The Unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks

Several countries around the globe have waged war against global drugs trafficking networks. Most of them have the most severe punishments for drug dealing as a part of their criminal codes. It includes life imprisonment as well as death/capital punishment. On the contrary, the production, smuggling, and consumption of drugs are increasing exponentially. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) – World Drug Report 2022, in 2020, an estimated 284 million people (more people than the population of 190 odd countries) worldwide aged 15–64 had used a drug within the last 12 months. It corresponds to approximately 1 in every 18 or 5.6% of people in that age group and represents a 26% increase from 2010 when the estimated number of people who used drugs was 226 million and the prevalence was 5%.

What are the most commonly trafficked drugs?
Global estimates of the number of drug users in millions (2020)

Seizure data suggest that trafficking is expanding to other regions outside the two main markets, North America and Europe, with increased levels of trafficking in Africa and Asia. The map highlights the significant individual Cocaine seizures in Asia and Africa in 2020-2021 (UNDOC: World Drug Report 2022). It is evident that these two are emerging as the most prominent Cocaine markets and drug network transit regions in the world.

The region of South Asia, including Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran is called the “drug capital of the world“. According to UNODCAfghanistan alone accounted for 84% of the world’s opium supply from 2015 to 2020, outperforming Myanmar and Laos. The major producers of drugs lie in the Golden Crescent (Iran, Pakistan & Afghanistan) and Golden Triangle (Myanmar, Thailand, Laos & Vietnam), and they drive the drug trafficking in the world. 

Drug trafficking routes result from several facets like geographic proximity, logistics, profit, the economy & corruption in the country, and risk margins. This investigative report by Ij-Reportika examines the three most significant trafficking routes in the world: 
The Northern Route, the Balkan Route, and the Southern Route.


The Northern Route

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the anarchy in the former Soviet republics played a significant role in the expansion of the drug market. The northern drug-trafficking route, which originates in Afghanistan, usually passes through Central Asia and the former Soviet Union to connect with the vast market in Western Europe.  

According to the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, drugs smuggled through the Northern Route have reported increased seizures in 2022. Tajikistan recorded a 52% rise in drug seizures during the first half of 2022, with its anti-narcotics chief expressing that trafficking had increased since the Taliban took power. 

Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, about six tons of illicit drugs were intercepted in the first six months of 202260% more than in the same period in 2021.

Ceaseless trafficking from Afghanistan has also been under the scanner in Russia, the target country of the Northern Route. According to official statistics, Russia has more than 448,100 regular drug users and addicts, and among young Russians, the lifetime prevalence of illicit drug use is up to 40%. Russia has one of the biggest drug cartels of the world.

The Northern Route has three branches: Northeast, Central and the Northwest

Northeast Branch

It is the most used of the three branches of the Northern Route and runs from Afghanistan to Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and then Russia.

Northeast Branch of the Northern Route : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Northeast Branch of the Northern Route

Central Branch

This route is gradually gaining prominence in the drug trafficking syndicate, it goes from Afghanistan to TajikistanUzbekistanKazakhstan, and then Russia.

Central Branch of the Northern Route : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Central Branch of the Northern Route

Northwest Branch

It is the least used passage and runs from Afghanistan to Turkmenistan.

Northwest Branch of the Northern Route : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Northwest Branch of the Northern Route

The Balkan Route

The second is the Balkan route which has attracted drug syndicates the most. Started in 1980, today it is the world’s largest heroin trafficking route with 58% share. The Balkan route runs through the Islamic Republic of Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Greece and Bulgaria from Southeast Europe to the Western European market, with an annual market value of approximately $20 billion.

The countries that consume the most drugs
Life-time prevalence of use of any drugs
Source: UNODC World Drug Report 2022, EMCDDA, ESPAD Reports 2019

Following are some of the findings of the “EU Drug Markets Report 2022“:

  1. Around 1 million seizures were reported in 2020 in the European Union, with cannabis products being the most often seized.
  2. The largest increases, expressed in percentage terms, observed in the number of seizures between 2010 and 2020 were for MDMA (+129 %) and methamphetamine (+107 %), while the number of herbal cannabis seizures moderately increased (+19 %).
  3. In 2020, EU Member States reported 86,000 seizures of cannabis resin amounting to 584 tonnes (464 tonnes in 2019) and 2,40,000 seizures of herbal cannabis amounting to 155 tonnes (130 tonnes in 2019). Additionally, Turkey reported 8,300 seizures of cannabis resin amounting to 37.5 tonnes and 46,900 seizures of herbal cannabis amounting to 56.3 tonnes.
  4. Drug supply offences remain at higher levels than in 2010 for all drugs except heroin.

Most of this increase was due to the increased activity on the Balkan Route post the COVID19 pandemic. Balkan Route is the main driver of drugs in EU and it takes three different branches to do so : Northern, Western & Southern.

Northern Branch

The Northern Branch crosses the Eastern Balkans, Bulgaria & Romania and then heads north into Western & Central Europe.

Northern Branch of the Balkan Route : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Northern Branch of the Balkan Route

Western Branch

Through the western branch, the drug passes through the Western Balkans through North Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina & Croatia before reaching the European market.

Western Branch of the Balkan Route : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Western Branch of the Balkan Route

Southern Branch

The southern branch passes through Greece and then Italy to enter the Schengen area of ​​Europe. Many smugglers try to circumvent the Balkan route by smuggling to the global market through AfricaIran is invariably the first stop for 31% of opium traffic on the Balkan Route.

Southern  Branch of the Balkan Route : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Southern Branch of the Balkan Route

The Southern Route

The Southern Route offers significant advantages over the other major smuggling routes since most of it is seaborne (shipping). 

Southern Route 1 : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Southern Route 1

It supplies narcotics to most countries globally, starting from Pakistan and Iran, using the Makran coast to enter the Arabian Peninsula, UAE, Kuwait, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf. Its route also goes north from the Red Sea to enter the markets of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The UAE is a noteworthy smuggling country in the Middle East and the Gulf. The traffickers commonly use the free trade junction of Sharjah Port and Dubai’s Mina Rashid & Jebel Ali Ports. They use ships from Pakistan to transport drug shipments to the Gulf, which are out of radar range.

The next significant region of the southern route is South AsiaIndia is a hub of business and a lucrative market in this region. India is a significant producer of acetic anhydride (AA) which is a chemical used in heroin and used in pharmaceutical, textile, and chemical factories. It is also smuggled along the Southern Route. 

Southern Route 2 : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Southern Route 2

Pakistan is the transport hub and a central player in the Golden CrescentDrug networks operating from the country use its drug routes to reach international markets.

The geographical location of Pakistan makes it one of the prominent drug transit points along the Southern route. Pakistan uses the narcotic trade for sponsoring terrorism and separatism in India. In July 2019, there were reports that Pakistan-based Khalistani separatists (demanding a separate nation carved out of the Punjab province of India) were smuggling drugs to fuel terror activities in India. The youth of the Punjab province and Jammu and Kashmir province in India is most affected by the cross-border drug smuggling from Pakistan.  

The southern route also has a unique North American component, traditionally smuggling opium from Latin America. Through the southern route, 60% of the drugs come to Canada from Europe and 29% directly from Pakistan. In the case of the USA, 49% of drugs are supplied from Southern Route and 30% from Africa

Southern Route 3 : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
Southern Route 3

Compared to the US, the drug trade in Canada is due to the Punjabi diaspora linked to the separatist movement in India. In South Asia, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh are significant transit countries in the southern route. Sri Lanka and Maldives also receive smuggled drugs from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. According to the National Prevalence Survey on Drug Use – 2019, Sri Lanka, the highest prevalence of drug use in Sri Lanka was found in Colombo, Gampaha, Anuradhapura, and Rathnapura. Similarly, the Maldives has a high prevalence of drugs in the capital Male’ and the Atolls.

High prevalence of drugs in Male' and various Atolls of Maldives : The unearthing of the global drug trafficking networks
High prevalence of drugs in Male’ and various Atolls of Maldives

Many ships also carry cargo to other transit point countries, including the Maldives, Indonesia, and Australia. The Golden Triangle countries also produce a huge quantity of narcotic drugs which are smuggled along the Southern Route. According to UNDOC, in 2019, seizures of harmful methamphetamine in the region reached 140 tonnes with the vast majority produced in Myanmar’s Shan State. With the rise of production there, borders with Thailand and Laos have become one of the most significant drug trafficking points in the world.

Trafficking routes from the Golden Triangle
Trafficking routes from the Golden Triangle

It is quite evident that the global drugs trafficking networks has spread far and wide. The routes specified above have a major role in proliferating drug addiction, drug/weapons smuggling, money laundering and terrorism in the world. Non-state actors have greatly benefited from these active routes. They have not only destabilized conflict-prone areas around the world, but also led governments to topple. The hegemony observed between drug peddlers and terrorists is an even bigger threat to world peace and stability. It is necessary for countries to coordinate and assist each other to counter the behemoth of drug networks. These routes can be dismantled only with joint efforts of the world governance structures and the local governments with exceptional transparency and accountability.


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