Cocaine seizure figures from Latin America in 2022 suggest traffickers are varying their routes to avoid detection, as authorities get a better grip on spotting trafficking through maritime container ports.
As the consumer market for cocaine continues to expand, supply has kept pace, as evidenced by last year’s high seizure figures.
Ports participating in the Container Control Programme (CCP) of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which aims to help countries improve port security, seized 271 tons of cocaine in 2022, a full 100 tons more than the year before.
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“And already in 2023, we see that there is quite an increase of trafficking,” Bob Van den Berghe, deputy head of the program, told InSight Crime.
Here, InSight Crime breaks down last year’s cocaine seizures across Latin America and what they tell us about regional drug trafficking trends.
All three of South America’s major cocaine-producing nations saw elevated seizure figures last year, propelled largely by record or near-record rates of drug production.
In Colombia, the world’s top cocaine producer, authorities seized 352 tons of cocaine hydrochloride in 2022 and were involved in the seizure of another 318 tons outside Colombian territory, amounting to a record total of 671 tons. Compared to 2021, seizures within Colombia decreased, while seizures outside its national territory slightly increased.
Improved anti-trafficking measures such as those implemented in the port of Santa Marta, where every shipping container gets scanned, may partly help explain the increase in seizures. But Colombia’s record levels of coca cultivation and cocaine production are key factors.
Year-on-year coca cultivation increases have also been recorded in Peru and Bolivia, where seizures reflected the persistence of high levels of coca cultivation in both countries.
In Peru, authorities seized more than 28 tons of cocaine hydrochloride, an increase of more than 50% compared to the previous year. Authorities there also seized an additional 28 tons of coca base, representing a slight increase from last year, according to the National Institute of Statistics and Information (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática - INEI). With the country’s recent coca boom unlikely to be curtailed amid a paralyzing political crisis, the upward trend could continue this year.
In Bolivia, coca production levels didn’t see big changes last year, and neither did cocaine seizure statistics. Authorities confiscated 10 tons of cocaine hydrochloride and another 10 tons of coca base, representing a modest increase in hydrochloride seizures and a modest decrease in coca base seizures, compared to the same period in 2021.
Main Transit Countries
The main cocaine transit countries are all close to producer countries and handle significant cargo traffic. Traffickers took advantage of these factors in 2022, with seizure statistics suggesting substantial amounts of drugs continue to flow through traditional departure points as well as some new ones.
In Ecuador, authorities seized 201 tons of drugs in 2022, around 90% of which was cocaine, according to El Universo. The figure represents a slight decrease when compared with the previous year’s record haul of 210 tons but it is still substantially more than the 128 tons seized in 2020 and the 82 tons seized in 2019.
Increasing drug flows through Ecuador have brought increasing violence. The country’s homicide rate almost doubled in 2022 for the second year in a row and police attribute the majority of these murders to clashes among warring drug trafficking organizations, Crisis Group reported.
Panama saw a record haul of 138 tons of drugs in 2022, of which almost 109 tons was cocaine, according to EFE. This marked a 10-ton increase over 2021 in terms of overall drug seizures, despite a slight drop in container volume in the country, signaling that the country’s ports are becoming increasingly attractive to traffickers.
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Brazil reportedly seized 96 tons of cocaine nationwide last year, representing little change from the prior few years. But the geographic distribution of the seizures illustrates how traffickers have diversified routes in response to increased scrutiny.
"In Brazil, in the beginning, we saw most of the seizures took place in the port of Santos, where we now see that seizures are taking place in ports such as Paranaguá and Salvador, which are smaller ports,” the UNODC’s Van den Berghe said.
In Venezuela, where official statistics can be of questionable validity, authorities reported seizing over 46 tons of drugs in 2022, though it isn’t clear exactly how much of that was cocaine. The 2022 figure was slightly less than the 51 tons seized in the same period the year before. The increase could be driven in part by Venezuela’s development from being a transit country for cocaine to also becoming a production country.
Mexico’s army and navy confiscated 41.8 tons of cocaine last year, more than double the 15.1 tons seized in 2021. This marked the largest proportional increase in seizures by any major transit country.
The jump in seizures may be due partly to a renewed focus on port security. Midway through 2021, Mexico handed control of its ports to the navy following allegations of corruption in the previous, civilian-run system. Additionally, the country may be tightening controls as it faces pressure from the United States to crack down on the fentanyl trade.
Costa Rica recorded a substantial drop in cocaine seizures in 2022, confiscating or helping to confiscate 33.1 tons compared to 61.7 tons the year before. Authorities linked the reduction to bolstered intelligence and enforcement operations, suggesting traffickers are varying their routes toward North America.
Secondary Transit Countries
Secondary transit countries generally saw greater variation in annual cocaine seizure statistics compared with production and main transit countries.
Some of these big fluctuations are due to busts of large amounts of drugs contained in a single load.
Van den Berghe said traffickers are increasingly sending larger quantities to Europe in single shipments than had previously been the case.
“Contaminated containers with cocaine are being sent in much larger ’one-go’ containers,” he said.
El Salvador seized 12 tons in 2022, according to official figures reported by La Prensa Gráfica. This wasn’t a huge increase from the 10.9 tons seized in 2021, but it marks a massive leap when compared to the figures prior to 2021, when the government launched an intense crackdown on criminal activity. Just 1.9 tons were seized in 2020 and only 99 kilograms the year before that.
The other Northern Triangle countries have seen declining figures. Guatemala’s 5.9-ton seizure amounted to a little over half of the 11 tons seized the year before and less than a third of the amount confiscated in 2019. Honduras’ seizure of 7.1 tons of cocaine was also a drop from the 10.4 tons confiscated in 2021, as reported by national newspaper El País.
Chile’s seizure statistics in 2022 suggested a connection between increasing drug trafficking and escalating violence. Authorities there seized 3.6 tons of cocaine hydrochloride in 2022, compared to 2.3 tons in 2021. The amount of coca base confiscated barely changed, with 5.8 tons being seized, compared with 6 tons in 2022. The increase in drug trafficking through the country was partly responsible for murders increasing by a third last year.
Authorities in Uruguay seized 4.5 tons of cocaine in 2022, and another 653 kilograms of coca base, for a total of 5.1 tons. This marks an increase from the 2 tons of cocaine confiscated in 2021, but a decrease compared to the 1.2 tons of coca base seized that year. Increasing vigilance among its neighbors has seen Uruguay gain a more prominent role in the cocaine trade in recent years and its government has accepted that the “porous” border it shares with Argentina and Brazil means Montevideo has become a drug trafficking base of operations.
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Authorities in Paraguay seized just over 3 metric tons of cocaine in 2022, the same amount as in 2021. The country remains a cocaine corridor through which cocaine arrives to Brazil from Bolivia and serves as a base for Brazilian traffickers and gangs.
On South America’s northeastern shoulder, French Guiana and Guyana both saw increases in seizures, while Suriname saw a decrease. As of mid-September, authorities in French Guiana had confiscated 2.4 tons, compared with 1.3 tons seized by customs during the entire previous year. The Guyanese Customs Anti Narcotic Unit (CANU), responsible for most of the country’s drug busts, seized 121 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride, tripling 2021 seizures. In Suriname, authorities confiscated 1.4 tons of cocaine between January and mid-December 2022, compared to 2.1 tons in 2021.
The small amount of cocaine trafficking in these countries makes it hard to analyze the significance of year-to-year shifts in seizure statistics. The overall tendency of drug traffickers to vary their routes is likely to have a more significant impact on the figures than actions by individual governments.
Most Caribbean countries do not provide annual cocaine seizure figures. International cooperation was responsible for much of last year’s cocaine seizures around the Caribbean. A seven-day joint operation between Interpol and the Caribbean Community Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (IMPACS) in September led to the seizure of more than 10 tons of cocaine in the Caribbean. Joint efforts of Colombian, Dutch, and US authorities led to the seizure of an additional 9.7 tons of cocaine in the Caribbean sea last year.
The Dominican Republic, where corruption issues have helped fuel its development as a cocaine hub, saw an increase in seizures last year. Authorities there found over 27 tons of cocaine, compared to 19 tons in 2021 and 10 tons in 2020. The trend of sending cocaine from the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico has shown no sign of abating. There were multiple large seizures at the US territory’s ports and near its coast throughout last year and continuing into 2023. Border officials in Puerto Rico ended up seizing more than 11 tons in 2022.
Jamaican authorities made two exceptionally large cocaine seizures last year of around 500 kilograms each. The two busts alone almost equaled the previous year’s total of 1.2 tons and far outstripped 2020’s total of 356 kilograms. As activity at Kingston’s ports increases, more routes and possibilities open up for traffickers to ship cocaine via Jamaica. Early indications suggest 2023 may be a record year, with authorities confiscating 1.5 tons in January in one of the country’s largest-ever seizures.
2022 data for transit countries Argentina, Nicaragua, and Belize has yet to be published.