No. 8—COCA

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The lowly coca leaf is one of the world’s greatest cash crops. With only a moderate amount of refining, it can be turned into a potent (and illegal) narcotic that we all know as cocaine. Luckily (or unluckily based on your point of view), coca only grows in a very exacting environment: low-humidity jungle highlands. Unlike marijuana, which can grow pretty much anywhere, coca does well only in specific parts of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, and so the supply chain required to reach the American market is as complicated and cumbersome as some of the world’s most complex manufactures.

As the drug trade expanded in the 1970s and 1980s, most arrived in southern Florida via jetboat or small plane. But in time American interdiction took hold and choked off this route. Beginning in about 1995, the supply chain took the cocaine through Mexico to be smuggled into the United States. That in turn created the Mexican cartels and the cartels wars. Those cartels are now expanding their commercial operations both up and down the supply chain – into South America to take command of production, and into the United States to take command of distribution. That expansion is the single greatest challenge to American power in the 21st century.

For more on the how, why and future of the drug trade and its impact on the United States, see Chapter 13 of The Accidental Superpower.