An investigation conducted by a non-governmental organization into perceptions of drug activity in Latin America reflects changing patterns in trafficking routes and consumption habits, as well as evolving opinions on drug policy.
The most recent report (pdf) by the Latin American Observatory for Drug Policy & Public Opinion (OPDOP) compiles results from surveys on drug use and policy in the region. Researchers conducted almost 9,000 interviews in nine Latin American countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Mexico, Peru, and Uruguay.
Below, InSight Crime highlights some of the report’s most noteworthy findings.
Drugs Seen as Increasingly Available
Many Latin American nations believe drug trafficking and the availability of narcotics is on the rise; on average, 67 percent of those surveyed felt drug trafficking had increased over the last five years. The exception is Colombia, where only 34 percent felt drug trafficking activity went up during that time. Argentina had the highest percentage of respondents (92 percent) who considered drug trafficking had increased. (See graph below)
Percentage of respondents perceiving an increase in drug trafficking over last five years. Source: OPDOP
As far as the availability of specific drugs, 78 percent of all interviewees said marijuana had become easier to obtain. Once again, Argentina had the highest ratio of respondents (90 percent) who expressed this sentiment, followed closely by Bolivia at 87 percent. (See table below)
Percentage of respondents perceiving marijuana as increasingly available. Source: OPDOP
Similarly, 74 percent of respondents across all countries perceived an increase in the availability of cocaine. This perception was highest in Bolivia (88 percent) and Argentina (87 percent), and lowest in Colombia (63 percent). (See table below)
Respondents perceiving cocaine as increasingly available. Source: OPDOP
Varied Opinions on Drug Policy
Throughout the region, 45 percent of respondents felt illicit drug consumption should be considered a citizen security issue, while a similar number (44 percent) felt it should be treated as a public health issue. Mexicans are the most likely to view drug consumption as a health issue (58 percent), while Bolivians (67 percent) are the biggest proponents of a security response to drug use. (See table below)
On a related topic, 40 percent of respondents felt a drug reduction strategy that relies on police and the persecution of users is ineffective. More than half of all respondents in Mexico agreed with this assessment, while it garnered the least support in Peru (16 percent). (See graph below)
Percentage of respondents perceiving drug reduction policies based on police and persecution of users as ineffective. Source: OPDOP
Regionally, 33 percent of respondents said drug production should be de-penalized or legalized, with a similar level of support for the de-penalization or legalization of drug sales (27 percent) and consumption (38 percent). Mexico is the most in favor of drug de-penalization or legalization, while individuals in Bolivia and El Salvador are the least likely to take this view. (See table below)
InSight Crime Analysis
The OPDOP’s findings are reflective of several ongoing trends in Latin America regarding illicit drugs. For example, the high rate of perceived drug trafficking in Argentina and Bolivia is consistent with the growing role these nations play in the regional drug trade.
These changes in drug activities are especially apparent in Argentina. The country has seen a marked increase in the number of synthetic drug and cocaine laboratories in recent years, while cocaine consumption, micro-trafficking, and drug-related violence is also on the rise.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Argentina
Similarly, while Bolivia has long been a producer of coca (the raw ingredient used to make cocaine), it has recently emerged as an important hub for drug trafficking in South America, feeding both regional and international markets.
Perceptions of increased drug trafficking activity in Bolivia and Argentina have also likely been influenced by the growing presence of foreign drug trafficking organizations in these countries.
Meanwhile, the study's mixed findings on drug policy highlights the lack of a regional consensus on how to address this issue.
There is a growing chorus of Latin American leaders and politicians calling for a revision to the region's drug policies. These calls have centered on finding alternatives to the harsh anti-drug policies enacted as part of the so-called “War on Drugs." Uruguay has taken the biggest step towards implementing progressive reforms, with the legalization of marijuana in 2013.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Drug Policy
Nonetheless, the OPDOP study shows there is still a large percentage of people -- especially in traditionally conservative countries like El Salvador and Bolivia -- who feel illicit drugs should not be legalized, demonstrating some of the contradictions and continued differences of opinions on drug policy reform in the region.