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An Adaptive Market

The Effects of COVID-19 on the Cocaine Trade in Latin America and Europe


By: Anastasija Kuznecova

COVID-19 has brought lockdown measures and disruptions in transportation all around the world, leading to various challenges in both production and trafficking in the illegal drugs market. However, a year later, new trends are emerging indicating that the cocaine industry has adapted to the pandemic increasing the flow to Europe with maritime transportation.

The Impact of COVID-19 on the Cocaine Market

Measures implemented to prevent the spread of the pandemic has led to reports of a global shortfall of diverse types of drugs at retail level, increased street prices, and reduction in purity.1 However, the cocaine industry seems to be faring well with the consequences of the pandemic, as compared to other industries that suffered heavy losses.

The cocaine market has benefited from its continuous storing of large amounts of cocaine in warehouses and other secretive storage places. The industry also has experience with various trafficking methods, making them more adaptable to the pandemic, with reports of a rise in the usage of sea routes and replacing street dealing with home deliveries and drive-in services.

The drug industry can lead to negative impact on the legal economy and increase drug-related violence. This is particularly true in exporting countries, where the cocaine industry often provokes internal conflicts, intensifies corruption, leads to environmental destruction and increases exploitation of vulnerable and indigenous populations. In addition, drug profits are often invested in other crimes, such as human trafficking and money laundering.

Production of Cocaine in Latin America

The three main producers of cocaine in Latin America are the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have reported that during 2020, the law enforcements in Colombia have increased their activities against drug trafficking and despite lockdowns, continued with its coca bush eradication campaign.2

Due to restricted transportation, the country is experiencing a shortage of gasoline, necessary for cocaine production, as it used to be imported from Venezuela. However, at the moment, this will not have any significant impact on the drug trade, as most drug gangs store large amounts of cocaine on hand.

Bolivia might experience an increase in its cultivation as the country's political conflict in November 2019 and the consequences of the pandemic have limited the current government's capability to control coca bush cultivation. Peru, on the other hand, experienced a decline in the price of cocaine at the beginning of the pandemic, which at first seemed to reduce the country's level of drug trafficking.

However, due to the continuing economic crisis, more farmers may increase or take up coca cultivation in all three countries. This trend is already noticeable in Peru where several farmers have switched from harvesting coffee beans to coca plants due to the fall in coffee prices, as coca cultivation offers more stability than other types of crops even though the coca price has still not fully recovered.3

Increase in Maritime Support

One explanation for the continuing high numbers of cocaine smuggling to Europe is due to the industry's reliability on maritime trafficking, as it is the transportation method that has been the least affected by the pandemic. Usually, cocaine is trafficked in containers filled with legal products.

Reports from Colombia have indicated that maritime transport has increased due to COVID measures, specifically the use of submersibles for drug trafficking to Central America and container cargos for trafficking to Europe.4 In addition, other types of drug trades, which previously relied on overland and air traffic, seem to have also increased their use of sea routes due to the ongoing measures.

Latin American and European law enforcements are aware of the threat posed by sea trafficking. Even though Europe experienced a record-high number of cocaine seizures in 2020,5 only two percent of the containers around the world are inspected, thus, creating perfect opportunities for the drug traffickers.6

The Cocaine Market in Europe

Europe is the second-largest market for cocaine, with an estimated minimum retail value of EUR 9.1 billion in 2017.7 The key points for cocaine trafficking in Europe are in Spain, Belgium and the Netherlands. From here, the drug is exported to other parts of Europe, as well as increasingly to other markets such as Australia, New Zealand and countries in the Middle East and Asia.

Colombian and Italian organised crime groups continue to have a central role in cocaine distribution. However, other groups are increasingly gaining more power, including Albanian-speaking, British, Dutch, French, Irish, Moroccan, Serbian, Spanish and Turkish criminal groups.

European criminal groups are also establishing themselves in Latin America and purchasing cocaine closer to the production regions at a lower cost, which increases competition and violence within the market, as well as corruption within Europe.

Increase in Use of Digital Technology

The pandemic has increased the use of dark web markets, social media and mobile apps for the distribution of cocaine, and methods such as food deliveries and drive-in services have been used by the dealers. In addition, the drug trade has had a decrease in reliance on cash and face-to-face dealing. Some of these adaptations are predicted to last after the restrictions will be lifted, as they are considered to be more convenient.8

Growing Risk

The cocaine marked in Latin America and Europe has adapted to the restrictions implemented as a result of the pandemic. The trade seems to expand in Europe, generating a major source of income for organised crime groups. This could explain the increase in number of criminal groups involved in the cocaine trade.

These changes threaten European nations at their very core, eroding their political security, economy, as well as undermining their efforts to protect human rights. In short, we can see how the cocaine marked continues to negatively impact Latin American and European countries, creating new challenges for law enforcement.

This article is a publication of the Dyami Early Warning for International Security (DEWIS) Working Group.

For source references, please download the PDF version.

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About the Author:

Anastasija Kuznecova is a student at the MA program in Conflict Studies and Human Rights at Utrecht University. She has field experience from Chile, Jamaica and the Balkans, and her interests include issues concerning social inequality, discrimination, and conflict escalation. With her combined practical experience and academic knowledge, Anastasija has a broad understanding of security, development, and human rights.

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