Latin American Drug Gangs Set Sights on Asia

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By Juan Francisco García

In recent years, drug syndicates from Latin America have broadened their horizons, seeking out new markets in Asia to compensate for the saturated U.S. market’s growing preference for synthetic substances like fentanyl. With the production of nearly 2,000 tons of undiluted cocaine annually, these powerful groups are targeting burgeoning markets in China, India, and South Korea.

Technological advancements have boosted coca plant yields, and cocaine cultivation has spread to newer regions in Latin America—the exclusive source of the global cocaine supply. This aggressive strategy for production and market expansion comes at a cost; it has escalated the conflict and criminal activity within the region.

Ecuador, once considered a tranquil Andean country, has recently witnessed unprecedented drug-related turmoil, including the abduction of correctional officers and the assault on a television station. This uptick in violence is indicative of the struggle between the dominant Mexican cartels—Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)—each vying for control over vital territories and international markets, including Asia. The Sinaloa Cartel, formerly led by the now-imprisoned Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, is believed to have initiated these Asian networks in the early 2000s, facilitating connections with Chinese criminal factions in Hong Kong.

Latin American heads of state are actively seeking better strategies to combat drug trafficking. Leaders from Colombia and Mexico advocated for an innovative global anti-narcotics strategy at a recent summit in Cali, Colombia, acknowledging the shortcomings of the existing militarized approach to the drug war. This call for policy reform arises in a region where nearly 6% of the global population consumes illegal drugs.

Enhanced trade relations between Latin American and Asian nations have inadvertently facilitated narcotic smuggling operations. Countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica have established free trade agreements with China, a nation already engaging in significant commerce with Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina—leading cocaine producers.

Key Asian Players

Cocaine distribution has amplified its footprint in Asia, with key locations like the ports of San Antonio in Chile, Buenos Aires in Argentina, and Montevideo in Uruguay emerging as strategic departure points towards Europe, Oceania, and Asia. Air trafficking, utilizing human couriers, also serves an essential function in the drug distribution network, particularly between South America and Europe, then onwards to Asia.

While concrete data on China’s interception of cocaine is scant, indications suggest it has become a pivotal transfer point for cocaine from Latin America. As the largest global container mover, China’s logistical capabilities significantly ease both legitimate and illicit transfers. This trend is corroborated by a rise in drug confiscations across Hong Kong, Macau, and mainland China.

India’s cocaine trafficking is on the ascendancy, accentuated by tourism and leveraged by criminal groups’ increasing reliance on online sales and distribution. Even with relatively modest seizure statistics, concerns surrounding this uptrend, especially in container movement, have been mounting.

South Korea’s port of Busan is integral to routing cocaine to China, Oceania, and other Asian territories. Its ranking as the sixth most crucial port globally for container traffic showcases its significance in North East Asia. Japan, however, is less impacted by global cocaine trade fluctuations.

Evolving Market Geographies

The U.S. and Brazil remain chief consumers of cocaine, but the market is increasingly gravitating towards Europe. Statistics from the European Drug Report 2023 reveal that cocaine is the second most prevalently used illicit substance in the continent after cannabis, with consumption trends varying significantly across different European nations. Despite the current focus on Europe, the soaring street prices in Asia signal a potential shift in cocaine market dynamics.

Criminal organizations are diversifying markets to keep pace with surplus drug production, escalating their profitability. Asian markets, notably involving China and India, are taking on a more substantial role. Notably, these countries contribute considerable quantities of precursor chemicals needed for drug synthesis in the Americas, as well as the production of fentanyl.

The looming question is whether governments will counter the growth of criminal groups independently or unite against the escalating transnational menace. Collaboration is conceivable; Latin American nations could share their expertise with their Asian counterparts, creating synergy based on established cooperation models like those with Europe. Whether there is sufficient political resolve for such collaboration remains to be seen.