TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Researchers at The University of Alabama are bringing together their expertise in geography, modeling and criminal activity to better understand how enforcement activity influences drug trafficking in Central America.
The new awards support research that combine engineering with computer, physical and social sciences to address a danger that poses significant consequences for national and international security. Nimble and technologically sophisticated networks traffic in contraband that includes people, illegal weapons, drugs, looted antiquities and exotic animal products.
Unencumbered by national boundaries, they funnel illicit profits to criminal organizations and fuel transnational and terrorist organizations.
Other federal agencies and organizations have worked on this issue for many years, with involvement of specialized fields in the academic community. The new NSF awards leverage fundamental research, taking an engineering systems-based approach made far more powerful by the integration of other scientific disciplines.
Government agencies and law enforcement are primarily concerned with forward-looking strategic readiness and operational efficiency, said Dr. Nicholas R. Magliocca, UA assistant professor of geography and lead investigator for UA.
“Academic research can ask larger questions about current drug policy, for example, and how current drug policy plays out differently across different geographical spaces,” he said. “It can also bring a diversity of methodological approaches and perspectives to investigate the operations of illicit supply networks, which is necessary given the incomplete knowledge and data we have about such activities.”
Efforts by the United States to curtail illegal narcotics from getting into the country by smuggling routes through Central America over the past decades have been costly and ineffective, with traffickers adapting and changing their networks. The space drug traffickers use has spread from roughly 2 million square miles in 1996 to 7 million square miles in 2017, according to Magliocca.
“We are aiming to understand the source of this ineffectiveness by understanding how narco-traffickers adapt to current interdiction practices and how their responses might change under different interdiction strategies,” he said.
The enforcement strategies tested in the research will range from the current practices to significant de-escalation, he said.
Dr. Kevin Curtin, UA professor of geography, will model current and alternative counter-drug efforts. Dr. Diana Dolliver, UA assistant professor of criminology and criminal justice, will study the types of places traffickers can exploit and the opportunity for laundering money across those spaces.
The UA team will also work with researchers at Ohio State University.
Researchers will use unclassified data sources that describe the volume and timing of cocaine flows throughout the Central American transit zones. The trafficking routes are not mapped or known, but many government, military and academic institutions have tried to infer route locations based on circumstantial evidence, Magliocca said.
“This project will show that a new paradigm is needed in which spatial patterns of narco-trafficking and its proliferation over time are recognized to be—and explicitly modeled as— the result of co-evolution with interdiction operations,” he said.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.