InSight Crime revealed that synthetic drugs are rewriting the rules of drug trafficking in Latin America, with new markets, routes, and substances challenging the traditional dominance of plant-based narcotics.
Mexican methamphetamines are being exported in bulk to the Asia-Pacific region, fentanyl is added to stimulants in South America, and ecstasy flows from Europe to the Southern Cone continue to grow.
On the other hand, ketamine is becoming a mixer in drug cocktails such as “tusi,” and new psychoactive substances (NPS) are appearing all over the continent. The result is a thriving submarket attracting Latin American governments’ attention and drug traffickers.
To understand these problems, InSight Crime spoke with Martin Raithelhuber, an expert on synthetic drugs and international coordinator of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) Global Smart program.
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Could you start by telling us a little about the work of the Global SMART program in the region?
In 2011, the Global Smart program started raising awareness about synthetic drugs in Latin America and the Caribbean. We began with regional activities, seminars, and a report geared towards information gathering rather than capacity building in specific countries.
But that has changed over time. Currently, we are working with the authorities to improve detection capabilities, for example, by delivering portable electronic drug detection devices. We have already delivered those devices to 20 countries in the region. And equally important, we are providing training to broaden the knowledge of what they will find.
Of course, any member of law enforcement in the region knows their cocaine, marijuana, and probably their heroin, but it only goes so far. They don’t necessarily know that methamphetamine is that heavy in the region, nor do they know much about ecstasy or New Psychoactive Substance (NPS) synthetic drug pills.
There is even less information regarding more specific NPS: synthetic cannabinoids, stimulants, cathinone, not to mention synthetic opioids such as fentanyl or carfentanil.
For that reason, we also offer training to forensic laboratories. We offer manuals with methods on how to analyze substances in the laboratory. And more recently, we have put a lot of emphasis on promoting the creation of early warning systems for synthetic drugs.
Let’s talk about specific drugs. Starting with methamphetamine, Mexico, and to a much lesser extent Guatemala, are the hotspots of manufacturing and trafficking in Latin America. Do you think this could expand to other countries?
In Central America, significant methamphetamine seizures are still rare. These tend to occur in already illicit methamphetamine production countries, such as Guatemala. However, there is a suspicion that methamphetamine production is expanding southwards, such as in Honduras. This is based on reports of precursor seizures. It is also possible that these precursors were destined for Mexico, so it is important to clarify that this is a suspicion. But looking at global trends, we see a southward movement for illicit methamphetamine processing.
In terms of illegal methamphetamine processing in Mexico, what are the major factors driving the export to North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific?
I obviously can’t read the minds of drug traffickers. Still, looking at the trends, we see that the shift from pseudoephedrine-based processes to so-called P2P-based processes has allowed Mexican meth producers to rely on a much wider range of precursor chemicals, many of which are not subject to national or international controls.
This may indicate that precursors are more readily available and perhaps less expensive than before. One reason that supports our hypothesis is that in the US, there have been significant markdowns in methamphetamine prices in recent years, while purity remains very high. I mean, very high. We think that indicates that production costs have gone down, but profit margins also go up with so much supply.
Because of that, traffickers have few options. One is to increase consumption, but there is always a limit to that. Another is to expand their geographic markets by looking for new places. And along with North America, the other major methamphetamine consumption regions are Southeast Asia and Oceania, mainly Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand.
So from a marketing perspective, it is logical to say, “I have a product that I can make at a very low cost, my main market is somewhat saturated, so what other markets are left?” And it is clear that those markets are Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
You mentioned the high purity of Mexican methamphetamines. How do you think that compares to methamphetamines produced in other hotspots, such as Afghanistan or the Golden Triangle?
It isn’t easy to compare. With methamphetamines, you have to consider two elements: first, purity, and second, the concentration of D-methamphetamine, the most potent desired isomer, versus L-methamphetamine.
The information we have from laboratories in Southeast Asia is that both the purity and the concentration of D-methamphetamine in methamphetamine produced in the Golden Triangle are very high. The same is true for Mexican methamphetamines.
Now, for the Afghan methamphetamines, I must say that we are still working based on the analysis of a very small number of samples, but it is also true that the samples were of good quality.
Now, moving on to ecstasy, how do you think trafficking in Latin America has changed in recent years?
I want to mention two variations: trafficking by mail or courier services, one of the main routes for MDMA trafficking to the region, especially to Central America and the Caribbean. We are not talking about kilos here, just a couple of tablets at a time. More recently, in Southern Cone countries like Uruguay, for example, there have also been larger seizures: hundreds of grams or maybe a kilo or so. This also includes MDMA in crystals, which can be of dangerously high purity. Pills or tablets remain much more common, however, and these are mostly trafficked from Europe and reprocessed or reconverted locally into new tablets to increase yield.
Chile seized around 475,000 ecstasy pills in May and June from ships from Dutch and Belgian ports. So you think such mega-loads of MDMA are growing?
I definitely agree that such large quantities are rare in South America. It was very rare to have more than two thousand pills in the past. Will we see this more often? That depends partly on the absorption capacity of South American markets. I mean, ecstasy is generally consumed by a specific population sector. That limits, to some extent, the opportunities for market expansion. What is undoubtedly true is that MDMA processing in Europe is large scale and can mass produce large quantities of very high-quality MDMA. And that is another key development in the synthetic drug market in Latin America. Dutch criminals have found ways to produce large quantities of MDMA and are looking for new markets.
Has domestic processing of MDMA been detected in Latin America, and what factors could encourage or limit its expansion?
In 2020, we reported the emergence of local synthesis in southern Brazil, where police dismantled several laboratories synthesizing ecstasy. Although it was probably not MDMA, it was MDA. I have no information on other reports of synthetic substances such as ecstasy throughout the region, but ecstasy labs converting or diluting imported drugs remain common. In terms of expansion opportunities, given the large scale of MDMA processing in Europe that is being shipped elsewhere, I think it may be quite difficult to set up domestic synthesis facilities that are economically viable.
And you were speaking of opioids. In February 2022, a series of cocaine doses laced with carfentanil left several dozen dead in Argentina. In your opinion, will these contamination episodes become more common?
It is not easy to say. I think there may be underreporting in Latin America, where cocaine, heroin, and other drugs are already being cut with fentanyl or other synthetic opiates, but because no one gets to a hospital, the drug is never detected. I think the Argentine episode speaks to the need to pay more attention to this and to better test for common drugs circulating in the region, such as cocaine. The opioid crisis in the US came about because of a combination of very specific factors, some of which also existed to a lesser degree in Canada. Many of those factors are absent in Latin America, so I don’t expect the same thing to happen here. The biggest driver in Latin America—also observable in the United States—is the great ease of acquiring very potent drugs without a prescription. That said, the overall prevalence of opioids in Latin America is extremely low, for the simple fact that there is not very widespread use of non-medical opioids in the population.
And on ketamine. There seems to have been an increase in seizures in certain countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica. Do you think ketamine could become as popular in Latin America as it is in some parts of Southeast Asia and Europe?
I think ketamine sold by itself is not particularly popular in Latin America. There are more cases where ketamine is sold under the name of the well-known drug cocktail “tusi”, also called “tucibi” or “2C-B”. The latter obviously refers to a completely different substance, but that doesn’t matter. It is the brand name that counts and by using the trade name, they are distributing ketamine mixed with other substances. What is most interesting is that seizures of several kilos of cough have been made in Europe, especially in Spain but also in the UK and more recently in Austria. This is very unusual for Europe, but such cases have increased in recent months.
Let’s finish with NSPs. The 2022 Global Drug Report states that South America has a relatively high proportion of hallucinogenic NPS. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
The total number of NPS in South America is well below that of Europe or the US, but the proportion of hallucinogenic NPS is higher than in the other two. It is a very consistent peculiarity in the region, and we noticed it at least from 2013. NSPs with plant-derived hallucinogens tend to be grown locally: for example, Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpet (containing scopolamine) or the Ayahuasca concoction. Many synthetic hallucinogens in the NPS were created in Asia, especially China. But, of those arriving in Latin America, much of the customization, packaging, and transshipment appears to occur in Europe, particularly Spain.
This article is part of an agreement between El American and El Nacional.