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Drug Trafficking And Terrorism: Similarities And Differences

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Terrorist groups and drug trafficking organizations are separate institutions of operation that conduct themselves in similar yet distinct ways. Though they may be entirely different groups, they often conduct themselves in a corresponding fashion. The similarities held by these two entities is mainly centered around their means of operation. Both groups act in secrecy and use violence to overcome a large portion of their obstacles. On the other hand, these two groups are distinct in their motives for acting the way in which they do. Terrorist groups are ideologically or politically driven whereas groups involved in drug trafficking act solely out financial gain for themselves and for their group. In order to combat these organizations, we must be able to understand their differences and proceed having this knowledge in mind.


Drug trafficking organizations and terrorist groups are two separate entities that have haunted not only the United States, but many more countries throughout the entire world. Both terrorist groups as well as the drug trafficking underworld require the full attention of the American government. Though they are not categorized as the same thing, terrorists and drug traffickers often create turmoil in similar fashion. Terrorism and drug trafficking may seem like two completely different approaches to criminal activity, but they operate more similarly than one may initially believe. In terms of their organizational structure, narcotics organizations and terrorist groups seem seem to be near identical. Although these separate organizations may operate in a similar fashion, one key distinction is found in the motives behind their actions. In order to help deter the problems resulting from these organizations, the American government has allied with other nations in an effort to stop this growing concern.

I selected the topic of comparing and contrasting drug trafficking organizations and terrorist groups because I am fascinated by the way that these two groups can stockpile so much support from people as well as resources. In the case of the cartels in Mexico, how is it possible that these organizations hold more power than their own government or that people still continue to join their ranks knowing the despicable crimes they commit. Not only this, but in terms of the havoc that these organizations create, where is the boundary drawn before we can consider a drug trafficking group to be a terrorist threat or vice versa.

Understanding how drug trafficking and terrorist groups function is a crucial part of policing whether it be on a local level or even on a federal level. By understanding what makes each organization tick, law enforcement can assess which preventative measures will present the greatest benefit to society. Information gathered on these groups may help save the innocent lives of countless people or even re-establish control in areas dealing with overt criminality. Having an understanding of these organizations can not only prevent large scale operations but also deter future crimes from occurring.

Literature Review

One of the articles used in my research paper was titled “Links Between Terrorism and Drug Trafficking: A Case of Narco-Terrorism,” written by Alex Schmid. This article helped explain some of the similarities that link terrorist groups to drug trafficking groups. Some of the main similarities between these two groups revolve around their methods of operation. These groups operate in a secretive yet intimidating fashion that keeps their identities under the radar yet gets their message across thoroughly. In order to obtain what they desire, these two groups often engage in violent egregious activity whether it be for monetary profit or based solely on ideology. Besides being intimidating and secretive, both types of groups act in the best interest of the group as if following a social contract. As Schmid (2005) suggested, “For some thirty countries, a link between armed conflicts and illicit drug production and trafficking can be established with reasonable certainty,” demonstrating the extensive damage that these types of organizations produce (p. 2).

Some of the differences between terrorist groups and drug trafficking groups are centered around the motives that each group has for conducting their criminal activity. Terrorist groups act with ideological motives in mind, whereas the motivating factor for drug trafficking groups is usually profit-oriented. Since terrorist groups act through an ideological focus, they often seek media attention to spread awareness of their actions as well as their message. Contrarily, drug trafficking groups do not seek media attention and look to gain the most profit without alarming law enforcement agencies.

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Another one of the sources used in my research article is “Organized Crime: A Social Network” written by Jeffrey Scott McIllwain. This article implies that one of the key factors present in all organized crime groups is that of human relationships. In order for an individual to engage in heinous criminal activity, one must be able to first establish a strong relationship with members within the organization. Essentially, by building trust and a specific type of bond, people can then allow themselves to be submerged into the organization regardless of consequences or actions.

An important aspect introduced by McIllwain are the positive implications that strong human relationships bring the organization. One key benefit that healthy human relationships bring these organizations is the ability to gain a stronger social network. As explained by McIllwain (1999), “Human relationships aid the process of social networking for the provision of illicit goods and services as well as the protection, regulation and extortion of those engaged in the provision or consumption of these goods and services” (p. 304). Ultimately, by developing relations between people, connections are made more prosperous for people to engage in criminal activity such as drug trafficking.

Ethical Implications

When dealing with members of terrorist groups, there is a key distinction between them and the way any other human on this planet would be treated. The truth is that terrorists are seen as less than humans. Their constitutional rights and at times even their basic human rights are suspended regardless if they are a citizen of the United States or not. As a result, terrorist attacks are seen as the most vile of actions and therefore elicit the greatest reaction. In the article, “Legislative Response to International Terrorism,” Mariaelisa Epifanio explains the dramatic effect that the bombing on 9/11 had on the entire nation. Never before having seen a terrorist attack of such magnitude, the entire nation was launched into that frenzy that could not be calmed.

The results of this terrorist attacks not only affected how the nation dealt with these threats but also how citizens in the United States would have to live their lives. According to Epifanio’s data (2011), “LeRIT reveals that, on average, Western countries after 11 September reduced civil freedom, limited procedural rights of terror suspects, and made immigration laws far more restrictive” (p. 399). As suggested through Epifanio’s data, the effects of 9/11 not only affected the rights of terrorist threats but also innocent citizens that were trying to live their life. People were no longer able to roam around freely wherever they desired, surveillance was now much more prominent, and some people were even persecuted for their pigment. All of this occurred because of the panic instilled by one terrorist attack.

Policy Implications

The policies directly allined with how to handle terrorist as well as drug trafficking groups can be seen in the article, “From Pablo to Osama: Counter-terrorism Lessons From the War on Drugs,” written by Michael Kenney. This article describes head hunting kingpins, which is one of the most common strategies used when confronting terrorists as well as drug trafficking groups. The head hunting of kingpins is a strategy used by the United States suggesting that by eliminating the leaders and high ranking officials of an organization, the entire organization will fall through. By terminating the brains of the operation, the rest of the organization will cease to exist. Though this method has had previous success, there is growing concern that this strategy might actually force more of these illegal organizations to emerge. Essentially, by eliminating the kingpins of organizations, other groups will be able to gain traction which could result in the growth of more factions out of this headless organization (Kenney, 2003).

Through the findings of the article, it is obvious that the head hunting kingpin strategy is not a fundamentally sound one. Besides possibly causing more harm than good, at times, this strategy is seen to be completely ineffective. According to Kenney (2003), “Despite impressive short-term results, the headhunting approach had little sustained impact on the Colombian drug trade” (p. 187). As a result, it is vital that governments across the globe unite to develop strategies that provide a larger rate of success. Through this research, we can see that the head hunting of kingpins is not as successful as we presumed, which suggests we should divert our attention to other areas such as disassembling any aiding structures that keep these organizations sustainable.


  1. Epifanio, M. (2011). Legislative Response to International Terrorism. Journal of Peace Research, 48(3), 399-411.
  2. Kenney, M. (2003). From Pablo to Osama: Counter-terrorism Lessons From the War on Drugs. Survival, 45(3), 187-206.
  3. McIllwain, J. S. (1999). Organized Crime: A Social Network Approach. Crime, Law and Social Change, 32(4), 301-323.
  4. Schmid, A. P. (2005). Links Between Terrorism and Drug Trafficking: A Case of Narco-Terrorism?. International Summit on Democracy, Terrorism and Security, 8, 27.

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Drug Trafficking And Terrorism: Similarities And Differences. (2021, October 04). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 29, 2023, from
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