo of marijuana on the local market translates into a retail street price reaching $1000. I learned, however, that consumption is secondary to its real purpose. One Green-Beret-trained soldier explained that “bricks of highly refined and extremely potent marijuana (just flowers, no sticks or leaves) are used as currency to trade for less voluminous and more profitable cocaine for shipment to the United States and Europe.”

For strikes by special agents, the processing facilities are the best targets. In military parlance, these so-called “centers of gravity” are the most vulnerable connections in the drug business. They bring together the harvest from the hillside and the means for processing. They concentrate large quantities of marijuana, processing equipment, vehicles, scores of workers, their sleeping and eating quarters, and narco-middlemen.

For their part, the chairmen of narco-corporation never have any direct contact whatsoever with workers on the factory floor or in any other phase of the drug trade for that matter. Some are too busy with other pressing business in the halls of government.

Once drugs enter circulation, military operations have little effect, except for photo opportunities. My lieutenant colonel said “that once drugs are dispersed, police intervention, in the best of circumstances, is isolated and too late, and in the worst, a waste of time and money.”  By then the producers and traffickers have already satisfied one of their key markets, the narco-terrorists. They rely on drugs to support their causes with money, weapons, ammunition and food. Rule of thumb: without drug plantations, you find fewer terrorists.

In my travels, I became increasingly aware of how geography favors drug distribution. It also further complicates effective police enforcement. I traced the chain of drug flows, by land and sea, through Central American nations and Mexico. They function as a conduit for 90 percent of the cocaine destined for the insatiable American market.

If 90 percent of cocaine arrives through Mexico, I wondered about the other 10 percent. The porous gates of entry in the Caribbean provided me with the answer. The Bahamas alone consists of 700 islands scattered over an area the size of California.  Agents there informed me that “every year some 15,000 yachts and pleasure boats cruise among the islands without inspection.” Chance seizures are rare. When police operate in one area, traffickers adjust quickly and cleverly, exploiting alternate routes to meet customer demand.

My informants showed me how traffickers employ sophisticated technology, insider intelligence and corrupted informants. They possess the latest weaponry, diversified and well-financed transshipment options (fleets of fishing vessels, super-fast boats, submersibles and squadrons of aircraft). Adapting to police response time, traffickers can off-load boats on the beach or planes on airstrips in 7-10 minutes and be on their way.

I discovered that cocaine is not the only undesirable import into the United States. At a recent conference I attended, Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, reported that “As globalization increases, we find ourselves living in a world with increasing migration of peoples . . . As the number of immigrants increases in the US, they bring with them their own rich cultures and traditions, but also their own physical and mental health problems, including drug abuse . . ..”

“Therefore, we need to consider not only the attitudes toward drugs and drug consumption patterns of people who have been living in the US for many generations, but also to look at the patterns and trends of drug abuse in the countries from which our most recent immigrants come.”

In drug world I observed the rhythm of this migratory ebb and flow. Some immigrants to the United States surely bring their bad habits with them.  At the same time, thousands are returning to their home countries with more than just bad habits.

The social and cultural fabric of low-income societies is frayed by the boomerang of certain returning immigrants. In one recent year the United States deported to one small country 5,500 convicts who had spent up to fifteen years in prison having honed their skills in trafficking and violence in the laboratories of American cities.

When I travel, I try to stay in old, charming, usually poor, historic neighborhoods, full of family restaurants, music, and people on the street. In several places I visited, however, at night I remained a prisoner in my hotel. Streets were deserted. Murders, kidnappings and crime rates in general have risen dramatically. People are wide-eyed with anxiety whenever they leave the safety of their homes even during the day. The reverse criminal brain drain of immigrants exacerbates local mayhem and exposes the relative futility of police response.

Violence, in fact, is the idiom of the narcotics trade. If indentured farmers dare to sell at a higher price outside the system, they are eliminated by hit men on motorcycles. There is no escaping this harsh penalty. At the same time, in this tightly organized business, narco-traffickers generally scorn violence. Provoking special agents can lead to reprisals and disruption of drug flows.

I also learned that drug lords abhor calling attention to their activities. An intelligence agent told me that a high-ranking figure in the drug world, under the influence of narcotics, dared to assassinate a military officer. “In retaliation for this unacceptable behavior,” he continued, “his own drug brothers folded him into a drum, filled it with oil, and placed it on a bonfire.” In drug world there are no second chances.

Oblivious to the social erosion in their own countries, I interviewed officials who regarded the drug trade as a problem for the United States, not their own. Several countries have tagged the value of their money to that of the American dollar.  The “dollarization” of the national currency has the effect of facilitating money laundering, that is, transforming drugs into wealth and power and more violence.

“Only in the area of money laundering, our member states seize over a billion dollars a year,” remarks the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. The stakes are high. A prominent informant confided to me that the top official in one country had indeed sanctioned the repression of drug traffickers but had given specific instructions not to interfere with currency transactions.

The visitor to Panamá City or Bogotá sees modern skylines that don’t look too different from those in North America. The construction industry is booming. But beneath this façade in the drug producing, processing and transit countries, the laundering of drug money is what fires the economy. Foreign tourists marvel at the sight of gleaming structures as symbols of progress and modernity. More often they are monuments to greed, violence and corruption.

Non-governmental organizations take account of other social costs in rural communities. They run prevention programs in the countryside and sound their alarm about fractured families. One leader lamented, “Fathers and older sons emigrate from the countryside in search of construction work in the city leaving wives and children behind. The building industry employs thousands of workers. But the kids are susceptible to recruitment as harvesters of marijuana and drug couriers. They can make easier money here while their fathers and brothers are in the capital city or Miami pouring concrete.”

Anti-drug agencies respond as best they can with what they have. But it isn’t much.  Under the best of circumstances countries face plenty of drug challenges. Priorities and limited budgets, however, are normally skewed to address other urgent needs.

One military general questioned in frustration, “What can you expect from a country that has a total national drug enforcement budget of $700,000 per year?”  He said that if they could put a stop to only 15 percent of the drug traffic, the police would consider their efforts successful; the very best they could do. Success, however, requires good intelligence. Not so easy when the national center for criminal drug data continues its dependence on manual typewriters.

At that point, I thought I had seen enough. Not so. In one country, my inspection of the national drug enforcement headquarters spiraled downwards from the upper offices to the basement of the ministry building. As the elevator door screeched into its pocket, I was convinced that we had stopped on the wrong floor.

The clutter of broken office furniture, business machines, and assorted debris accumulated in every corner, undisturbed. As public property, I imagined that it was easier to pile and forget than see to its permanent removal. As we began snaking our way through the mess, I soon realized that we had indeed arrived at the police annex on the bottom floor.

This lower level functions as a temporary holding facility with adjoining group cells for both women and men. It contains a small office, a storage room for weapons and handcuffs, and a shelter for several drug-sniffing dogs. Some of these are trained veterans, others just pups in apprenticeship. Equipment in the office amounts to two 1960s Underwoods, ribbons and all, for recording depositions by informants, and file cabinets that store confiscated drugs.

I inspected the antiquated police arsenal. Attached to peg boards, 95 percent of the rifles and pistols had been seized in drug operations. The weapons that actually work have little or no ammunition of matching caliber. The thirty agents have to make do with only four bulletproof vests.

In an outside area adjacent to a row of parking spaces, I learned that a private European donor had financed construction of the kennel. Protected by a corrugated roof, the handsomely groomed sniffers have clean, newly painted individual compartments.  These healthy animals are fortunate. In another country, the anti-drug canine squad is on the brink of extinction for lack of dog food and veterinary care as requisitions meander through forty-days of bureaucracy and multiple approvals. Dog food?

Back inside, abutting the noisy elevator shaft, I squirmed a bit and tried to avoid staring at the “temporary” holding facility. Body limbs protruded through the bars and clothing hung everywhere else. The cell clusters forty-eight drug offenders, both petty and “big fish,” in a space designed for fifteen individuals. They are waiting for criminal justice proceedings to run their course. Without treatment and rehabilitation, some have been in the basement for five years.

I was introduced to the sparse drug enforcement motor pool with its fleet of two rented economy cars. There is no national budget for proper police vehicles or for car insurance to cover the use of confiscated wheels. The rentals are used sparingly for lack of fuel.

Just as the ministry basement debris, much drug-bust booty goes to waste. Even the prize of seized goods is more of a hassle than a treasure. Auctions of forfeited property can be conducted only after final court sentencing. In the meantime, if they would pay for car insurance, the police could use vehicles captured in drug busts. If a defendant is acquitted, however, vehicles must be returned to their rightful owners in the same condition as received by the police.

The enforcement agency has no automotive maintenance garage to meet this stringent requirement. As a result, the plodding justice system adds to the accumulation and deterioration of these assets for lack of warehousing space and upkeep.

I also examined the national anti-drug plans. They are useful guides for coordinating strategies and agencies working in the field. Perhaps because they are cheaper and have greater visibility, national agencies tend to focus on prevention activities rather than attacking centers of gravity.

In some countries, the Ministry of Education has incorporated prevention programs into school curricula. Kids throughout the country can count on awareness activities and community projects during their school years. In contrast, administrators told me that dropouts and other young people outside the school setting are typically excluded.

While some non-governmental organizations have demonstrated their effectiveness, treatment and rehabilitation programs generally lack staff, funding, and safe, hygienic facilities. At the same time, the national anti-drug agencies themselves have experienced very little staff turnover and the quality of their work has improved over the years.

Unfortunately, staff works inefficiently and overtime in order to make up for the lack of essential communication tools – transportation, telephone, e-mail, and fax access. They use their own cars and buy the gas for drug prevention activities in far-flung schools.

As our interviews ran into late afternoon, staff showed some signs of concern with approaching evening hours. At night, many teach at local universities. They help create a culture of drug prevention as they train a pool of professionals to join their ranks. As we talked, graduate students were busy in the document room. Staff guides student research into drug-related issues such as the social and economic costs of the narcotics trade and addiction in their communities.

After several months, I completed my job and reached some conclusions about drug world. My interviewees became collaborators and friends. Together we chiseled recommendations that matched the particular challenges of each individual country.  The final reports provided them with leverage and have generated debate at all levels.

My immersion into drug world put a face to caring and competent people in Latin America and the Caribbean. They are engaged in a labor-intensive struggle to rescue their communities. But their modest achievements only deepen my own abiding sense of frustration.

After all, whatever happens to that $1 billion of dirty laundry? At minimal cost, America’s counterparts in those countries could more effectively channel their resources. Only then can we expect measurable results at the center of gravity, with positive ripples on immigrant flows to this country.

For 17 years Charles Fortin (Brazil 1968–70) taught in the graduate program of urban and regional development at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife. After ten years in the Office of Evaluation and Oversight at the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, he is currently an independent consultant conducting program and project evaluations in Latin America and the Caribbean.


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  • This is critically important information. Please give the years in which this information was gathered. Also, has the legalization of marijuana in some states impacted the drug traffic and if so, how. Thank you so much.

  • Joanne, thanks for your interest. The information for this piece is derived from a consulting assignment with CICAD, the Organization of American States in 2006. I have no current data on legalization and drug traffic flows. Other drug-related assignments include the following.

    Organization of American States (OAS). Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission – CICAD. Institutional analysis and evaluation (including individual country missions and reports) of National Drug Councils and anti-drug plans and strategies in Barbados, the Dominican Republic, the Bahamas, Guatemala, Panama, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Paraguay. Individual Consultant, 2006.

    Organization of American States. Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission – CICAD. External Evaluation of the Outcomes and Management of the Counter-drug Capacity Program – Chemical Precursors, Port and Airport Surveillance, Internet Trafficking. (Barbados). Individual Consultant, May – October 2013.

    Organization of American States. Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission – CICAD. External Evaluation of the International Research Capacity-Building Program for Health-Related Professionals to Study the Drug Phenomenon in Latin America and the Caribbean from 2003 – 2011. Individual Consultant, March – July 2012. Findings presented at international conferences in Quito (September 2012).

  • Joanne, last week a Brazilian Science and Culture Journal published in English an article by Jack Epstein and myself (that also appears in Worldwide) entitled: “Order and Progress: A Brazilian Peace Corps Saga”

    Ciencia e Tropico
    V. 44, n. 2

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