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Professor’s book delivers facts on drug smuggling

May 08, 2008

The image of cocaine being smuggled into the United States from Latin America by sophisticated organizations with corporate-like structures is largely a myth, according to a new book co-authored by an Arizona State University professor.

Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling: Lessons from the Inside (Temple University Press) is based on interviews Scott Decker and Margaret Townsend Chapman conducted with 34 drug smugglers serving long sentences in federal prison. Decker is director of ASU’s School of Criminology and Criminal Justice; Chapman is an associate at Abt Associates Inc.

Interviewees were serving an average sentence of 18 years; all were arrested for smuggling at least 800 pounds of cocaine (one had 10,000 pounds of the drug). The authors learned details of how individuals are recruited into smuggling, why they stay in it, and how their roles change over time. Interviewees described specific smuggling strategies and how they previously escaped detection.

“One of our key findings was how disorganized Latin American smuggling operations really are,” Decker says. “Rather than having a complex pyramid structure, these are ‘flat’ organizations consisting of small, self-contained cells. Any one individual who is a link in the chain, from the grower to the processor to the transporter, knows only the other links in the chain he deals with directly.

“This is part of the strength of these groups. It’s not difficult to replace one link in the chain who may be arrested or otherwise eliminated. And he can’t provide information enabling authorities to take down a large smuggling network.”

“Scott Decker and Margaret Townsend Chapman have made a major contribution to our understanding of the underworld of international drug smuggling,” says Richard Wright of the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “Drug Smugglers on Drug Smuggling is a master work that must be read by anyone with a serious interest in the control and containment of illicit drugs.”

Adds Paul Cromwell of Wichita State University, “The study views the government’s efforts at deterrence from the perspective of the smugglers themselves, offering a unique approach to the issue.”

Decker and his co-author conclude their book with recommendations for U.S. law enforcement authorities. Among them are the need to publicize in the Caribbean and South America the long prison sentences awaiting smugglers who are apprehended, and to avoid being trapped by old operational models or fixed images of dynamic problems. Finally, the authors point to perhaps the most conspicuous and difficult way to reduce international drug smuggling – finding ways to reduce demand for illegal drugs in the United States.

The research Decker and Chapman present in their book was funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, U.S. Coast Guard, and U.S. Customs Service. “We also are indebted to staff at the U.S. Sentencing Commission and the Bureau of Prisons, without whose cooperation the interviews would not have been accomplished,” Decker says.

Decker is the author of a dozen books on topics including gangs, juvenile justice, and criminal justice policy. He directs the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, housed in ASU’s College of Human Services on the West campus. Details about the school and its bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs are available at