Is Colombia Still a Major Player in the US Heroin Market?

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The US government estimates that heroin production has sharply declined in Colombia over the past decade, yet the United Nations claims the country remains the primary supplier of the drug for the US market. So which is it?

The picture is confusing, beginning with the most recent World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). In the report, the UN said Colombia continued to be reported by US officials as the main supplier of heroin to the United States.

This assertion draws into question other data compiled by the UN and the US showing that Mexico is now the region’s top heroin producer, manufacturing as much as 30 times more heroin than Colombia. Guatemala also appears to have surpassed Colombia in production, although reliable statistics are hard to obtain there as well.

Breaking down the pieces of this story illustrates just how deep the confusion is when it comes to estimates of heroin production and worldwide distribution.

Conflicting Estimates of Production

One important indicator in determining heroin production is the estimate of annual production and poppy cultivation that comes from the US and the UN. In one respect, the two entities coincide: after leading the region in heroin production during the 1990s, Colombia’s production of the drug has plummeted during the 2000s.

US figures placed Colombia’s heroin production potential in 2009 at 2.1 metric tons, less than half the estimated production potential three years earlier of 4.6 tons. In 2001, the country’s production potential was 11 metric tons. For its part, the UNODC estimated the country’s 2012 production potential at just one ton.

However, while they agree on the general trend, a closer look at the data reveals some important differences between the US and the UN estimates, in particular regarding the number of hectares of poppy cultivated and their evaluations of the Colombian government’s eradication efforts.

In 1995, there were 5,226 hectares of opium poppy — the primary material for heroin — grown in Colombia, according to the UNODC. In 2009, the body estimated just 356 hectares. However, the US State Department claimed Colombia was still growing 1,100 hectares of poppy in 2009, three times the number reported by the UNODC.

heroin cultivosWith regards to poppy eradication, UN figures say the number of hectares destroyed fell from 3,466 in 1995 to 546 in 2009, peaking in the year 2000, when 9,254 hectares were eradicated. According to the US, these figures dropped further to 302 hectares of poppy eradicated in 2011.

Estimates produced by these bodies have been criticized in numerous circles, with many decrying that politics too often trump science. Nonetheless, there are also geographical challenges to making accurate estimates of poppy cultivation. Most poppy is grown high up in the mountains in the departments of Nariño, Cauca, Tolima and Huila, and is much more dispersed than the country’s coca crops, making it more difficult to monitor or target.

This could help to explain the fact that in 2007, then-Defense Minister and current President Juan Manuel Santos claimed authorities had eradicated all the country’s poppy, while that same year, the governor of Nariño estimated some 1,000 hectares of poppy were still being grown in that department alone. The following year, authorities reported eradicating 381 hectares of poppy.

Seizure Data: Further Discrepancies

Heroin seizures are the second major indicator we can use to help us determine how much heroin is being produced in Colombia. This too, however, shows discrepancies. According to US numbers, Colombian authorities seized 468 kilos in 2012 and destroyed one heroin laboratory; 130 kilos were seized in the country in 2011 and two heroin laboratories destroyed, with another 230 kilos seized in a joint operation in Costa Rica; 367.2 kilos were seized in 2010 and two heroin laboratories destroyed, and 740 kilos were seized in 2009. The country’s two biggest-ever heroin seizures took place in 2009: one of 97.4 kilos in Buesaco, Nariño, and one of 131 kilos in the port of Barranquilla.

The UNODC, meanwhile, says four tons of heroin were seized in Colombia between 2007 and 2011 — a figure significantly greater than the totals reported by the US State Department for that period — and that the total estimated production potential during that same period was six tons. As the UNODC states, “This would indicate a very high seizure rate, which would leave only a small amount of heroin for local consumption and export.”UNODC Heroin

This year’s seizure figures have not yet been released, and arrests that have occurred have mainly led to relatively small heroin seizures, but do give us some notion of who is currently involved in the trade and where. The most recent bust was December 2, with eight suspects arrested and two kilos of heroin seized in the northern departments of Norte de Santander, Santander, Cordoba, Sucre and Guajira, as well as Bogota, for cocaine and heroin trafficking. The group was allegedly linked to the Urabeños, acquired its drugs in Antioquia, and shipped them off the northern coast in go-fast boats.

In September, 11 suspects were arrested for heroin and cocaine production and trafficking, most in Norte de Santander. Others were arrested in Barranquilla and in Popayan, the capital of the southwest department of Cauca, where the network bought the heroin before shipping it up north and out through Venezuela. During the operation, 39.6 kilos of heroin were seized.

A network dismantled in May allegedly bought product from the Sixth Front of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), also in Nariño, where the guerilla group is believed to control a large portion of heroin production. The group then transported some heroin overland to Cucuta — the capital of Norte de Santander — and some to Bogota, before sending it to the United States. In March, authorities dismantled another group alleged to have bought heroin from the FARC and the Rastrojos in southwest Colombia before shipping it north.

White Powder and Black Tar

One explanation for the perception that Colombian heroin continues to dominate the US market could stem from the type of heroin that Colombia introduced into that market. The emergence of Colombia as the top heroin supplier for the US in the 1990s was facilitated by a number of factors, including the development of a white powder heroin that was up to 90 percent pure. This meant it could be snorted or smoked as well as injected, making it particularly appealing as the HIV epidemic emerged.

Since then, as Colombia’s reported poppy cultivation plummeted, Mexico’s nearly quadrupled, from 5,050 hectares in 1995 to 19,500 hectares in 2009. The key difference, historically, between Mexican and Colombian heroin — and one that gave Colombia the market edge in the US — was that Mexico’s product was the less pure, black tar variety.

However, Mexican heroin purity began to climb in the 1990s, and information from US sources suggests Mexicans are now producing a white powder variety similar to the Colombian product. This could be causing confusion over the origin of some heroin in the US market. In its most recent National Threat Assessment, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that Mexican traffickers were increasingly expanding into eastern and Midwestern US markets traditionally dominated by Colombian heroin, although it also suggested Mexican cartels were moving South American product, further muddying the waters over the origins of the heroin.

Diverse Routes

A diversity of routes used to traffic heroin could further help explain inconsistent estimates on how much is being moved. US officials reported in 2008 that a lot of Colombian heroin was leaving from the southwest Pacific port of Buenaventura in cargo shipments. This year arrests indicate a significant amount is taking northern routes out of Venezuela or off the north coast, with some of these groups simultaneously moving cocaine. There is also a good deal of heroin trafficked south, into Ecuador. From there it is placed on international flights. Little heroin seized annually in recent years — with the 131 kilo exception in 2009 — has reportedly been found at Colombian ports or airports, which could mean overland routes out of the country are gaining prominence. Cucuta, on the Venezuelan border, has also developed a domestic market for the drug, another sign it has become an important stop on the route.

It is clear production of heroin, as with cocaine, has undergone a decline since Colombia’s drug trafficking heyday; however, drug traffickers and producers in various parts of Latin America have shown a tremendous capacity to shift routes, methods and production centers to accommodate for government efforts to eradicate the trade. Considering the lack of clarity on the numbers, this could well be the case with Colombia’s heroin trade.

Colombia’s Continued Importance

Despite the numbers, there are signs Colombia continues to be a more important producer than official estimates indicate. According to an El Tiempo investigation published last year, Colombia’s heroin business is largely run by 28 “mini-cartels” consisting of as few as 15 people each. These groups purchase their product largely from the FARC in southwest Colombia — as seen with this year’s arrests — and use the services of groups such as the Rastrojos for protection on their trafficking routes.

One such group broken up by authorities in September 2012 was estimated by antinarcotics police to send 40 kilos of heroin out of the country each month with the help of Sinaloa Cartel contacts in Mexico. If this estimate is anywhere close to correct, it would mean they were trafficking nearly half a ton of heroin each year. Colombia’s heroin production would have to be far greater than currently estimated to supply each of the country’s heroin networks with even a fraction of this amount.

On the other hand, one of the groups dismantled this past spring was estimated to have sent only 60 kilos of morphine and heroin out of the country over the course of two years. The sizeable difference between these two figures draws both estimates into question, which brings us back to the UNODC’s World Drug Report, and the statement that sums up the problem with assesing Colombia’s role in heroin production and trafficking: “Continued inconsistency in the information available from the Americas on opiate production and flows makes an analysis of the situation difficult.”

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