Report Highlights Effects of Colombia Cocaine Boom in US, LatAm

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An annual US report on drug trafficking worldwide illustrates drastically increased cocaine availability in the United States and a shift in global trafficking trends, which correspond to a possibly record-breaking peak in coca production in Colombia.

The US State Department on March 1 presented Congress with its yearly breakdown of drug trafficking trends, the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR). (A copy of the report is embedded at the bottom of this article.)

The 2017 report strengthens indications that the amount of cocaine flowing globally has increased dramatically, based on recent US government coca cultivation estimates. But the INCSR also suggests that real levels of cocaine heading out of the Andean region are far higher than has been suggested.

Firstly, the report states that Guatemala sees around 1,000 metric tons of cocaine cross its borders per year, the “great majority” destined for the United States. Total global cocaine flow should therefore be considerably higher, especially considering the vast amounts that are trafficked to Europe. In comparison, the latest UN estimates on global cocaine production are of 746 to 943 metric tons in 2014, while the United States estimates a total of 1,130 metric tons were produced in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia in 2015.

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But even this looks likely to reach unprecedented levels in the imminent future. According to sources consulted by El Tiempo in Washington, DC, the unpublished 2016 coca count for Colombia could be as high as 200,000 hectares. This would probably be the highest amount on record, based on both US and UN data. And it suggests that an astounding 1,360 metric tons of cocaine are produced in Colombia alone, based on UN estimates of cocaine yield per hectare.

Furthermore, the time lag between when coca is cultivated and when it finally hits the streets means that “the full impact of this surge in coca cultivation likely remains to materialize,” the INCSR reads.

Cocaine Use Up in the United States

While the ongoing US opioid epidemic was at the forefront of the INCSR’s release, the report supported fears that the continuing explosion in coca bush cultivation has also had strong repercussions farther north.

“There are troubling early signs that cocaine use and availability is on the rise in the United States for the first time in nearly a decade,” the document reads. It then cites increasing coca cultivation in Colombia, adding that “this surge in production may be having effects within the United States.”

Cocaine use in the United States is indeed rising. First-time users apparently surged 61 percent between 2013 and 2015, while the number of people who died of cocaine overdoses rose 55 percent between 2012 to 2015 to a total of 6,800 deaths, according to a December 2016 report. (See graphic below)

This raises the perpetual question of whether suppliers or consumers are responsible for the drug’s proliferation, and some observers have been quick to blame Colombian production for ramping up cocaine use further north.

Most important, however, is how this will be addressed by government policies. Although the new US administration aims to adopt strong-armed tactics to prevent drugs from entering the country, it has also demonstrated a willingness to tackle domestic consumption as a public health issue.

Drug consumption in the United States is not the only cause for concern, as growing consumer markets within Latin America have been strengthening local criminal organizations. The INCSR suggests drug use is increasing in major transhipment countries such as El Salvador, Panama, Belize, Argentina and Brazil.

Shifting Routes

Another indicator of greater cocaine flow to the United States is the steep rise in seizures by countries in Central America and Mexico, a region which sees the passage of some 90 percent of the cocaine heading to the US market, according to the INCSR.

This rise has mostly occurred in countries with longer Pacific coastlines. Guatemala, for example, saw a record 18.5 metric tons of cocaine seized in 2016. The report added that the discovery of the first ever semi-submersible to be constructed in Guatemala suggested that “drug trafficking organizations in Guatemala are becoming more sophisticated.” The discovery of the maritime vessel also suggested a departure from the standard drug trafficking modus operandi in the country, which is mostly “overland.”

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El Salvador displayed a comparable trend in 2016 when around 12.2 metric tons of cocaine were seized, or more than four times the amount confiscated in 2015.

In Mexico, cocaine seizures rose 183 percent to 10.2 metric tons between April 2014 and September 2015, and seizures of methamphetamine, opium gum and marijuana also increased substantially. However, more recent data from the Mexican government shows declining seizure trends for all of these categories of drugs in the first half of 2016.

Costa Rican authorities seized a total of 24.5 metric tons of cocaine last year, a 44 percent increase over 2015. Panama saw a slight rise in cocaine seizures.

These patterns apparently reflect the evolving operations of Colombian crime syndicates. As InSight Crime has pointed out in the past, these groups appear to be shifting their routes to the Pacific coast, partly in response to a government crackdown on drug traffickers operating in the Caribbean region.

Over the past few years, the proportion of seizures made in Colombia’s Pacific departments compared to the rest of the country jumped from 21 percent in 2014 to 44 percent in 2016. (See graphic below)

Drug-laden semi-submersibles of the kind found in Guatemala appear to have been gaining popularity in Colombia’s Pacific region, with a “historic” numbers confiscated in the country in 2016, according to El Tiempo.

This current flux could place added strain on interdiction authorities in Central America, as well as push up local cocaine usage as more cocaine is available on the ground — a phenomenon that has been exemplified in key transit countries like Brazil and Argentina. Adding to this is the fact that drug traffickers often pay local “sub-contracted” groups in product rather than in cash, which has sparked turf wars over domestic drug sales in numerous Latin American countries.

And as is already the case not only in Guatemala, but notably in Panama and Costa Rica as well, these local gangs will likely grow in sophistication as their countries gain importance along these strategic drug routes.

The US State Department’s 2017 INCSR, Volume 1:

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