The annual United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report on the global drug trade paints a picture of success in Colombia. But it’s clear the real winners remain the transnational drug gangs, who are evolving fast in response to changing markets.

Many of the trends identified by the 2011 UNODC report have been observed for several years now: Peru is close to edging out Colombia as the world’s top coca producer, and West Africa is becoming an increasingly important transition point for cocaine trafficked to Europe. These are developments that continued, or even accelerated, in 2010, the report finds.

The UNODC supplies plenty of numbers on interdiction, production and consumption rates. But out of the statistics, there are a a few key, general points worth taking away:

1. Coca and cocaine production is down in Colombia, but increasing in Peru

This is a development identified by the UNODC in last year’s report, and again appears to be the main headline pulled out of this year’s document. In Colombia, net coca cultivation dropped 16 percent, from 68,000 hectares registered in 2009 to 57,000 in 2010, the report notes. Peru reportedly saw an increase of just 1,300 hectares between 2009 and 2010, but this represents the culmination of small, and steady, annual increases since 2007. Cocaine production also appears to be rising in Peru and declining in Colombia.

One possible explanation for this is the so-called “balloon” effect. With law enforcement efforts stepping up in Colombia, drug traffickers are looking for more hospitable areas to grow drug crops, and process and ship cocaine. While more coca is being grown in Peru, it also appears that more traffickers are basing their operations in Ecuador. The country saw record seizures of cocaine in 2009, the second highest level in South America.

Another balloon effect may explain why cocaine use continues to decline in the U.S., but is rising in Europe and remaining steady in South America. As drug traffickers have found themselves squeezed out of one market, they have moved into others.

2. Drug-trafficking organizations are diversifying their product

The UNODC identifies “positive” trends for “traditional” drugs like coca and opium: in both cases, cultivation has dropped, alongside the production of cocaine and heroin.

But this appears to be offset by the new, emerging market for synthetic drugs. These are products chemically related to banned substances, but with a few “tweaked” chemical compounds. These include a variant of cannabis known as “spice,” a herbal smoking blend that is sold legally; mephedrone, touted as a legal alternative to cocaine; and other local variants of amphetamine pills and MDMA or Ecstasy. Piperazine, originally used to treat parasitic worms, is now appearing in some markets to overcome shortages of MDMA.

The rise of such designer drugs is a reminder that, like the market for any other in-demand product, the narcotics market is highly flexible and adaptable. This flexibility can also be seen in the way that drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs) are operating. DTOs are becoming more similar to multinational corporations, with an emphasis on networking rather than top-down decision making. This kind of flexibility allows for loosely-linked cells to handle the production, transport and delivery of drugs, criss-crossing three or four continents at a time.

The greater diversity of such substances on the market also means the scope of the challenge is broadening for law enforcement. There are simply more products that need to be tracked, and many of the precursor chemicals used in these “non-traditional” drugs are not internationally regulated or controlled. These synthetic drugs basically give their creators a brief window of legality, before international regulations catch up and ban them. If these designer drugs continue to flood the market, the emphasis on cannabis, cocaine and opiates as the top three “problem” drugs may no longer be as relevant in coming years.

In terms of U.S. policy, the growing prevalence of “non-traditional” drugs also raises the question of how substances are identified as posing the greatest threat to national health issues. As the UNODC report notes, in the U.S., overdoses on prescription drugs — like oxycodone, percocet, vicodin and so on — are growing more common than overdoses on cocaine or heroin. The rise in popularity for these legal “highs” may also explain, in part, the apparent shift in the U.S. away from cocaine.

3. The limitations of the UNODC reports are still clear

The UN relies on satellite imagery to collect much of its data on coca cultivation. But coca fields are becoming smaller and smaller, in part due to pressure from eradication efforts. The satellites used in detection efforts work best for fields no smaller than 0.25 hectares. Especially in Colombia, coca is being increasingly grown among legal crops, or in plots smaller than a hectare. Coca bushes can also be planted several times a year, meaning that farmers can move back on land that they had previously abandoned.

This means that many of the annual statistics supplied by the UNODC, especially regarding coca and cocaine estimates, must be considered rough and low-end estimates.