United Nations figures indicate coca cultivation and cocaine production in Latin America has dropped, but questions remain over the numbers, while signs drug cartels are increasingly diversifying into other products and illicit activities show there is little reason for optimism.
The most recent International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) says most indicators show the global cocaine market is in decline, with the cultivation of coca falling "considerably."
According to the report, the estimated 133,700 hectares of coca cultivated in South America in 2012 represents a 13 percent drop compared to the previous year and the lowest cultivation levels since 1999. Colombia registered a 25 percent reduction in hectares produced during that period, while Peru and Bolivia also saw decreases, the report says.
Heroin production, however, increased significantly on a global scale. In Guatemala, the INCB reported eradication of opium poppy tripled from under 500 hectares in 2007 to over 1,500 hectares in 2011. Mexican heroin seizures decreased in 2012, but opium seizures increased slightly, to around 1,471 kilos.
Latin American producers are responsible for 96 percent of heroin seized in the United States, according to a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) analysis cited in the report.
InSight Crime Analysis
The conclusions about cocaine cultivation and production drawn by the UNODC are debatable. International law enforcement sources consulted by InSight Crime were dubious about the UN's statistics. This data is also dependent on inconsistent factors, such as host nation reporting, satellite imagery, and shipment seizures. Meanwhile, cocaine producers are now employing more efficient methods, meaning declining cultivation does not necessarily equate to lower production.
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Even if cocaine production is going down, the simultaneous increase in world heroin production is one sign drug groups have merely diversified into other products. While major criminal groups in Colombia and Mexico were formerly largely empowered by the international cocaine trade, today's organizations have become involved in heroin and synthetic drug trafficking, as these drugs continue to gain popularity in the world's illicit drug market. A case in point is the heroin epidemic in Chicago, which US authorities have blamed on the Sinaloa Cartel.
These groups also increasingly control and profit from an array of other illicit enterprises, including illegal mining, contraband, extortion and micro-trafficking, meaning a decline in the cocaine market says little about the cash flow and continued power of criminal groups.