A new UN report on the global state of the cocaine trade reveals record production levels in Latin America, a sustained increase in cocaine purity in Europe, and a colossal jump in drug seizures in Africa.
The Global Report on Cocaine 2023, produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), concluded that the cocaine trade had surpassed 2019 levels, reaching an all-time high. But it also delved into deal-making between transnational criminal groups, the struggles of Brazilian cocaine traffickers, the fortunes of their Nigerian counterparts, and newly popular ways of smuggling drugs worldwide.
InSight Crime analyzed the report's main findings and their implications for Latin America:
Covid Didn't Stop Cocaine
Colombia, the world's largest cocaine producer, saw just under 2,000 tons of cocaine manufactured in 2020, the last year for which the complete data could be confirmed. This set a new production record for Colombia, doubling the quantity produced in 2014.
This seemingly unstoppable rise is likely to have continued since. In 2022, Colombia reported its greatest-ever coverage of coca crops to 204,000 hectares. Similarly, seizures of cocaine ticked up in the country to reach 671 metric tons, according to InSight Crime's Cocaine Seizure Round-Up.
The UNODC report stated that while this cocaine boom was directly correlated with the expansión of coca cultivation, improved methods of transforming the leaves into cocaine hydrochloride had also helped increased yields.
It also credited authorities worldwide, stating that "interceptions by law enforcement have also been on the rise, at a higher speed than production," which has helped curb the amount of cocaine available for consumption.
Increasing Purity of Cocaine
The report found that purity levels for cocaine in Europe surpass those found in the United States. Cocaine purity has been increasing steadily in both markets since 2012. But both regions regularly see cocaine of over 60% purity for sale, with purity levels now more stable in Europe than in the United States.
In 2022, the European Drug Report stated half the countries surveyed reported average cocaine purity between 53% and 68%, with finds as high as 80%. Finds in the US range from 40% to 60%.
Several factors have likely contributed to this. Firstly, Europe has overtaken the United States as the most desirable destination for cocaine traffickers, given both demand and prices.
SEE ALSO: The Cocaine Pipeline to Europe
Secondly, there is more opportunity for cocaine to be cut with other ingredients to increase volume while on the way to the United States. Shipments pass through Central America and Mexico and change hands several times, increasing the likelihood of contamination. Shipping cocaine to Europe through Brazil and Venezuela reduces the number of links and leads to increased purity, Keegan Hamilton, a drug trafficking reporter at Vice, explained to InSight Crime.
Thirdly, European groups, such as the Italian 'Ndrangheta or Albanian groups, have established routes and direct relationships with traffickers in producer countries. These relationships have allowed them to eliminate intermediaries in the supply chain, further increasing direct cocaine connections to Europe.
Brazil in Cocaine Lockdown
While the cocaine business is doing well in Colombia and much of Europe, Brazil saw a drop-off during and after the pandemic. Due to the distance cocaine needs to travel to reach Brazil and then to cross the country to its ports, traffickers faced a logistical squeeze, the report found.
Due to lockdowns, Brazilian traffickers have increasingly used airplanes to fly cocaine shipments into the country. But once there, they continued to face problems moving the drugs to Atlantic ports. In 2020, the level of cocaine set to be exported dropped in cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
This may not have been entirely resolved. InSight Crime's Cocaine Seizure Round-up found that cocaine seizures were largely stagnant in Brazil through 2021 and 2022, with around 96 tons seized in both years. This may be partly attributed to the dismantling of one particularly large network run by Sergio Roberto de Carvalho, known as the "Brazilian Pablo Escobar." Since his arrest in June 2022, it has been revealed that de Carvalho and his associates exported dozens of tons of drugs through many of Brazil's Atlantic ports, large and small.
Due to these logistical problems, cocaine stockpiles rose in the inland states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso, and Goiás. The UNODC found that this had likely led to a spike in cocaine-related deaths in Brazil.
Rise of African Smugglers
One of the most eye-catching statistics from the UNODC report was the 400% spike in cocaine seizures across Africa in 2021, compared to the average of the five previous years. Transit routes now crisscross the continent, catering to local markets in South Africa and Angola or heading across west and north Africa to reach Europe.
Since 2019, the report suggested, the role of Africa "as a transit zone for cocaine on its way to destination markets such as Europe has expanded substantially."
And Nigerian criminal groups seem to have cashed in on this trend. The report notes that they dominate drug trafficking and smuggling in western and northern Africa while relying on a global diaspora and a network of drug couriers to source drugs themselves.
Evidence from Latin America supports this. Every year since 2018, Nigerian citizens have been the most frequently arrested nationality trying to smuggle cocaine onboard airplanes in Brazil. And in Venezuela, a number of Nigerians were arrested in 2021 and are accused of recruiting locals to smuggle drugs to Europe via Brazil, Suriname, and French Guiana.
Increased Violence in Border Communities
The UNODC report also focused on how communities across Latin America that sit directly on major trade routes are facing increasing challenges. While drug trafficking and violence have gone hand-in-hand along national borders for decades, the report pointed out historically poor and vulnerable populations are suffering more than ever.
Ecuador's border with Colombia, one of the busiest cocaine trafficking areas in the region, was profiled as having around 70 illegal crossing points. This has led to cocaine, fuel, precursor chemicals, weapons, and ammunition flowing between the two countries, and violence has risen as Ecuadorean and Colombian groups alike stake their claims on the criminal economies.
With Ecuador seeing an 82% jump in homicides in 2022, one of the highest in Latin America, it is no surprise that its northern provinces of Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos were among the worst-affected areas.
To the south, the border between Chile and Bolivia, an already well-trodden area for smugglers of all types, has become a crucial transit point for cocaine and migrants. Groups such as Venezuela's Tren de Aragua, which force many migrants to carry cocaine across borders, have contributed to Chile's northern Tarapacá seeing alarming homicide levels for much of 2022.