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Why Did Latin America's Drug Trade Thrive During COVID-19?

ARGENTINA / 5 JUL 2022 BY ALESSANDRO FORD EN

A recent report on worldwide drug production, trafficking and consumption during the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the resilience of Latin America’s cocaine trade and the region's expanding role in producing other types of drugs.

In late June, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) published the World Drug Report 2022, a five-part series providing a comprehensive overview of global drug trends between 2019 and 2021, including how the Latin America drug trade overcame international lockdowns to soar to ever-greater heights.

Despite the pandemic, Latin America continues to dominate the global cocaine trade, with the US and Europe still driving consumption. Transit routes for South American cocaine are also expanding further afield, from South Africa to the Middle East.

Meanwhile, Mexican methamphetamine has gone from feeding the North American market to reaching consumers in Europe, East Asia and Oceania. And with the region's opioid sector also evolving and potent marijuana crops spreading across South America, all signs suggest the coronavirus pandemic has done little to abate the Latin America narcotics machine.

Below, InSight Crime outlines four takeaways from the 2022 World Drug Report.

Cocaine: Emerging Markets in Africa and Asia

Despite travel restrictions and border closures around the world, the first years of the coronavirus pandemic have seen South American cocaine flood markets worldwide, in some cases reaching new destinations to meet increasing global demand for the drug.

Some regions remained major consumption hubs — notably the US, Canada, the European Union and Australia.

SEE ALSO: What Lockdown? World’s Cocaine Traffickers Sniff at Movement Restrictions

But several former transit points have also become emerging markets, notes the UNODC. This is particularly true of the West African route to Europe, where multiple countries have made bumper cocaine seizures since mid-2021, including Cape Verde, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso and Niger.

"The number of drug users in Africa is projected to rise in the next decade by as much as 40 per cent, simply because of demographic changes,” warns the report. Certain African countries have even become maritime or aerial cocaine transit points on drug routes heading to Asia, most notably South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia, according to the UNODC.

Furthermore, in Asia, cocaine shipments that once transited en route to Oceania are now staying in countries like Malaysia and Hong Kong, where roughly 90 percent of Asian cocaine seizures occurred in 2019, according to the report.

The global area under coca cultivation remained largely unchanged in 2020, while overall output grew by 11 percent, according to the UNODC, fueled by skyrocketing cocaine production in the Andes.

Brazil has become the main departure point for cocaine heading to African and Asian markets, the UNDOC notes, part of the country's continuing transformation into a world trade center for drugs.

Meth: Mexico Exports Worldwide

Throughout the pandemic, Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel has remained the undisputed leader of methamphetamine production and trafficking, churning out ton after ton of the drug to satisfy ever-growing demand in North America.

The US is at the heart of the international meth trade, in 2020 accounting for nearly half of worldwide interdictions and seizing roughly 140 tons of methamphetamine products — more than the next four countries combined, according to the UNODC.

Those four countries — Thailand, Myanmar, China and Iran — are among Asia's biggest meth producers, and may now be experiencing competition for Mexican traffickers as they increasingly look to the lucrative Asia market to boost profits.

Methamphetamine mostly produced in Mexico, has taken over the Australian market, climbing from 14 percent of seizures in 2011 to 70 percent by 2020, as per the UNODC report.

Meanwhile, Europe has emerged as a transit and destination point for meth sent from Mexico, and there are also reports that Mexican meth chemists have worked with Dutch MDMA producers. Back in Mexico, meth has seeped into the country's drug markets, fueling domestic consumption.

Opioids: Fentanyl Reigns Supreme

Like methamphetamine, Mexican-produced fentanyl is streaming across the US border, conquering the US opioid market and increasingly being cut into meth and cocaine, elevating the risk of overdoses, according to the UNODC report.

Low-level dealers throughout the region are dramatically reducing the purity of their drug doses before adding a few powerful grains of fentanyl for physical effect, in turn boosting profits, UNODC notes.

"Synthetic opioids [thereby] contribute significantly to the increased number of overdose deaths attributed to cocaine and other psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine," reports the UNODC.

SEE ALSO: Synthetic Drugs Flood California Crossing of US-Mexico Border

Fentanyl is also appearing south of the border. In February 2022, a drug distributor in a poor barrio in Argentina decided to cut his cocaine with carfentanil, an anesthetic used to sedate elephants. Dozens of consumers were hospitalized and 24 died.

In July 2021, Colombian authorities narrowly avoided a similar incident, catching a distribution gang that was adding fentanyl to a synthetic drug similar to MDMA, known as 2CB. Other recent incidents of fentanyl contamination have involved samples of Uruguayan LSD and Mexican heroin.

By contrast, the regional heroin trade limps on, largely gutted by fentanyl's precipitous rise. The UNODC has not been able to acquire new data on the drug since 2018, underscoring its decline. The report estimates, however, that Mexico continues to manufacture 6 percent of illegal heroin worldwide, while Colombia and Guatemala both contribute less than 1 percent each.

Marijuana: Higher THC Levels, Internal Destinations

Latin American marijuana production has also weathered the pandemic, maintaining high levels of production and in some areas even increasing the potency of cannabis crops.

Latin America and the Caribbean accounted for 37 percent of global marijuana herb seizures in 2020, according to the UNODC report, a small increase from the previous year. But these figures did not include Mexico — a major marijuana producer that UNODC groups with North America — meaning Latin America's share of global cannabis seizures is likely much higher.

As such, nearly half of the top 20 marijuana seizing countries came from the region. In 2020, Brazil seized nearly 550 tons of marijuana, the third-highest amount worldwide after India and the US. Colombia was fourth, Paraguay sixth, Argentina eighth and Mexico ninth; Ecuador, Chile and Jamaica came in at 16th, 19th and 20th respectively.

A key development across both years has been the increase in potency of Latin American marijuana, in line with global trends, thanks to an increase in the levels of the drug’s main psychoactive ingredient: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).

This is most visible in highly potent THC products arriving in the region, such as marijuana resin, also known as “hashish,” or stronger concentrates, such as “wax” and THC oil. Hashish now travels to Brazil from both neighboring Paraguay and distant West Africa, while Mexican THC oil cruises the desert to the US.

UNODC data shows that, in sheer volume, Colombia now competes with Paraguay as a superpower of the Latin American marijuana trade. Agriculturally-engineered plantations cover the green hills in the department of Cauca, where criminal groups cultivate a powerful marijuana strain known as “cripy.” This high-octane product feeds both burgeoning domestic consumption and major regional markets in Brazil and Chile, as well as the Caribbean region.

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