Latin America’s criminal landscape continued to evolve this year, driven by the ongoing record production of cocaine in South America’s Andean region, the booming market for opioids in the United States and the struggle for control of Brazil’s lucrative drug trade.

Authorities in Colombia have struggled to contain surging production of cocaine, in part due to issues related to the implementation of a historic November 2016 peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC).

Increasing US demand for opioid drugs has generated mounting concern, both in the United States, where drug use has been linked to a rising toll of overdose deaths, as well as in Mexico, where drug-related violence is on the rise.

A similar dynamic is playing out in Brazil, where a context of fluid criminal alliances has contributed to conflict over the country’s massive drug market.


The demobilization of Colombia’s biggest guerilla group this year promised to upend the supply side of a significant chunk of the international cocaine trade. As a large part of the FARC retreated to government-designated peace zones, criminal relationships and actors adapted — but not in the way that the architects of the peace accords might have hoped.

“Unfortunately, the signing of the agreement with what was at the time Colombia’s main actor in the cocaine trade has not yet yielded positive results for the country’s criminal landscape,” we wrote in November, a year after the FARC and government of President Manuel Santos signed the peace agreement.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the FARC Peace

The Urabeños, Colombia’s most powerful criminal organization, “might be under increased pressure,” we noted, “but the FARC stepping down has allowed the group to take control of the lion’s share of Colombia’s cocaine industry.”

The FARC peace agreement did contribute to bringing the homicide rate in Colombia down to its lowest level in four decades. But criminal groups have continued to vie for control of the cocaine trade, which has grown to unprecedented levels in recent years, according to US government estimates as well as figures from the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

In June, InSight Crime profiled the Colombian department of Nariño, “the third-largest cultivator in 2015, saw a 52 percent increase in estimated coca hectares in 2016 to a total of 39,500 hectares. This represents 21 percent of the national total, which itself increased by almost a fifth in 2016 to over 188,000 hectares,” we wrote in March. The top cocaine producer in 2016 was Cauca, Nariño’s neighbour on the Pacific coast.

“The record levels of cocaine production pile yet more pressure on the government of President Juan Manuel Santos. He has allowed drug production to more than double under his watch. (He assumed the presidency in 2010.) The increase in drug production, and the billions in earning it generates, is a real threat to the main, and critics might say, the solitary success of his presidency: the peace agreement signed with the FARC,” we wrote in July.


Amid a mounting opioid drug crisis, the US government placed pressure on Mexico to crack down on the cartels, even threatening to send in US troops to do the job that the Mexican military could not. But despite the focus in the United States on foreign drug threats, the biggest problem continues to be homegrown.

“The abuse of controlled prescription drugs (CPD), which include but are not limited to legal opioid medicine, was responsible for 31,000 deaths in 2015. That is more than double the roughly 13,000 lethal overdoses of heroin that same year. Death from cocaine use comes next, with approximately 6,800 victims in 2015,” we noted in October.

Legal prescription painkillers accounted for the largest amount of drug deaths, and their use in turn has pushed up demand for illicit substitutes from south of the border and beyond. Heroin production and transportation has boomed in Mexico as addicts switched from prescription substances to illicit ones.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin

Fentanyl — a deadly synthetic opioid being combined with heroin and contributing to a high number of overdoses in the United States — became an increasing focus for the United States in Mexico. Training initiatives to help forensic teams detect fentanyl were funded by the United States in an effort to improve both countries’ understanding of the nature of the production and transportation process of this substance.

Drug-related violence continued to rise in Mexico, especially in criminally-strategic states such as Guerrero — the epicenter of Mexico’s heroin trade.

In March, we reported that Guerrero Attorney General Xavier Olea said the state doesn’t have the “capacity to confront organized crime.” As we noted, Olea’s comments “highlight a perennial problem in the region: inefficient justice systems riddled with corruption, unable to handle the criminal challenges they face.”

In October, Mexico registered the most violent month in the country’s modern history. Like Colombia, this violence is related to the struggle to control the drug production areas and the corresponding trafficking corridors. Fragmentation of the country’s largest criminal groups exacerbated the problem.


Like Mexico, Brazil is also experiencing a rise in drug trade-related violence. In October, President Michel Temer recognized a nationwide crisis of insecurity as a “national emergency” that was being fed by drugs and arms trafficking, and groups fighting for control of the cocaine trade.

Brazil’s crime groups are fighting not only for control of the largest domestic drug market in Latin America, they are also competing over important trafficking routes into and out of the country, as Colombian producers seek to offload growing stashes of cocaine.

SEE ALSO: Brazil News and Profiles

The causes of ramped up criminal conflict in Brazil are similar to the factors driving violence in Colombia and Mexico: underworld atomization, flawed public policy responses and sustained demand for drugs — a key source of profits.

The growing production and consumption of key drugs such as heroin and cocaine will continue to shape Latin America’s criminal dynamics. And with governments across the region reluctant to abandon militarized security policies that tend to generate underworld instability, Latin America seems poised to experience continued violence related to this important illicit activity.

Top photo by Associated Press/Carlos Jasso