Synthetic drugs begin to predominate in Latin America

Available: Spanish

InsightCrime 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 herbal narcotics.

Mexican methamphetamines are 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 that attracts the attention of Latin American governments and drug traffickers.

Synthetic drugs

To understand these issues, InSight Crime spoke with Martin Raithelhuber, synthetic drug expert and international coordinator of the Global Smart program at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

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Could you start by telling us a bit about the work of the Global SMART program in the region?

In 2011, the Global Smart program began raising awareness of synthetic drugs in Latin America and the Caribbean. We started with regional activities, seminars and a report focusing on gathering information rather than building capacity in specific countries.

But that 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 these devices to 20 countries in the region. And just as important, we provide training to broaden the knowledge of what they will find.

Sure, any law enforcement in the area knows their cocaine, their marijuana, and probably their heroin, but that doesn’t go that far. They don’t necessarily know that meth is so heavy in the region, nor do they know much about ecstasy or synthetic new psychoactive substance (NPS) pills.

There is even less information about the more specific NPS: synthetic cannabinoids, stimulants, cathinone, not to mention synthetic opioids like fentanyl or carfentanil.

That’s why we also offer training for 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 hotspots for manufacturing and trafficking in Latin America. Do you think this could be extended to other countries?

In Central America, large seizures of methamphetamine are still rare. These tend to occur in already illicit meth-producing countries, such as Guatemala. However, methamphetamine production is suspected to be expanding southward, 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 dealing.

In terms of illegal methamphetamine processing in Mexico, what are the main factors driving export to North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific?

Of course, I can’t read the minds of drug dealers. Yet, looking at trends, we find that the shift from pseudoephedrine-based to so-called P2P-based processes has allowed Mexican methamphetamine producers to rely on a much wider range of chemical precursors, many of which are not not subject to national regulations or international controls.

This may indicate that precursors are more readily available and possibly cheaper than before. One reason that supports our hypothesis is that in the United States there have been significant declines in methamphetamine prices in recent years, while purity remains very high. I mean, very high. We believe this indicates that production costs have fallen, but profit margins are also increasing with such an offer.

For this reason, 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 researching new locations. And along with North America, the other major regions of methamphetamine consumption are Southeast Asia and Oceania, primarily Australia and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand.

So from a marketing perspective, it makes sense to say, “I have a product that I can make at a very low cost, my main market is a bit saturated, so what other markets do I have left?” And clearly those markets are Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

You mentioned the high purity of Mexican methamphetamines. How do you think this compares to meth produced in other hotspots, like Afghanistan or the Golden Triangle?

It’s not easy to compare. With methamphetamines, you need to consider two things: first, the purity, and second, the concentration of D-methamphetamine, the most potent isomer desired, relative to L-methamphetamine.

Information we have from Southeast Asian labs indicates that the purity and concentration of D-Methamphetamine in methamphetamine produced in the Golden Triangle is very high. The same goes for Mexican methamphetamines.

Now for the Afghan methamphetamines, I must say that we are still working on analyzing a very small number of samples, but it is also true that the samples were of good quality.

Moving on to ecstasy, how do you think trafficking in Latin America has changed in recent years?

I want to mention two variants: trafficking by post or courier services, one of the main routes for MDMA trafficking to the region, particularly to Central America and the Caribbean. We’re not talking about pounds here, just a few pills at a time. More recently, in countries of the Southern Cone like Uruguay, for example, there have also been larger seizures: hundreds of grams or perhaps a kilo or so. This also includes MDMA in crystals, which can be dangerously high in purity. Pills or tablets remain far more common, however, and these are mostly brought in from Europe and locally reprocessed or re-converted into new tablets to increase yield.

Chile seized around 475,000 ecstasy pills in May and June from ships arriving from Dutch and Belgian ports. Do you think such mega loads of MDMA increase?

I completely agree that such 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? This partly depends on the absorption capacity of the South American markets. I mean that ecstasy is generally consumed by a specific sector of the population. This limits, to some extent, the possibilities 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 this 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 might encourage or limit its expansion?

In 2020, we reported the emergence of local synthesis in southern Brazil, where police dismantled several ecstasy synthesis labs. Even though it probably wasn’t MDMA, it was MDA. I have no information on other reports of synthetic substances such as ecstasy in the area, but ecstasy labs re-converting or diluting imported drugs remain common. In terms of opportunities for expansion, given the large scale of MDMA processing in Europe that is shipped elsewhere, I think it can be quite difficult to set up domestic synthesis facilities that are economically viable.

And you were talking about opioids. In February 2022, a series of doses of cocaine supplemented with carfentanil killed several dozen people in Argentina. Do you think these episodes of contamination will become more frequent?

It’s not easy to say. I think there may be under-reporting in Latin America, where cocaine, heroin and other drugs are already cut with fentanyl or other synthetic opiates, but since nobody goes to the hospital, the drug is never detected. I think the Argentinian episode speaks to the need to pay more attention to it and to better test the common drugs circulating in the region, such as cocaine. The opioid crisis in the United States arose due to a combination of very specific factors, some of which also existed to a lesser extent in Canada. Many of these factors are absent in Latin America, so I don’t expect the same to happen here. The main driver in Latin America – also observable in the United States – is the great ease of acquiring very powerful drugs without a prescription. That said, the overall prevalence of opioids in Latin America is extremely low, for the simple fact that the use of non-medical opioids is not widespread in the population.

And on ketamine. There appears to have been an increase in seizures in some countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica. Do you think ketamine could become as popular in Latin America as it is in parts of Southeast Asia and Europe?

I think ketamine sold on its own is not particularly popular in Latin America. There are more cases where ketamine is sold under the name of the famous drug cocktail “tusi”, also called “tucibi” or “2C-B”. The latter obviously refers to a completely different substance, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the brand name that counts and using the trade name they distribute ketamine mixed with other substances. What is most interesting is that seizures of several kilos of tusi have been made in Europe, particularly in Spain but also in the United Kingdom and more recently in Austria. This is very unusual for Europe, but these cases have increased in recent months.

Let’s finish with the NSPs. The World Drug Report 2022 indicates 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 much lower than in Europe or the United States, but the proportion of hallucinogenic NPS is higher than in the other two. This is a very consistent feature in the region, and we have noticed it at least since 2013. NSPs containing plant-based hallucinogens tend to be grown locally: for example, Brugmansia or Angel’s Trumpet (containing scopolamine) or the Ayahuasca concoction. Many synthetic NPS hallucinogens were created in Asia, especially China. But, of those arriving in Latin America, much of the customization, packaging and cross-docking seems to be happening in Europe, especially Spain.


This article is part of an agreement between El American and El Nacional.

Alvin J. Chase