Cocaine use and availability is on the rise in the United States for the first time in nearly a decade, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as the production boom in Colombia begins to be felt on US streets.
The DEA's 2016 National Drug Threat Assessment states that data from seizures and overdose deaths suggests that the amount of cocaine reaching US shores increased from 2014 to 2015, marking the first such rise since 2007.
Seizures are at the highest levels since 2010, increasing by 56.7 percent between 2014 and 2015, marking the first year on year rise since 2012. Cocaine overdose rates, meanwhile, reached 5,415; the highest number since 2007 and a 9.5 percent increase on 2014.
The reason for the increase, according to the DEA, is an estimated 67 percent spike in cocaine production in Colombia, which continues to dominate the US market. DEA testing of seized shipments showed that 90.2 percent of cocaine that reached the United States originated in Colombia, 7.5 percent from Peru, and 2.5 percent was of unknown origin. However, even the Peruvian cocaine sold mostly appears to have passed through Colombia, with forensic analysis showing all but 1 percent of it had signatures consistent with being processed from coca base to powdered cocaine hydrochloride within Colombia.
Mexican cartels continue to control most of the trafficking into the United States, although Colombian networks still supply wholesale quantities to East Coast markets, according to the DEA. Both the Mexicans and the Colombians rely on US criminal networks and street gangs for mid- and retail-level distribution as they seek to limit their exposure to US law enforcement. However, some Colombian and Dominican organizations still participate in distribution along the East Coast.
The main route cocaine takes into the US continues to be through Central America, with approximately 76 percent transiting along the Eastern Pacific, compared to 14 percent through the Western Caribbean and 9 percent through the Eastern Caribbean. Despite numerous reports in recent years of an increase in trafficking through the Caribbean, the DEA noted a slight decrease in the percentage of cocaine moved along this corridor.
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Most of the cocaine then crosses into the United States through the Southwest Mexican border, before moving to transshipment hubs cities in California, Arizona and Texas. From there, the drugs are transported along interstate highways to other hub cities such as Atlanta, Chicago, and New York. Other shipments arrive in the country through Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before reaching Miami or New York.
Other trends identified by the DEA include the emergence of cocaine mixed with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. While fentanyl is more commonly mixed with or sold as heroin -- a practice that the DEA says surged in 2015 -- there have also been cases of seized cocaine/fentanyl mixes and several reported overdoses from people taking a cocktail of both substances.
The increase in cocaine trafficking is set to continue, the DEA says. Cocaine production in Colombia spiked dramatically in 2015, and due to the lag time between coca cultivation and cocaine distribution, this cocaine is unlikely to reach the United States until late 2016 and beyond.
"As TCOs [transnational criminal organizations] make a concerted effort to increase the supply of cocaine in the United States, the United States can expect to see increased cocaine seizures, new cocaine users, and cocaine-related deaths. An increase in supply may lead to an increase in retail-level purity and a decrease in price to attract more cocaine users," the report warns.
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The DEA's report is one of the first indicators that Colombia's cocaine production boom is starting to have an effect on the retail end of the supply chain.
The US government estimates that Colombia produced 420 metric tons of cocaine in 2015 -- a 68 percent rise on the previous year, while the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates estimates it produced 646 tons -- a 46 percent rise. However, the situation is likely far more dire than even these figures suggest. If the figures are compared with seizures within Colombia then either Colombia is seizing an unfeasibly high percentage of the cocaine produced in the country, or the figures are a gross underestimate.
As noted by the DEA, the production to sale time lag means that the rise recorded in this year's DEA report does not take this recent spike into account, and is instead a reflection of the smaller, but still substantial increase seen in 2014. When the cocaine produced in 2015 begins to hit the streets in the United State then the trend of increasing cocaine trafficking and use in the United States will likely not only continue but accelerate.
Whether this becomes a long term pattern or not could largely hinge on how Colombia handles the coming demobilization of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) and the implementation of the peace accords negotiated with the guerrillas.
The FARC are the custodians of approximately 70 percent of Colombia's coca crops, taxing production, trading in coca base and in some cases trafficking the processed cocaine themselves. The rebels are now preparing to withdraw from the drug trade as they demobilize, while the state is set to carry out a coca eradication and crop substitution program as part of the peace agreement.
The demobilization of the FARC presents Colombia with a golden opportunity to reduce cocaine production by moving into the areas left by the departing the guerrillas and offering the farmers a legal alternative to coca cultivations.
However, numerous serious obstacles remain. Factions of the FARC may decide not to walk away from their lucrative illegal businesses and instead criminalize. Even in areas where the FARC do withdraw, there are already signs that other criminal networks are taking over their business and ensuring the product keeps flowing. In addition, the Colombian government does not have a good record implementing crop substitution programs and will need to improve on past efforts if it is to make a serious impact.
If Colombia cannot meet these challenges then, as the DEA states, ever more cocaine is poised to flood into the United States.