Colombia Sees Booming Market for Synthetic Drugs at Home and Abroad

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Colombia authorities have dismantled a network of traffickers who hid the synthetic drug ketamine inside superhero figurines on their way to the United States, China, and other countries. The ketamine bust, one of a string of busts of its kind in Colombia, underscores the extent to which the market for synthetic drugs is booming, both at home and abroad.

A nearly yearlong investigation into the criminal network by the Cali police ended last month with the arrest of 15 people, Semana reported. The gang shipped the ketamine overseas, stuffing it in Hulk figurines destined for China, Mexico, the United States, Argentina, and Ecuador, police said. Up to 700 packets of the drug were hidden inside the dolls.

The ketamine originally came from Ecuador, according to the report, and was smuggled on buses to Colombia. The group also manufactured and sold other synthetic drugs, such as 2-CB, LSD, methamphetamines, and ecstasy.

These types of so-called designer party drugs have also found a sizable market in Colombia as well.

SEE ALSO: Colombia News and Profiles

In October, Colombian police took down a separate network of synthetic drug traffickers calling themselves “The System,” Semana reported. This group sold drugs in exclusive clubs around Medellin and Bogotá and even made house calls in well-off neighborhoods.

A wiretapped call caught the group’s leader, a woman who went by Fatima, discussing the price of 2-CB, a hallucinogenic synthetic better known as pink cocaine.

InSight Crime Analysis

The United States, Asia, and Europe have long dominated the market for synthetic drugs. But more recently, wealthier South American countries have become significant consumer markets.

According to a 2017 synthetic drug report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, South America first saw in 2013 the wide-scale appearance of this class of drugs, which include MDMA, LSD, ketamine, methamphetamines, and ever-changing compounds, such as 2-CB, synthetic cannabinoids, bath salts, and poppers.

These drugs, which the UN calls “hallucinogenic new psychoactive substances,” have seen a jump in users in Chile and Colombia, evidenced by an increase in emergency room visits, according to the report.

SEE ALSO: Chile News and Profile

Seizures of the drugs are also up. Brazil captured nearly 400 kilograms of ecstasy in 2014 and 2015, according to the report. Synthetic drug seizures in Argentina increased 500 percent in 2016.

Synthetic drugs’ high street price — a gram of 2-CB sells for $60 to $75 in Colombia — and popularity among moneyed teens and college students has made them a profitable niche market.

This can create atypical traffickers, such as the Pablo Escobar of pink cocaine — a young Colombian from a middle-class background who traveled to Europe to get the recipe for the synthetic drug 2-CB. The drug became known as pink cocaine for its color and powdery texture.

More established traffickers, however, have muscled in on the trade. In 2014, police arrested the so-called czar of synthetic drugs who was also a leading figure in the criminal groups the Machos and the Urabeños. In 2015, Colombian and US authorities broke up a synthetic drug trafficking network that supplied six countries in the region.

And when the young Colombian, Alejandro Arboleda Uribe, was caught in Medellin, police said Mexican cartels were protecting him and providing the necessary precursor chemicals. Medellin’s “Oficina de Envigado,” a powerful coalition of criminal groups, distributed the drugs, El Colombiano reported.

The bust of the Colombia ketamine traffickers, and the discovery last month of 1,300 grams of pink cocaine embedded within a painting of the Virgin Mary on its way to New York from Bogotá’s airport, show that criminal groups aim to profit from moving these substances abroad. For now, however, the rising consumer markets in Latin American countries remain much more lucrative.

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