A series of seizures and drug raids across Latin America have revealed how previously niche high-strength marijuana products are establishing themselves within the region’s drug markets.
These products, known as “concentrates,” use mechanical or chemical separation techniques to create much more potent forms of marijuana by extracting high levels of the drug’s main psychoactive ingredient: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Hence, while the cheap, low-grade marijuana herb that is mass cultivated in Mexico and Paraguay tends to contain between 2 and 10 percent THC, these concentrated forms of marijuana contain anywhere between 20 to 30 percent – in the case of “hashish” or marijuana resin – and 60 to 90 percent – in the case of highly processed extracts like “THC oil” or “wax.”
The results are varied but combine to form a rapidly developing criminal economy. From the allegedly cartel-produced THC oil cruising the Mexican desert to the international hashish trafficking route through Paraguay’s main airport, these products are increasingly attractive to Latin American organized crime. Their low weight and high value make it easier to extract greater profits from the continent’s cheapest drug to manufacture.
Below, InSight Crime examines 5 countries at the forefront of this development.
In May, Mexican law enforcement dismantled a clandestine drug kitchen producing “wax” in the town of Ojos Negros, state of Baja California, according to local outlet Zeta Tijuana. It came the same month that authorities in Chihuahua state dismantled a poly-drug laboratory producing wax and THC oil.
Both raids were small, but they took place within a broader wave of Mexican organized crime awakening to the potential of high-strength marijuana products, according to the DEA’s 2020 National Drug Threat Assessment.
“In response to an increased demand for marijuana concentrate products in the United States, [transnational criminal organizations] in Mexico have begun producing and trafficking THC oil,” states the DEA report.
For example, “between May 2019 and January 2020, five seizures of THC oil occurred in Arizona’s west desert corridor, totaling 275 kilograms. In each case, backpackers were transporting the THC oil through Arizona’s west desert.”
This dynamic contrasts with the more traditional practice of using smugglers with backpacks to transport marijuana herb. However, according to a 2019 investigation by CBS5, the change made financial sense in several ways.
Not only did it represent an inherently more compact, high-value form of marijuana – like smuggling cocaine instead of coca leaves – but, in the aftermath of marijuana legalization and subsequent production in several US states, it also meant being able to process now-unwanted, lower-quality Mexican marijuana into a new commodity US consumers were demanding.
So far, its exact price remains unclear: CBS5 reported that roughly 115 kilograms of marijuana herb are converted into about 10 kilograms of crude THC oil, which once refined is worth between $80,000 and $100,000. Another US-based outlet put the price much higher: estimating that one 19kg bucket will, once processed and retailed in vaping cartridges, fetch up to $500,000.
There is also a smaller, less lucrative market for marijuana concentrates in Mexico. This year, kilos of hashish have been seized at Mexican airports, while Mexico City’s La Unión Tepito was already spotted selling both hashish and wax in 2018.
In June, Honduran authorities discovered yet another wax-processing kitchen in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, according to La Información.
The outlet reported that while the drug’s sale and consumption began several years ago, increased hospital admissions show its use has surged in 2021. InSight Crime was not able to verify this information.
Wax production facilities had certainly been discovered in the country since 2016, with corresponding microtrafficking groups that sold it identified by 2017. Back then, the drug was already fashionable, according to Yuri Mora, a spokesman for the Honduran Attorney General’s Office.
“Wax is being sold in the local market at 150 dollars a gram…[t]he Directorate investigated and verified that it is sold at electronic parties [organized by students] from middle and upper-class schools,” he told Mexico’s El Universal in 2016.
However, unlike in the United States or Mexico, the drug’s apparently astronomical price means it is doubtful to expand its customer base in Honduras beyond the rich young person or marijuana connoisseur, relegating it to the periphery of national drug markets.
To a lesser extent, the same is likely true for hashish, which, while reportedly being one of the most popular “synthetic” drugs in Honduras, has no proximate production zones or huge regional marijuana markets to rely on.
Peru and Chile
On July 13, Peru’s La República reported that national law enforcement had made their first discovery of a wax-processing drug kitchen in Santiago de Surco, a district of Lima.
General Jorge Angulo of the Peruvian National Police told the press that the chemist involved traveled to Chile to learn how to make the marijuana concentrate and that a gram of wax cost around $25 in Lima, according to the outlet.
However, while it may have been the first Peruvian production facility dismantled, it was likely not the first wax trafficking case – even if authorities did not realize it.
In September 2020, two people were detained on the Chilean border after crossing from Peru: customs found over a kilo of “hashish” hidden in three of their shampoo bottles, reported La República. The drug was a “viscous...yellowish emulsion” – completely different from the brown compressed solid that is hashish.
Therefore, it is much more likely this drug was wax, making it possibly the first such seizure in Chile’s history. By March 2021, Chilean authorities would announce their country’s first-ever case of THC oil trafficking when they dismantled a group importing drug-filled vaping cartridges from the US state of California.
The same month, the Chilean Navy made its largest drug seizure in 20 years when it discovered, among other drugs, 442 kilograms of high-strength marijuana, including wax, on a Peruvian fishing vessel. In April, the Chilean region of Concepción would announce the second-ever nationwide seizure of THC oil, again in vaping cartridges.
Chile has long been a key destination for South American marijuana traffickers, and its drug consumers already demand the high-strength “cripy” marijuana herb grown in Colombia. It appears to be a market of great potential for foreign producers of marijuana concentrates, be they in Peru or the US.
In July, Paraguayan officials at Silvio Pettirosi International Airport searched a package from California containing a portable stove. In it, they discovered five packets of high-THC marijuana “with a pasty consistency and dark coloration,” as well as “added fruit flavorings.”
It may have appeared to be a mundane customs confiscation. Still, airport authorities had made a nearly identical seizure the month before: over 3 kilograms of so-called “lemon juice” marijuana hidden in cans of peaches from California. In November 2020, the same thing again: at least 17 kilograms of “VIP marijuana” and “lemon juice” in cans of peaches from California.
This in addition to the much-acclaimed Operation “Gorilla Blue” in September 2020, which targeted a group operating indoor marijuana grows in the cities of Asunción and Fernando de la Mora that produced what authorities named “VIP Marijuana”: a genetically modified strain of marijuana with THC levels of 20 to 30 percent.
Paraguay is among the world’s top marijuana herb producers, catering as it does to both the vast Brazilian and Argentinean markets. However, due to apparent market demand in Brazil, hashish production has recently emerged in the country’s border state of Amambay, which already produces comparatively high-THC marijuana herb, and kilos of hashish are now increasingly seized alongside bales of herb. Cocaine processing laboratories on the Paraguayan border have even been found to be simultaneously manufacturing hashish.
Hashish’s attraction for producers is understandable given Paraguay’s anti-drug authorities claim hashish sells in Paraguay for $500 per kilo compared to $30 per kilo of traditional marijuana herb. That price will multiply several times once it crosses the border and is broken down for retail sale.
As for the Californian “lemon juice” marijuana, Paraguayan authorities claim its cost “exceeds that of cocaine,” and the country’s ABC News cites law enforcement when pricing it at $4000 per kilo. The drug’s final destination appears to be Brazil or Argentina, and authorities believe the repeated airport seizures indicate tests by traffickers to establish an air route to the notorious Tri-Border Area.