Cocaine production at highest level on record, UN says

A customs officer takes a sample of part of the cocaine seized for Bavaria’s largest cocaine seizure to date, which is examined using a test tube.

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Cocaine production is at its highest level on record, with demand rebounding after the pandemic and new trafficking hubs emerging, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The United Nations World Cocaine Report 2023 indicates that new trafficking hubs in the multi-billion dollar industry have emerged in West and Central Africa over the past two years. New improvements and innovations in the cultivation of the coca bush and the conversion of the coca plant into cocaine have also contributed to the boom in production, which increased by 35% between 2021 and 2022 to reach record levels.

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“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a disruptive effect on drug markets. With international travel severely curtailed, producers have struggled to get their product to market. Nightclubs and bars have been closed as authorities stepped up their attempts to control the virus, causing demand for drugs like cocaine to plummet,” the report said.

“However, the most recent data suggests that this crisis has had little impact on longer-term trends. Global cocaine supply is at record highs,” he said. Nearly 2,000 tons of cocaine were produced in 2020, a continuation of a “dramatic increase in manufacture that began in 2014, when the total was less than half of current levels,” the report said.

Coca bush cultivation doubled between 2013 and 2017, then increased sharply again in 2021, according to the report. The process of converting coca bush into cocaine hydrochloride has also seen significant improvements.

The production of cocaine requires soaking the harvested coca leaves in gasoline and other chemicals like ether, sulfuric acid, ammonia to enable the extraction of cocaine hydrochloride. The gasoline and solvents are then drained and the cocaine base solidifies into a paste, which is cooked until the liquid and other chemicals have evaporated, producing “bricks” containing cocaine hydrochloride.

These bricks are packaged and then sold and treated with additional chemicals like hydrochloric acid, ammonia and potassium salt to create powdered cocaine.

Growing demand for cocaine

Despite continued law enforcement efforts to crack down on cocaine use, global demand for the drug has only increased.

“There has been continued growth in demand, with most regions showing a steady increase
number of users over the past decade. While these increases may be partly explained by population growth, there is also an increase in the prevalence of cocaine use,” the report said.

At the same time, interceptions by the authorities are increasing. And those law enforcement interceptions are actually increasing at a faster rate than production, according to the report, meaning that “prohibition has contained the growth in the global amount of cocaine available for consumption.”

An anti-narcotics policeman stands as a police helicopter flies over a coca field during an operation in Tumaco, Narino department, Colombia, Tuesday, May 8, 2019.

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Demand is still highest in North America, which made up 30% of global drug demand in 2020, the highest proportion in the world, according to the UN, Central and South America and the Caribbean were coming in second, accounting for 24% of cocaine users in 2020. Western and Central Europe came third with 21%, and a fourth fourth was the African continent with 9% of global use.

Much of the known information about cocaine increases has been found through analysis of sewage data.

New transit areas

Coca bush cultivation remains concentrated in three countries: Colombia with 61% of the total, Peru with 26% and Bolivia with 13%.

Cocaine seizures are highest in the South and Central America and the Caribbean region, with 72% of total global seizures, followed by Western and Central Europe with 15% and North America with 12%.

U.S. Coast Guard personnel stand on the deck of the Cutter James as they unload approximately $1.06 billion worth of cocaine and marijuana at Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on February 17, 2022.

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Meanwhile, data on law enforcement seizures suggests that “the role of Africa, particularly West and Central Africa, as a staging area for cocaine en route to European markets has grown significantly since 2019,” the report said.

“Both the total quantity seized in Africa and the number of significant seizures appear to have reached record levels in 2021.”

Although usage in these regions is not yet high, the potential for its growth is a serious risk, the report warns.

Use of packages and couriers to transport drugs

The shutdown of so many passenger flights during the Covid-19 pandemic has reduced the ability of traffickers to use drug mules to transport drugs internationally. The use of international courier services for cocaine trafficking increased accordingly and remained high, according to UN research.

“Some West African countries have noted a significant increase [parcel and courier] smuggling services of small quantities of cocaine to Europe and beyond. In Costa Rica, smaller quantities of cocaine were shipped to Asia, Africa and Europe concealed in goods such as books, religious images and vehicle parts,” the report said.

“The pandemic may have accelerated the trend, but traffickers had already increased their use of international courier services to smuggle cocaine into Europe,” he said. “Evidence from Spain and Argentina points to a longer-term decline in the use of drug mules on passenger flights. Both countries have recorded instances of larger cargoes concealed in unaccompanied baggage .”

Watch the US Coast Guard Make a Spectacular Drug Seizure

The UK has seen a “significant increase” in cocaine seizures in the “express and postal parcel modes”, according to the report.

Fishing and merchant vessels are also increasingly used for cocaine smuggling, as well as containers on container ships, where shell companies and false papers are used to create the appearance of a legitimate business.

Drug trafficking via submarines is also on the increase, in some cases with purpose-built submarines, often unmanned and pre-programmed to get to their required destination.

Just this week, Spanish authorities discovered what they said was an empty drug submarine off the northern coast of Spain, near Galicia, known to be a hub for international trade. drug. They believe he was transporting cocaine from Colombia to Spain and that the crew had already fled with the contents of the submarine.

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