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During the 2016 Global Active Shooter, Counter Terrorism Response Virtual Summit hosted by ICR 360 many participants heard from instructors and experts across the globe in topics ranging from protecting houses of worship to securing special events.  As a participant instructor I most recently received an interesting question as to the difference between the terms “terrorism” and “narcoterrorism.”  In this article I will focus on defining these two terms and provide reasoning for the difference.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) defines terrorism as “the unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.”

Contrastingly, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) defines narcoterrorism as the “participation of groups or associated individuals in taxing, providing security for, otherwise aiding or abetting drug trafficking endeavors in an effort to further, or fund, terrorist activities.”

The best definition was coined by former President Fernando Belaúnde Terry of Peru in 1983 when describing terrorist-type attacks against his nation's anti-narcotics police.  In its original context, narcoterrorism is understood to mean "the attempts of narcotics traffickers to influence the policies of a government or a society through violence and intimidation, and to hinder the enforcement of anti-drug laws by the systematic threat or use of such violence."

While traditional terrorism is born of radical extremist ideologies relating to politics, religion, government, environment, and other beliefs narcoterrorism is born from greed and power generated from the sale of illicit dangerous controlled substances.  The difference between the two terms are the offender’s motivations for committing violent acts.  Neither of the terms have a precise definition.  Many experts have varying views on how such terms should be defined. 

While the threat of international terrorism may not be a large or visible concern in many inner-city jurisdictions, the threat of narcoterrorism looms.  Within the United States many local law enforcement agencies view illicit drug activity as a form of domestic terrorism and rightfully so.  This is most often the case because drug related crime inspires acts of violence including murders, robberies, burglaries, drive by shootings, and other acts that threaten and terrorize communities.  In the community where I served over twenty two years in drug enforcement these acts came in the form of gang retaliations, witness intimidations, and elimination of competition.  Many neighborhoods were dominated by drug organizations and their tactics designed to frighten innocent citizens to ensure that residents refrain from calling the police.  Unfortunately I witnessed some of the more powerful groups’ ability to infiltrate the community I served and caused a minute number of those entrusted with the guardianship of the public to cross the line to corruption.

Illegal drug activity and violence are linked primarily through drug marketing and sales.  Within my jurisdiction this most often occurs in street corner sales that we term as open air markets.  There are disputes among rival distributors ending in violence.  Many times there are arguments and robberies involving buyers and dealers of the drug.  Very often property crimes such as burglaries and thefts are committed to raise money with which to purchase drugs. 

The courts have recognized the nexus between firearms and illicit drug activity as the illegal business is regulated by firearm violence.  On the local level and from my experience firearms are used to protect cash and drugs that the trafficker must transport to be successful.  If the trafficker is robbed of cash or currency, it is not a crime that can be reported to the police.  The trafficker is extremely vulnerable when transporting cash to the location of a drug purchase and during the exchange of money for drugs.  It is at this point in time that a robbery may occur.  It is also apparent that the dealer may be robbed when leaving the site with large amounts of cash or drugs.  The locations of such exchanges are often in remote locations chosen for lack of police presence and out of view of others.

In order to control the street corner markets and territory the trafficker must be able to intimidate rival dealers and groups and to collect money owed from debts most often accomplished with firearms.  The dealer cannot report disputes or grievances to law enforcement.  They are also unable to bid for sales markets which in fact are neighborhoods.  The dealer is left with the option of settling such disputes through violence.  Because such drug markets are “open air” locations it takes considerable amounts of time to establish these markets.  There is no commercial advertising and the user simply knows where to go to make purchases of drugs.  Hostile takeovers are all too common in drug markets.  The dealer must be able to protect the location and prevent the loss of revenue.  The dealer must also ensure payment for those drugs provided on consignment more commonly called a “front.”  The dealer will threaten the use of a firearm to ensure that subordinates or customers pay on time.

The trafficker must resolve disputes and prevent the testimony of informants again evidencing the need for firearms. The emergence of street gangs has compounded the violence among those engaged in the sale of drugs.  There is a subculture among such groups that embraces the belief of not being “disrespected.”  To these groups gun violence is the acceptable remedy.  Also within such gangs is the culture of “Stop Snitching.”  It has become a motto to live by or to die by.  Such a growing culture of silence has helped to legitimize witness intimidation and stop people from testifying.  Gang members and drug dealers have become more skilled at enforcing the code, using increasingly violent methods to intimidate, and harm witnesses.  Emerging technology such as cellphone cameras and texting is used to spread the word about who is snitching.  We realize that with every incident in which a witness is assaulted or intimidated it amplifies the climate of fear and breeds a belief that law enforcement is unable to protect people.

Also with the emergence of gangs we find that firearms are the weapon of choice in many homicides committed by juveniles.  Because of the easier access to firearms many arguments previously settled by fights are now ended with firearm violence.  Some juveniles tout reputations for carrying guns to prevent violence and retaliation against them. 

Additionally those that use drugs many times carry guns for protection during the purchase, during the commission of crimes to obtain money, and use the same as currency to actually trade for illegal drugs.  Most dangerous of all, drug users often commit crimes facilitated by firearms while under the influence of dangerous controlled substances.  Such crimes committed by armed users include armed home invasions, carjacking, and robberies.  The type of drug ingested is also a key factor in the severity of the crimes committed.  It is well known in the jurisdiction I served that the use of methamphetamine increases the presence of paranoia and anxiety therefore setting the stage for unpredictable episodes of aggression and violence. 

During the years I served in Drug Enforcement we found firearms within most areas where we discovered dangerous controlled substances giving rise to the knowledge that dangerous controlled substances and firearms are trafficked and possessed along the same routes, and in the same areas by the same individuals.

While most communities are not immediately concerned with the threats from groups such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS, the effects of Narcoterrorism are immediately visible and apparent.  The drug market must be disrupted at the street level where neighborhoods are terrorized and businesses are disrupted.  It is the street level drug dealing that most affects the quality of life for community residents.  However it cannot solely be viewed as a law enforcement problem.  Successful strategies must include a variety of intervention tactics that include police–community stakeholder partnerships as well as partnerships between police, business, and other service agencies. Successful strategies must improve police community relations, build neighborhood unity, and increase the trust in police.  

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