Seizures of synthetic drugs in Chile have skyrocketed from 2,304 doses in 2010 to more than 1.5 million doses in 2019, raising the question of how, or even if, Chilean authorities can cope with this dangerous flow.
In late January, the head of controlled chemical substances at Chile's investigative police, Patricio Navarro told Bio Bio Radio of this "alarming" increase. And though the use of synthetic drugs is on the rise in other Latin American countries, such as Argentina and Costa Rica, the rate at which Chilean domestic demand is growing – a 1,346 percent increase in three years – is far greater.
In June of 2019, customs officials at the Arturo Merino Benitez Airport seized 9,860 pills of MDMA hidden between the soles of seven pairs of shoes – all belonging to a Spanish citizen. The case was similar to another in February 2019, in which another European passenger was apprehended with 27,122 MDMA pills in the double bottom of his suitcase. Police have responded by increasing monitoring at airports because they believe synthetic drugs primarily enter Chile from Europe and by air, said La Tercera quoting police sources.
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In fact, the anti-drug unit of the Attorney General's Office has identified three new routes central to ecstasy’s entry into Chile: direct mail from Europe (via the Netherlands or Spain), through packages from Colombia, or hidden inside vehicles that enter Chile through mountain-passes from Argentina.
And synthetic drugs are also being produced locally. Just this past year, InSight Crime reported on a lab in the port city of Antofagasta, importing raw material from Brazil to synthesize the hallucinogenic drug DMT, aka the ‘spirit molecule.’ As of October 2018, the Attorney General's Office had identified 15 drug laboratories, at least three of which were used for the production of synthetic drugs.
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There are several reasons why Chile is becoming a sought-after market for synthetic drug traffickers. Its middle class accounts for more than half the population, the average Chilean’s purchasing power is also growing, and it faces relatively little organized crime of its own. All this, coupled with its geographic location, has made it an ideal and close market for Latin American drug gangs.
The alarming rise in synthetic drug seizures shows the government has not been able to respond rapidly to contain this problem, although this may be changing. In September 2019, Chilean police scored a coup by taking down a ring of synthetic drug traffickers alongside their Argentine counterparts, part of a cooperation agreement signed almost a year earlier.
This approach is wise. Synthetic drug traffickers operate with a different modus operandi than cocaine or heroin dealers. Where the latter move drugs along well-established routes, the global distribution chain for synthetic drugs is varied. Much of the world’s MDMA and ecstasy comes from the Netherlands and Belgium, and is then smuggled into Latin America.
Once here, these drugs can easily be cut, modified or otherwise have their chemical composition altered. “Pink cocaine” found in Argentina and Uruguay or ecstasy pills stamped in the shape of US President Donald Trump are just some recent examples of the varied forms these drugs can take.