The first comprehensive United Nations report on synthetic drugs discusses a growing number of production laboratories and the seizures of large quantities of precursor chemicals in Central and South America, pointing to both criminal migration and a budding regional market.
The Global Synthetic Drugs Assessment (pdf) is the first report issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to analyze new psychoactive substances (NPS) in addition to amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS), a development that reflects the growing importance of these drugs within the global narcotics trade.
Although the report indicates that cocaine and marijuana continue to monopolize the illegal drug trade in Latin America, the discovery of an increasing number of ATS laboratories and precursor chemicals south of Mexico suggests that the manufacture of these drugs is an expanding business. This business, in turn, appears to be feeding growing domestic markets in the region.
ATS Production Rising in Central, South America
Although the UNDOC's 2011 ATS report (pdf) identified Europe and Canada as major manufacturers of synthetic drugs -- including those transported to South America -- recent laboratory seizures suggest production for South American markets is shifting from Europe to Argentina and other countries in the region.
According to the report, between 2009 and 2012 the number of ATS laboratories discovered in Central and South America grew significantly, from only three laboratories reported prior to 2009 to fourteen by the end of 2012. The greatest numbers were found in Central America, with a total of eight laboratories dismantled in Guatemala and three in Nicaragua (click on UNODC map to expand).
Seizures of precursor chemicals used to make ATS also indicate an increase in production in Central America. Between 2007 and 2012, 47 tons of ephedrine and 32 tons of pseudoephedrine were confiscated in Central America, South America and the Caribbean, with the largest amount found in El Salvador and other sizeable quantities seized in Guatemala, Honduras and Argentina.
Since the end of the period analyzed by the report (2008-2012), synthetic drug production appears to have continued rising in Argentina with ecstasy laboratories and precursor chemicals discovered in several busts in 2013 and 2014. Due to few government restrictions on chemical imports, this country also serves as an important transshipment point for precursors.
Signs of increased synthetic drug manufacturing in Central America underscore reports that Mexican cartels are shifting production south in response to tighter restrictions on precursor chemicals and a crackdown on meth production in Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel, a major player in the synthetic drugs trade, is one of the groups that has moved some operations. At least one report has indicated the group may be producing as much meth in Guatemala as in Mexico.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
Nonetheless, Mexico has remained an important center of operations. According to the report, around 260 meth laboratories were dismantled in Mexico in 2012. In 2011 and 2012, methamphetamine seizures in that country surpassed those in the United States, which is also a major meth production center.
Paradoxically, in contrast to the number of laboratories and amount of precursor chemicals discovered in Central and South America, ATS seizures during the period analyzed were comparatively low. While Guatemalan authorities reported dismantling eight laboratories between 2009 and 2012, they only reported seizing one kilo of ATS. Annual total seizures for the entire region, including the Caribbean, fluctuated between 90 kilos and 240 kilos over the five years studied, whereas annual seizures in the United States and Mexico are large enough to be measured in tons.
SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profile
The report posits that this discrepancy could be due to a regional law enforcement focus on marijuana and cocaine rather than stimulants. In an illustrative example, police stumbled on a large amount of meth in Argentina in 2012 only because they were looking for a cocaine trafficking ring. Synthetic drugs can also be difficult to track since they can be produced in small laboratories.
An Expanding Domestic Market
In addition to indicating criminal migration, and despite the absence of major ATS seizures, an increase in the number of laboratories and precursor chemicals in Latin America also points to growing regional synthetic drug use. There are signs of a budding domestic ecstasy market in several countries, particularly Brazil and Argentina. According to the report, ecstasy seizures increased around three fold in Central America, South America and the Caribbean between 2008 and 2012, with close to half of the seizures in Brazil and 22 percent in Argentina (click on UNODC pie chart to expand).
Although ATS use remains low among the general population, survey data cited in the report indicate growing usage among students, even exceeding both cocaine and marijuana use in some countries. Other reports have also indicated the rising popularity of ketamine, a sedative, and designer drugs like 2CB.
These developments are likely indicative of criminal organizations diversifying their income sources. Manufacturing synthetic drugs allows them to avoid international controls on plant-based drugs and certain chemicals, and developing domestic markets rather than shipping all of their product overseas is a way to bring in quick, albeit less, cash.
Whereas evidence indicates the demand for synthetic drugs is growing in Central and South America, the use of these drugs in North America -- particularly meth -- appears to have stabilized. Although detected North American meth production and trafficking from Mexico to the US grew during the period studied, this growth does not seem to reflect a surge in demand.
Increases in laboratory discoveries and meth seizures further north could indicate an improvement in law enforcement's ability to find meth, rather than a response to the regional market.
Another possibility is that meth is being trafficked through the United States to Europe and Australia, where the Sinaloa Cartel also has a significant presence in the drug market and where drugs can generally be sold for more than in the United States. In 2014, 60 kilos of Mexican methamphetamine -- worth an estimated $12 million -- were seized in the United States en route to Australia.