Cocaine is once again front and center in Mexico's drug trafficking industry. In contrast to other illicit drugs such as marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine, the amount of cocaine seized by Mexico's army skyrocketed during the first half of 2015.
The quantity of cocaine confiscated by Mexico's army during the first six months of 2015 -- almost 2,800 kilos -- is a more than 340 percent increase from how much was seized during the same period last year.
Prior to this year, cocaine seizures by Mexico's army had been on the decline. The apparent drop in demand for cocaine in the United States and reduced coca cultivation in South America were the reasons given for the decline in seizures registered by Mexican authorities during 2013 and 2014. But the 2015 data shows a different story.
The cocaine seizures registered by the National Secretary of Defense (Sedena) during the first semester of 2015 exceeds the amount confiscated in all of 2014, 2012, and 2010. It is also the second-highest amount of cocaine seized during a six-month period in the past eight years.
Jorge Chabat, an expert on organized crime and professor at the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE), told Animal Politico that the notable increase in cocaine seizures should be analyzed carefully.
“This could be due to a number of different factors,” Chabat said. “It could be the result of more cocaine in circulation, which increases the possibility of seizures. It could also be that the cartels are moving decoy shipments, or have changed their drug routes. Further investigation is necessary.”
Chabat did note, however, that with the legalization of marijuana, cocaine will gradually take on the role of being the most profitable source of income for the cartels.
Cocaine on the Rise
Sedena's current statistics show that a total of 2,797 kilos of cocaine was confiscated between January and June 2015. (See Animal Politico's graph below) This figure is equivalent to 40 percent of the total amount of cocaine seized since President Enrique Peña Nieto took office in December 2012. These seizures have been conducted as a part of the government's anti-drug trafficking campaign, in which Mexico's army and other federal security forces have participated.
There are no up-to-date statistics for the amount of cocaine seized by the Federal Police or the Attorney General's Office (PGR) so far in 2015. Nevertheless, the army typically accounts for between 70 and 80 percent of all drugs seized by Mexican authorities.
Amount of cocaine seized by Mexico's army, 2008-2015. Graph by Animal Politico
It should be noted that while Mexico's domestic cocaine market is not negligible, investigations indicate that over 80 percent of cocaine trafficked by the cartels is destined for the United States. Some analysts have estimated that the price of a kilo of cocaine at the US-Mexico border fluctuates between $12,000 and $15,000, which means the 2015 seizures represent a loss of up to $40 million for the cartels.
Nonetheless, as Chabat notes, in many cases seized drug shipments could serve as a decoy in order to enable safer passage for larger and more profitable loads.
Sedena's registry reveals that between December 2006 and June 2015, the army seized 45,195 kilos of cocaine. While there is no state-specific data for 2015, through last year Tamaulipas had the highest concentration of cocaine seizures with 13,543 kilos, followed by Sonora (8,448 kilos) and Chiapas (4,734 kilos).
Cocaine the Outlier
The notable increase in cocaine seizures so far in 2015 has not been paralleled by higher seizure figures for other illicit drugs. During the first six months, the army seized 452,000 kilos of marijuana, or about the same amount that was confiscated during the same period over the past two years.
With respect to heroin, the army seized 53 kilos during the first semester of 2015, which means the institution is on track to seize over 50 percent less than in 2014. But most noteworthy of all is the dramatic reduction in methamphetamine seizures. The 2,236 kilos seized during the first half of 2015 represent just 14 percent of the methamphetamine confiscated by the army in all of 2014.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
The United Nations' 2015 World Drug Report, published in late June and using data from 2013, finds that cocaine trafficking has stabilized, and in fact has decreased in some parts of North and South America.
According to the UN study, the 120,000 hectares of coca eradicated in Colombia and Peru in 2013 is the smallest amount for this crop since 1990. This decline is one of the reasons given for the decrease in cocaine seizures registered by Mexican authorities during the past two years.
Federal authorities consulted by Animal Politico said there there are open investigations into the reasons behind the increased cocaine seizures this year, but that no conclusions have been drawn.
Hiding cocaine shipments is nothing new for Mexico's drug cartels. Since the 1980s, there have been cases of cocaine ingested via capsules or hidden in dolls and plaster figures. But each year, methods for hiding the drugs have become more sophisticated.
For example, Mexican soldiers confiscated several boxes of donuts last January that, instead of having sugar, contained pulverized cocaine. Cocaine packages have also previously been found inside frozen sharks.
The Sinaloa Cartel has been a pioneer in camouflaging drug shipments. In addition to the two cases mentioned above, authorities in Culiacan found 4,000 cucumbers and plantains filled with cocaine in February 2014. On May 1 of last year, authorities in Puerto Progreso, Yucatan, discovered a container holding four electrical transformers that contained diluted cocaine mixed in with almost 2,360 liters of insulating oil.
SEE ALSO: Sinaloa Cartel News and Profile
Another seizure on July 27 of this year was made after authorities found cocaine mixed in with 24,000 kilos of blackberry pulp that had been shipped from Colombia. It is not yet known how much cocaine was being trafficked, since a chemical process must be conducted to completely extract the drug from the pulp.
Chabat suggests the camouflaging of cocaine is a practice that will continue to evolve. “There are many ways of mixing cocaine with other legal products, which makes it difficult to detect,” Chabat says. “Cocaine is surely being diluted and mixed with other products that we just don't know about. It is an industry that is literally constantly innovating.”