In 2008 the British newspaper The Observer ran an article titled ‘How a tiny West African country became the world’s first narco state’. The unwelcome moniker gained popular currency for journalists reporting on Guinea Bissau at the beginning of the decade, but has fallen out of use since the current government came to power in 2014, signaling a strong change in direction. The term, which has been around for 15 odd years, according to Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy of the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), Paris, does not really have any meaning. In his article, ‘The Myth of the Narco-State‘, Chouvy tracks its first use in academic writing to the 2003 edition of the seminal work by Alfred McCoy ‘The Politics of Heroin’ with reference to Pakistan and Mexico. Alternate uses of the prefix ‘narco’ are made by UNODC when writing about Afghanistan in 2006 – a ‘narco-economy’, and the US Congress in 1989 referring to the Panamanian authorities as a ‘narco-kleptocracy’.
Chouvy argues that most writers use ‘narco-state’ to refer to different levels of corruption related to drugs, but that this is no objective measure. How, for instance to distinguish drug related to other forms of corruption, linked, say to revenue from oil or minerals? And at what point does a state lurch into ‘narco-state-dom’? Other writers talk about the ‘penetration of the state by drug traffickers’ or the ‘institutionalised presence’ of narco-traffickers, but without listing the criteria of measuring when this takes place.
One suggested definition is of ‘a state that controls the production of illicit drugs’. Plausible as this may be, there are no actual instances. In Afghanistan, Burma, Colombia or Peru, the state is not in control of the territory where drugs are produced. Only North Korea is said to be knowingly producing and exporting heroin and methamphetamine, but even that is poorly documented, and in any case, of little significance next to illicit arms exports.
Another metric could be the size of the drugs economy relative to GDP, but this is unconvincing when applied to real case examples. In Afghanistan in 2013, the opium industry accounted for 13% of GDP, and in Morocco, the hashish industry was estimated by UNODC to be equivalent to only 0.57% of the GDP in 2003. Drug economies rise disproportionally during periods of conflict, but dwindle in significance as countries recover.
This does not mean that in countries like Guinea Bissau or Afghanistan the drugs economy is not important to maintaining competition within the elite. It certainly generates corruption, though in classic definition “corruption motivates the creation of inefficient rules that generate rents ”. This is not the case with drug production, as it does not mean creating rules, but bending or avoiding rules already in existence. Moreover, there are difficulties for state officials when becoming involved with the drugs economy. First, the diffuse production of agricultural products like poppy, coca or cannabis, and the “fugitive qualities of drugs” make them difficult to monopolise. Secondly, the international illegality forms a barrier for entry by state actors because of the sanctions that they would face.
A more nuanced explanation is therefore that while drugs provide a way of generating wealth with which military and political entrepreneurs can capture parts of the states, the term ‘narco state’ exaggerates the importance of drugs as a factor. The only legitimate use of the term then, would be for a state which is not influenced or corrupted by traffickers, but one where the production of drugs is organised and steered by the state, which is always a possibility. Until then, the use of ‘narco state’ is an example of the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness’ or: “The tendency to believe that whatever received a name must be an entity with an independent existence of its own”.
From the perspective of the Cocaine Route Programme it should be added that the concern is not simply with narco but also with stimu-states. States in other words that depend on the production of stimulants – like cocaine.