Authorities have made Brazil's largest ever-seizure of ecstasy in the southern state of Santa Catarina in the latest example of how the production of the synthetic drug is spreading rapidly in the country.
On September 22, military police in Santa Catarina seized over 230,000 ecstasy pills and 48 kilograms of MDMA during their raid of two illegal production facilities in the municipality of Imaruí, stated local law enforcement.
It was, according to the police, the largest single MDMA seizure in Brazilian history. The previous record also came in Santa Catarina, in 2019, when security forces confiscated some 35 kilograms of MDMA in a clandestine laboratory and enough chemical precursors for an additional 70 kilograms.
The southern state is the epicenter of MDMA production in the country. In June this year, Brazil’s Federal Police dismantled a drug production ring in Santa Catarina that manufactured MDMA pills and sold them at music events across the state.
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Increased production is likely tied to rising demand, however, which is thought to have grown significantly in Brazil during the last decade, according to Christian Azevedo, a senior police official currently seconded to the Department of Justice and Public Security in the central state of Minas Gerais.
“MDMA is a trending drug in the party scene [and] not only with upper class [young people],” he told InSight Crime in a June interview.
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Latin American consumption of MDMA has long been fed by production in Belgium and the Netherlands, the world’s synthetic drug super-producers. This emergence of domestic manufacturing in Brazil is therefore an important shift in the global narcotics trade.
Wholesale quantities of MDMA continue to be trafficked from Europe to the region of course, by individual air passengers and by post, and the “drug laboratories” Brazilian officials refer to more often resemble crude kitchens.
Nor is Brazil even the first South American country to witness the growth of local MDMA production: Argentina and Paraguay have found mid-sized facilities, while Chile’s manufacturing is seemingly growing at a faster rate.
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Brazil stands out, however, in several ways. While previously dismantled laboratories in South America mostly consisted of small-scale facilities that would adulterate and “re-tablet” imported MDMA, in 2019 and 2020 Brazil discovered several laboratories with the capacity to manufacture “ecstasy” tablets entirely, according to a 2020 UNODC report.
Almost exclusively located in the neighboring southern states of Santa Catarina and Paraná, the artisanal facilities have also displayed remarkable chemical sophistication.
An InSight Crime investigation in 2020 found that cocaine was sent from Santa Catarina to Europe in exchange for synthetic drugs. Once received, the pills were cut to only contain 10 percent of the initial drug.
When several ecstasy “pre-precursors” – simpler chemicals used to make those used to make MDMA – were placed under international control, many expert Belgian and Dutch producers switched to helional. According to the UNODC 2021 World Drug Report, one of the only countries in the world to report a similarly rapid switch was Brazil.
Caution is required though. Not only do European MDMA seizures continue to dwarf their South American counterparts, but at present Brazilian producers appear to be independent low-level criminals with little to no ties to major organized crime, says Azevedo.
“I haven’t seen any evidence that large criminal groups , and others have been largely involved in MDMA trafficking,” he told InSight Crime in June.