In mid-December, the authorities in Arizona intercepted more than 1.5 tons of methamphetamine coming from Mexico, the last in a line of record drug hauls around the world in recent months. Responding to the news, UN synthetic drugs expert Martin Raithelhuber tweeted that the size of meth seizures was “simply amazing”.
The global drugs trade is on fire, having survived the coronavirus pandemic with minimal disruption. Production is increasing in many places, fuelled by instability and economic crises in major drug-producing countries. Traffickers appear to be sending vast shipments, reflected in record-breaking drug seizures.
“There’s a boom in demand, there’s a boom in supply,” said Andrew Cunningham, head of drug markets, crime and supply reduction at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), “It does look quite apparent.”
Nowhere is this boom more pronounced than in the Golden Triangle, where Laos, Thailand and Myanmar intersect. In October, police grabbed 55 million methamphetamine tablets in Laos, Asia’s largest ever drug bust. Regional drug production and trafficking have intensified following the February coup in Myanmar, which plunged the country into chaos.
The October meth haul was only the tip of the iceberg. Many other large shipments have been reported in recent months. Seizures of methamphetamine have been expanding steadily in the past decade to reach a record high in 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“There is an expansion of the synthetic drug market,” said Martin Raithelhuber, of UNODC. Meth was becoming “cheaper” while purity remained high, he said. “It really points to a larger amount of the drug being available on the market”.
This boom has been facilitated by innovative chemistry. Drug producers have managed to create their own precursor chemicals for synthetic drugs, bypassing international controls. Last year Laotian authorities seized more than 70 tons of propionyl chloride, which can be used to make fentanyl and meth precursors.
Mexican cartels have reportedly used similar experimentation, and drugs are flooding into the US. In November, almost 9 tons of meth and over 175 kg of fentanyl were seized at the border, the largest amount for either drug in two years. Indeed, the DEA seized a record amount of fentanyl in 2021. Overdose deaths reached new highs from 2020 to 2021.
Mexican cartels have also penetrated the European market. Spanish police recently announced the largest ever methamphetamine bust on record, with over 2.5 tons seized in separate, coordinated raids in various cities. A Mexican cartel was allegedly piping meth into Europe through the port of Barcelona.
These seizures point to large-scale drug production, but they are also indicative of intensified law-enforcement activity, according to Andrew Cunningham. The Spanish meth haul was the result of a lengthy international investigation. Encrypted communication platforms used by traffickers have recently been cracked, leading to big seizures.
The narcotics trade has also been helped along by political instability in major drug-producing countries, such as Myanmar and Afghanistan. The production and trafficking of narcotics tend to flourish in chaotic, conflict-ridden states with rule of law deficits.
“The places where the drug production is booming are places where the state has very little control or they’re facilitating or turning a blind eye to things that are going on in the country,” Cunningham told TRT World.
In war-ravaged Syria manufacture of the amphetamine known as Captagon has skyrocketed with the help of the government. The Assad regime, throttled by sanctions and mired in economic crisis, is relying on drugs to earn hard currency. Associates of the ruling family are allegedly involved in production and trafficking of Captagon, turning Syria into a narcostate.
Captagon seizures have reached eyewatering levels. 2021 saw the largest quantity of tablets seized on record, with 95 million pills intercepted in Malaysia in a single haul in March. In Jordan, almost twice as many Captagon tablets were grabbed in 2021 compared with the previous year. And Saudi Arabia has been severely affected, too.
Captagon has also reached Iraq, where use of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamine, has increased enormously in the past decade. The amount of Captagon and meth seized in 2021 was twenty times larger than in the previous two years combined, according to the Iraqi government.
“The Captagon trade has experienced a notable increase in both supply and number of transit and destination markets,” said Caroline Rose, Senior Analyst and Head of the Power Vacuums program in the Human Security unit at the Newlines Institute and author of an upcoming report on Captagon. “It's very likely that this trade will continue to expand”.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan has emerged as a major meth producer. The drug can be made cheaply using a local plant, ephedra. Afghan meth now flows in copious quantities to Iran and also to Africa via Pakistan and the Indian Ocean. International maritime forces seized more drugs in the region in 2021 than in the previous four years combined – a new record.
According to recent research, the production of ephedra appears to be increasing in Afghanistan as the country collapses into economic crisis. Satellite imagery reveals “new shops, an extended storage area for dried & milled ephedra, and more inventory than ever before”, writes David Mansfield. The price of both meth and ephedra has fallen.
Afghanistan is also a major producer of opiates, accounting for 85 percent of the global heroin supply. Opium production increased by 8 percent in 2021, the United Nations recently assessed, and may continue to rise as farmers have reported higher levels of cultivation this planting season.
Elsewhere, the cocaine trade is booming. Production increased in Colombia in 2020, and there have been a number of massive seizures at European ports, including over 16 tons at Hamburg in February, almost 11 tons at Antwerp in April and 4 tons at Rotterdam in October. Turkey also saw the largest cocaine haul in its history this year.
What supply chain crisis?
The use of container ships to smuggle cocaine concealed in perishable goods, such as fruit, predated the pandemic, but appears to have increased. Air travel was severely hit by coronavirus restrictions, limiting the ability to send drugs on commercial flights.
Maritime shipping enables smugglers to transport huge quantities of product with relatively limited risk of detection, given the size of the vessels and the time-sensitive nature of food imports, which must be checked promptly by customs officials.
The massive seizures this year also indicate that the cocaine trade has not been significantly disrupted by the covid-related supply-chain crisis. A boom in demand combined with covid problems in Asia have caused shortages of goods and shipping delays as vessels lie moored outside ports, waiting for a berth.
While South America has been affected by the crisis, import volumes from the east coast to Europe have not declined during the pandemic, according to Simon Heaney, a senior manager at maritime consultancy, Drewry. “I haven’t seen any evidence that volumes on this trade have been supressed by the supply chain issues,” Heaney told TRT World.
Food, in which cocaine is often hidden, is less vulnerable to disruption than electrical appliances. “The supply chain is much more complex with electrical goods - more intermediate components / parts that need to be shipped from various locations, increasing the risk of delays / raising costs,” Heaney said.
While the cost of sending freight has generally become more expensive amid the supply-chain crisis, including from South America, traffickers generally conceal their product in licit shipments, meaning they “do not pay for the cost of the shipping container”, according to Andrew Cunningham.
The trafficking of heroin along the Balkan Route through Iran and Turkey to Europe is mostly conducted in vehicles and has not been seriously affected by the shipping crisis, and the same goes for the meth trade in Southeast Asia, much of which happens overland between Lower Mekong countries.
The demand for narcotics might also have increased, Cunningham said. The use of drugs normally consumed in recreational settings, such as MDMA and cocaine, appeared to fall during the initial lockdowns in 2020, but has since bounced back, according to the EMCDDA’s 2021 drug report.
The pandemic forced traffickers to adapt their methods, selling drugs online and adopting novel delivery systems that reduce human contact, such as drones. While some of these adaptations might be temporary, others could transform the drug trade and further empower traffickers going forward.
The social and economic damage caused by Covid-19 could also drive more people into drugs. “Research findings associate inequality, poverty and lack of opportunities for socioeconomic development with increased drug use disorders and increased engagement in drug production and trafficking,” says the 2021 UN World Drug Report.
Narco-traffickers defied Covid-19 and now look set to reach new heights, as the stars are aligning for a further expansion of their trade.