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 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.
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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.
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.