Mexico’s cocaine seizures have plummeted in the last few years, but Alejandro Hope argues that far from being a cause for concern, that this could mean that criminal groups are getting weaker.

Hope analyzes figures from a recent report by Mexico’s government, which show that the amount of cocaine confiscated by the authorities has fallen in the last two years to levels not seen since the 1980s, with figures from the first half of 2012 continuing the trend (see graph, below).

This is unlikely to be a result of increased corruption and officials letting more drugs pass through, Hope argues, because seizures of marijuana have remained stable, while heroin seizures have shot up.

Hope offers three possible explanations for the trend (the following is in his words):

mexico seizures

“1) The drug traffickers have changed their means of transport, abandoning the maritime routes and increasingly opting for overland ones. This is not an absurd suggestion: if the cocaine seizures are broken down by institution [see graph, below], it can be seen that the overall drop is explained by a collapse in seizures by the Mexican Navy. In 2009, the marines confiscated more than 15 tons of cocaine; for 2011, the number fell 90 percent, to 1.4 tons. By contrast, the figures from the Defense Department (Sedena) and other institutions have grown or remained stable. That could mean that, increasingly, cocaine does not come directly to Mexico, but goes first to Central America and from there is taken by road from the Guatemalan border to the US.

cocaine seizures22) Demand for cocaine in the United States has gone down (note: no less than 90 percent of the cocaine moved through Mexico goes to the neighboring country). This is entirely probable: according to data from national drug use surveys [see graph, below], the number of cocaine consumers in the United States (the month before the survey) went down 25 percent between 2006 and 2010. According to the estimate at the IMCO [Instituto Mexicano para la Competitividad], this implies a drop of some 45 tons in the cocaine demand in the neighboring country. It is generally thought that, in the short term, the amount seized has a more or less constant relation to the amount trafficked (the reason is simple: the capacity and the probability of detection do not change much from one year to the next). As a consequence, if there is less demand for cocaine, less is trafficked, and, therefore, less is seized.

cocaine demand

3) The Caribbean route is being reopened. This is much more speculative than the two previous explanations, but it is not implausible. Lately, there has been evidence of an increase in cocaine trafficking in the Caribbean (see this piece from InSight Crime on the subject). First, the US military’s Southern Command has reported an increase in the number of clandestine flights (aerial traces, they are called in the media) from Colombia and Venezuela towards the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Second, seizures of cocaine in Puerto Rico grew 30 percent in 2010, according to the DEA (from modest levels, it’s worth pointing out). Third, in recent months, the US Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection (CPB) have carried out various important seizures, of more than a ton each, in the Caribbean. Fourth, according to an article published in the New York Times, the US agencies report a growing use of submarines and semi-submersibles to transport drugs to the coast of Florida. None of this is conclusive: the DEA still says that the majority of cocaine that arrives in the United States passes through Central America and Mexico. However, it does suggest that the price differential between the Mexican route and the Caribbean route may be closing.”

For Hope, if the first explanation is correct and cocaine seizures have dropped because traffickers have switched to maritime routes, this would not have a major impact on the criminal landscape. However, if it is the case that the trade is being re-routed through the Caribbean, or that US demand for cocaine is falling, this could represent a structural change of the highest magnitude. This could mean the reversal of the changes that swept through the Mexican drug trade in the 1980s, according to Hope:

“The arrival of cocaine, and, above all, the closure of the Caribbean route changed everything: the profits from the export of illegal drugs grew rapidly, and drug trafficking groups had to develop an organizational sophistication they had never had before, in order to run a business that began in the Andes and ended on the other side of the US border. Likewise, with cocaine involved, the incentive to use corruption or violence shot up.”

Drug trafficking organizations would not be able to make up the shortfall in income from cocaine by increasing the traffic of other drugs, argues Hope, because the US is likely to legalize marijuana in the next decade, heroin use is not increasing, while methamphetamine use remains small relative to that of cocaine.

“It is clear that, whatever happens, we are not going to return to the previous status quo: once organized crime has taken root in a country it takes decades, if not centuries, to wipe it out. But the basic nature of the phenomenon can change: without trafficking on a grand scale of cocaine (and marijuana), the criminal groups would get smaller, more local, and less threatening to the stability and survival of the state. […]

Pray, then, that the fall in cocaine seizures points to something more than a problem in record keeping, and that that something is a fundamental change in trafficking patterns. Because if it is, we could be at the beginning of the end of a long, long national nightmare.”