HomeNewsLatAm Synthetic Drug Trade Booming: UNODC Report

LatAm Synthetic Drug Trade Booming: UNODC Report


Organized crime groups in Latin America continue to expand into illicit synthetic drug production, including mass manufacturing of methamphetamine and fentanyl in Mexico, and experiments with synthesizing party drugs in Brazil, a new report has found.

Synthetic drugs – which are made from chemicals rather than from psychoactive plants – are booming, according to the report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published in late October.

Drug groups have adapted accordingly, reducing the trafficking of marijuana and heroin while ramping up the smuggling of synthetics alongside cocaine. Meanwhile, a plethora of new compounds are being ordered online and delivered by mail.

The Globalization of Mexican Meth

Mexico is a world leader in methamphetamine production and trafficking.

The country's cartels have managed to outstrip global competitors in Myanmar, Nigeria and Afghanistan, with the Mexican product seized in the US averaging a purity level of 97 percent.

The reach of Mexican methamphetamine also continues to expand, as new markets for the drug open. Mexican product has been seized as far as South Korea and Australia. According to the report, shipping containers remain the favored trafficking method, with drugs concealed in heavy, rigid objects, such as marble or steel pipes. It is also often smuggled in air freight.

SEE ALSO: The United States is Now Meth Country

Mexican criminal groups have also been linked to methamphetamine production on other continents – a "super lab" was dismantled in Nigeria in 2016. Collaborations are ongoing between European and Mexican organized crime groups to move the drug across the Atlantic.

Mexican manufacturers are also providing expertise to European syndicates. Since 2019, at least 19 alleged Mexican methamphetamine "cooks" have been arrested in Belgium and the Netherlands, according to reporting by the Forbidden Stories project.

Rising alongside methamphetamine manufacturing in Mexico is fentanyl and its many analogs.

The production of the synthetic opioid is heavily concentrated in northern Mexico, using chemical precursors shipped from China and now India. It is trafficked primarily overland into the US in the form of counterfeit pills or in powder for mixing with other drugs.

At present, fentanyl use appears to be comparatively low in Latin America, but consumption is likely underreported since users may be taking it without knowing, according to the report. Fentanyl has been found in samples of Mexican heroin and Uruguayan LSD.

MDMA: Rising Potency, Local Production

Historically, Latin America's trade in MDMA – the psychoactive ingredient in the party drug known as ecstasy – has been tied to Europe. Criminals in the producing countries of Belgium and the Netherlands typically smuggled the drug to the region via airline passengers.

Brazil, Chile and Argentina were the main receiving countries. The trade was small in scale and rarely connected to organized crime. The groups involved restricted themselves to importing the drug and adulterating or "re-tableting" it for onward sale. Consumption across the region was relatively low throughout the early 2010s, according to a 2020 UNODC analysis.

More recently purity levels are rising and consumption has been increasing, mostly among high school and college students. In Europe, the average MDMA content of an ecstasy tablet rose 149 percent between 2009 and 2019. This more powerful MDMA soon began to arrive in Latin America, along with new forms of the drug, including crystalline MDMA.

SEE ALSO: Brazil's Santa Catarina Becoming Country's MDMA Hub

Now crime groups are experimenting with not just re-tableting imported MDMA but synthesizing it locally, according to the UNODC report.

A regional leader in this shift has been Brazil, where the UN reported the discovery of several such laboratories in 2019 and 2020. The UNODC's 2021 report now warns that traditional organized crime groups may enter the market, particularly in the Brazilian state of Santa Catarina, where an InSight Crime investigation in 2020 identified a flourishing international barter trade of cocaine for European MDMA.

New Trafficking Business Model

Except for methamphetamine, most synthetic drugs consumed in Latin America have historically come from Europe. Given their high potency, low weight and initial low consumption, synthetic drugs were primarily smuggled by airline passengers and to a lesser extent by mail, using social media or darknet to place orders.

After COVID-19 lockdowns in South America paralyzed air travel, mail and freight smuggling methods have become dominant, according to the UNODC report.

This may permanently reshape the dynamics of synthetic drug trafficking, as most governments in the region still lack the ability to scrutinize mail streams for synthetic drugs, and do not have the forensic capacity to test and identify new substances.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.


Related Content

MEXICO / 7 DEC 2021

A daring prison break in central Mexico was focused on freeing the leader of a relatively modest oil theft group,…


In Sinaloa, Mexico, chemicals used for methamphetamine production are damaging the environment and, it appears, the health of locals.


As Brazil works to maintain its dominance of the soybean market, it is facing an ascending challenge: a flood of…

About InSight Crime


Venezuela Coverage Receives Great Reception

27 MAY 2023

Several of InSight Crime’s most recent articles about Venezuela have been well received by regional media. Our article on Venezuela’s colectivos expanding beyond their political role to control access to…


InSight Crime's Chemical Precursor Report Continues

19 MAY 2023

For the second week in a row, our investigation into the flow of precursor chemicals for the manufacture of synthetic drugs in Mexico has been cited by multiple regional media…


InSight Crime’s Chemical Precursor Report Widely Cited


We are proud to see that our recently published investigation into the supply chain of chemical precursors feeding Mexico’s synthetic drug production has been warmly received.


InSight Crime’s Paraguay Election Coverage Draws Attention 

5 MAY 2023

InSight Crime looked at the various anti-organized crime policies proposed by the candidates in Paraguay’s presidential election, which was won on April 30 by Santiago Peña. Our pre-election coverage was cited…


InSight Crime Cited in OAS, CARICOM Reports

28 APR 2023

This week, InSight Crime’s work was cited nine times in a new report by the Organization of American States (OAS) titled “The Impact of Organized Crime on Women,…