Since the signing of Resolution 42/112 in December 1987, every 26 June celebrates the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking, which has the goal of increasing action and cooperation for a drug abuse-free world. To mark the occasion, the UNODC publishes a yearly World Drug Report, with an in-depth analysis of the most important trends and developments. In its 2022 World Drug Report, one of the identified challenges on addressing illicit drug supply is the intricate link between conflict zones and the illicit drug trade.
The UNODC finds that there is a large overlap between countries which are experiencing conflicts and those which are involved in the illicit drug trade, either as production centres, transit and trafficking points, or markets. This is a significant human security concern, as already-vulnerable populations in conflict areas are prone to suffering the additional impact of transnational organised crime thriving in their communities.
Conflict zones are particularly attractive to transnational organised crime groups. Fragile states, with a weakened rule of law, provide a fertile environment for illicit drug economies to flourish. The World Drug Report look at how, during the Syrian Civil War, the production of Captagon shifted from Eastern Europe to Syria and Lebanon, as the “conflict has bred conditions conducive to the illicit drug trade”. The same report also draws attention to the increased synthetic drug production in Ukraine, and reports that “conflict zones [are] magnets for synthetic drug production”.
Why is this a concern? The activity of TOC in conflict zones may exacerbate and prolong conflicts. Revenues from illicit trafficking are often used to fund armed groups and political actors, thereby extending the duration of conflicts. Conversely, the illicit drug trade also contributes to greater insecurity and violence and may expand the area of conflict. The World Drug Report examines the case of Myanmar, where the drug economy, first based on opium and now increasingly on methamphetamines, continues to fuel the long-standing conflict.
In fragile areas with reduced economic opportunities and limited options for regulated businesses, there is an incentive for local populations to become involved in illicit economies. As a result, the drug economy may become the main source of income for local populations, deeply entrenching the criminal market. This brings additional challenges in tackling organised crime, for instance regarding the creation of sustainable economic alternatives. Criminal actors may also exploit local populations – the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime found that, in 2016, Syrians were an “at risk community to […] acting as mules to pay for their travel to European countries”.
Conflict zones also are an opportunity for criminal groups to diversify and expand their markets. New and less-controlled routes can be established through conflict-ridden areas. Once established, these new routes can be used by criminal groups for other illicit commodities, with vulnerable populations in conflict areas also being at risk for human trafficking.
The intersection between drugs and conflict is an important element of the wider architecture of illicit flows. The rapid evolution of TOC and their expansion into new areas, either geographically or in terms of criminal activity, calls for coordinated and global responses that also reflect the points of criminality convergence. Enabling environments, such as conflict zones, should be adequately monitored, focusing not just on local potential drug flows, but on general organised crime flows. As such, the Global Illicit Flows Programme is key to developing a coherent global response by bringing different stakeholders together in the fight against illicit trafficking as a whole.