The US State Department’s yearly drug report has found that coca cultivation is slowly spreading outside of the three traditional cocaine-producing nations, though Colombia remains far and away the major cultivator of cocaine’s base ingredient.
The 2023 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), released annually by the US State Department, profiles the drug trafficking landscape in most countries of the world, paying particular attention to the threat the drug trade in each country presents to the United States.
With the so-called war on drugs faltering in Latin America, the report offered a view of the region’s cocaine production potential that contrasted with the findings presented by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) just last year.
And it noted the role of the United States in illegally trafficking marijuana to consumers in Latin America and the Caribbean who seek high-quality weed available by postal order from the legalized market in some US states.
Here, InSight Crime pulls out five key takeaways on drug production and trafficking dynamics in Latin America.
Contrasting Accounts on Cocaine-Producing Countries
The report found that Colombia remains the overwhelming supplier of cocaine to the United States, with 97% of cocaine seized and tested in the United States originating from the country. However, along with Peru, Colombia witnessed a drop in coca cultivation: Colombian cultivation shrank from 245,000 hectares in 2020 to 234,000 hectares in 2021, and Peruvian cultivation dropped from 88,200 hectares in 2020 to 84,400 hectares in 2021.
One of the most striking aspects of the US State Department’s report is its contrast with findings presented by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The UNODC’s report on Colombia, published in October 2022, found that in 2021 the country saw historic levels of coca cultivation and potential cocaine production, increasing by 43% and 14% respectively. Most cultivation took place in three key departments: Nariño, Norte de Santander, and Putumayo. UNODC director for the Andean Region and Southern Cone, Candice Welsch, said at the time that coca cultivation rose due to economic uncertainty in cultivation departments and international demand for cocaine, while improved techniques enhanced cocaine production levels per hectare of coca sowed.
In Putumayo, coca substitution programs have run into difficulties due to funding issues and threats to locals from criminal groups in the region.
The reports also differed on cultivation in Bolivia, the third major coca-cultivating country in South America. The US State Department reported that in 2021, Bolivian coca cultivation rose by less than 1% to 39,700 hectares. The UNODC, however, said Bolivian cultivation increased by 4% from 29,400 hectares in 2020 to 30,500 hectares in 2021.
Cocaine Production Spreading Slowly
Coca cultivation and cocaine production outside of the three traditional producer countries remain minuscule, and there is insufficient evidence to suggest any other country has crossed the 1,000 hectares of illicit coca threshold that would categorize them as a “major” producer. However, cultivation and production are spreading, with the report singling out coca cultivation in Venezuela and Honduras as “troubling.”
The US State Department’s report noted that Venezuela’s role in the global drug trade has expanded from being solely a transit country to also being a cocaine producer, citing InSight Crime’s investigation into the topic. This change was partly blamed on Venezuela’s government, which has failed to prosecute corrupt officials or suspected drug traffickers, the report stated.
It also referenced the claim by the Maduro administration that it had eradicated 31 hectares of coca and destroyed 17 cocaine production laboratories in the first four months of 2022. By December, the government had reported it had destroyed a total of 58 laboratories over the course of the year but there were no further reports of coca eradications, according to InSight Crime research.
Honduran authorities eradicated 140 hectares of coca plants between January and September 2022 compared to 30 hectares during the same period in 2021, the report found. Despite President Xiomara Castro’s promised crackdown, there is evidence that coca is increasingly being grown in remote areas in Colon, Yoro, Olancho, El Paraiso, and Cortes, where there is little state presence.
Rural poverty was cited as leading some to turn to coca cultivation in Guatemala, where just under 20 hectares of coca were eradicated in the first nine months of the year. The government sought to respond to the issue of illicit plant cultivation by sending the military to conduct the country’s first “large-scale” coca eradication operation in September.
Ecuadorian authorities also found and destroyed coca fields and clandestine cocaine processing facilities found and destroyed in the jungle along the Colombian border. However, this amounted to an extremely modest haul of just over 1,000 coca plants between January and September 2022.
Synthetic Drug Labs in Mexico
The number of “clandestine drug laboratories” found in Mexico skyrocketed in 2022, with 193 found in the first nine months of 2022, compared with just 21 in the same period in 2021, according to the report.
However, these figures differ from those given by Mexico’s Ministry of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional – SEDENA). According to the ministry, the authorities found 337 clandestine labs between January and September 2021, and 491 across the whole year, making the total number far higher than anything seen in the previous ten years. Of those labs, 438 were found in Sinaloa, owing to the state’s location as a strategic point in the country’s production chain of synthetic drugs. While all the labs found by SEDENA were found to be producing methamphetamine, the US State Department reported that “Mexico seized 1.8 metric tons of fentanyl (a 40.3% increase from 2020) from 26 clandestine laboratories” during 2021.
An increase in fentanyl arriving in the United States from Mexico, and an increase in seizures of the drug within Mexico itself, is well documented. However, the Mexican government has steadfastly denied that the country plays host to fentanyl production laboratories, which it defines as those in which fentanyl is synthesized.
The Mexican government has made efforts to reduce the entry of precursor chemicals to the country, including by extending the number of chemicals on its watchlist from 14 to 69. This has forced criminal organizations to disguise shipments or seek alternative chemicals with which to manufacture synthetic drugs. The effort has had little impact, said the report.
US Becomes a Drug Exporter
Historically, marijuana cultivated in Latin America and the Caribbean has been trafficked to the United States. The report, however, emphasizes that the reverse is also true.
Eastern Caribbean nations saw a rise in seizures of American and Canadian marijuana in 2022, with traffickers utilizing commercial carriers and express mail services to deliver the product. The importation of high-grade marijuana to the eastern Caribbean likely feeds domestic markets, where marijuana is widely used, the report found.
A similar pattern of seizures elsewhere in the region suggests that US marijuana is gaining popularity. US-sourced marijuana has been seized multiple times in the Dominican Republic and Paraguay recently, while there have been single seizure instances in other countries.
The legalization of marijuana in many US states makes exportation a new phenomenon, but not necessarily a surprising one. “The US is becoming sort of a high-end, high-quality producer of cannabis and all cannabis-related products, so I think it’s pretty natural to see a demand for those products in other countries,” Katharine Neill Harris, a drug policy expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy, told InSight Crime.
Latest Cocaine Routes
Drug trafficking routes have shifted significantly in the Caribbean in recent years, and the report confirms this movement.
Historically crucial transshipment points such as the Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago seized very small amounts of cocaine in the first three-quarters of 2022, with 367 kilograms and 5 kilograms seized respectively. This suggests their dwindling importance in cocaine drug routes, as traffickers attempt to evade law enforcement and leverage more advanced distribution networks.
Traffickers are now pushing massive amounts of cocaine through the Dutch Caribbean and the Dominican Republic. In the first nine months of 2022, 19 metric tons of cocaine were seized in the Dutch Caribbean, while 24 metric tons were seized in the Dominican Republic, underlining their roles as pivotal hubs in the cocaine trade to both the United States and Europe.
Cocaine traffickers adjusted their supply routes throughout South America as well. The report noted that in Brazil traffickers have been forced to migrate north as their favored exit points, like the Port of Santos, become more heavily monitored.
A cocktail of COVID-19 restrictions and a beefed-up law enforcement presence in much of the country’s south has “pushed transnational criminal organizations toward the northern regions of the country,” according to the report.
Across the border in Bolivia and Paraguay, the modus operandi for cocaine transportation continues to reckon with increased border restrictions by taking to the air. While drug flights have long been a staple of the cocaine trade, Bolivia’s latest confiscation figures point to the growing importance of air traffic. Indeed, 99 aircraft were seized in 2022, up from 20 in the previous year, the report noted.