What is the behavior of cartels in the market for illicit drugs?

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The word “cartel” can cover a wide range of organizations of varying types and sizes. These include the large, intricately organized, mafia-style cartels such as Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and Russia’s Solntsevskaya Bratva as well as smaller gangs and associations of drug dealers. Cartels will generally attempt to restrict competition as much as possible and keep prices high. A large and powerful cartel of the traditional type will aim to exercise control over every stage of the process, from cultivating the drugs to supplying them at a retail level.

Large drug cartels are usually involved not only in the illicit drug trade, but in a wide range of connected criminal activities—some of which are ancillary to the drug trade, such as bribery, extortion, money-laundering and murder. Other activities—such as gambling, prostitution, embezzlement, and other organized crime—may be as profitable as the drug trafficking itself.

The big cartels have a chain of command, in which people near to the top do not deal directly with the drugs or personally engage in violence and other criminal activity. This makes it difficult to secure convictions against them. The behavior of cartels in the market is similar to that of powerful participants in any black market (or any other market in which there is no recourse to law and participants principally regulate the market themselves through the use of force). Competition is very aggressive but tends to take the form of direct violence against competitors rather than attempts to woo consumers. The principal exception to this is when a cartel plans to increase drug addiction in a certain group or area, in which case it may give free or discounted drugs to those who are not yet addicted, generally through the agency of the lowest-level dealers.

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