A new report about Colombian nationals detained in China on drug charges calls attention to an emerging consumer market that would appear to be highly appealing to Colombia's criminal groups.
An investigation by El Espectador revealed that there are currently 56 Colombians being held in Chinese prisons for drug-related crimes, according to data from the Foreign Affairs Ministry. In total, over 12,800 Colombians are currently behind bars in a foreign country, with 56 percent being held on drug charges.
According to the lawyer Blanca Enríquez, who has represented several Colombians detained abroad, many of the suspects are actually victims who have been tricked or forced into breaking the law.
The case of Sara Galeano has recently turned media attention towards the fate of such detainees. Galeano was arrested in China for carrying drugs in 2009 and sentenced to 18 years in prison. This year, it emerged that Galeano may be deported back to Colombia on humanitarian grounds due to a chronic illness.
In another example, 56-year-old Luis Pérez from Quindío department was arrested in February 2013 for flying a suitcase full of drugs to China after his family was threatened, and was sentenced to death seven months later.
InSight Crime Analysis
Colombian criminal groups making what appear to be inroads into the Chinese drug market is hardly a surprise. With a population of over 1.3 billion, a rising middle class, growing drug consumption and a narcotics industry worth an estimated $82 billion, China is surely an attractive market for Colombian groups. Facilitating this flow are strong legitimate business ties: China is currently Colombia's second biggest trade partner.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Criminal Migration
There are certainly signs that cocaine trafficking to China is increasing. Annual cocaine seizures in Asia tripled between the time periods of 1998 - 2008 and 2009-2014, according to data from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2016 World Drug Report (pdf). China is one of the two main Asian destinations for cocaine.
Colombian as well as Mexican drug traffickers have increasingly been looking to tap into foreign markets, where risks are greater but potential profits are higher.
It should be noted, however, that statistics on foreign arrests are not always a reliable indicator of drug trafficking dynamics. As the arrests in China illustrate, most of the individuals arrested abroad on drug charges are what are known as mules, who occupy the lowest runs of the drug supply chain. It's still uncertain to what extent Colombian criminal groups are moving cocaine shipments into China in bulk.