In Latin America, synthetic drugs more popular than cocaine – DW – 08/01/2022

In early February this year, a number of people were hospitalized in Buenos Aires, left in life-threatening condition after consuming adulterated cocaine. As a result, 24 of them died.

Argentinian authorities were forced to issue an appeal to the media, warning anyone who had recently purchased cocaine not to use it under any circumstances. They later discovered that the cocaine had been cut with another drug: carfentanil.

Carfentanil, which is a derivative of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, is commonly used to anesthetize large wild animals, such as elephants. Just two milligrams – a few grains – are enough to kill a human being.

Fentanyl, on the other hand, is “only” 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. And in recent years, this synthetic drug has become an extremely lucrative export for Mexican drug cartels.

Map showing drug-related deaths around the world

Cheap production, big profits

One of the reasons for this is that it costs much less to produce than traditional drugs. Reports in the Mexican media suggest that the infamous Sinaloa drug cartel now appears to be making bigger profits from fentanyl than from cocaine or any other drug.

In early July, Mexican soldiers seized a record 543 kilograms (1,200 pounds) of fentanyl in the town of Culiacan. “This is the largest seizure of this deadly drug in Mexican history,” Public Security Undersecretary Ricardo Mejía proudly announced after the operation.

A policeman in a tough black uniform and black helmet, a rifle slung across his back, bends over a pile of pale brown, brick-like packages wrapped in plastic.
War on Drugs: Just three weeks after fentanyl seizure, Mexico City police find 1.5 tons of cocaine hidden in a truckImage: Mexico City Public Security Secretary/REUTERS

Mejía had given a press conference in May where he explained why fentanyl was so lucrative for Mexican drug cartels. It only takes two hours to produce a kilogram, he explained, and in Mexico, a kilogram of fentanyl would cost an average of $5,000 (about 4,900 euros).

In US cities like Los Angeles, the same amount would sell for $200,000.

Mexico: A lucrative market

In the context of the ongoing opioid crisis in the United States, with more than 107,000 deaths in 2021 alone, Mexican and American Presidents Manuel López Obrador and Joe Biden have also addressed the issue. On July 13, during their meeting in Washington, they agreed to intensify their efforts and their cooperation in the fight against synthetic drugs.

Two men, both white-haired and in dark suits, are seated in light armchairs on either side of a fireplace.  The man on the right speaks and gestures with one hand.  A blurred floral arrangement obscures part of the foreground.
When meeting earlier this month, the Mexican and US presidents agreed to step up their joint efforts to address the opioid crisis.Image: Susan Walsh/AP Photo/picture alliance

From a transit country for medicines produced in the Andean countries, Mexico has become a booming consumer market. According to the latest United Nations World Drug Report, published annually on June 26 – International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking – between 2013 and 2020, Mexico saw a 218% increase in the number of people in treatment for synthetic drug use. .

During the presentation of the World Drug Report 2022Sofia Diaz, National Coordinator for Mexico at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), said: “Mexico is the only country in the Americas where amphetamine-type stimulants have become the main cause of health problems requiring medical attention. treatment.”

She pointed out that in addition to fentanyl and opioids, amphetamine-type stimulants and other synthetic drugs are also included, such as crystal meth and ecstasy.

Bar chart showing where drug-related deaths are taking place in Latin America

COVID-19 and drug use

The rise of synthetic drugs in Mexico is striking in a continent which, according to the UNODC, is characterized by the consumption of cannabis and cocaine. Marijuana is the main drug dealt in Argentina, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela and almost all of Central America; while in Canada, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay, cocaine is the main culprit.

Blooming cannabis plant with white and yellow flowers, with trichomes, on a dark background
Until recently, marijuana and cocaine were the main drugs of choice in Latin AmericaImage: Katerina Solovyeva/Zoonar/picture alliance

The production and trafficking of synthetic drugs in Latin America is growing much faster than that of natural drugs, Diaz warned. A January 2022 report from the Mexican Ministry of Health confirms this assessment. He revealed that overall drug use in Mexico increased by 22% between 2010 and 2019, and that the COVID-19 pandemic caused it to rise even further.

Several Mexican institutions recently collaborated on a major study called VoCes-19. After surveying 55,000 teens in the fall of 2021, they concluded that the COVID-19 pandemic — and resulting depression and anxiety among teens — had led this group to take more medication.

According to his data, the use of opioids and marijuana among young people increased by 18% to 21% during the pandemic in Mexico.

Mexican drug cartels eyeing Colombian farms

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This article was originally written in German.

Alvin J. Chase