Production and supply of cocaine reached record-high levels in 2021 despite the COVID-19 pandemic and increased seizures from law enforcement, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime report. The transformation process becomes more efficient. Belgium and the Netherlands appear as emerging hubs of cocaine traffic in Europe.
Coca bush cultivation and supply of cocaine reached record-high levels in 2021, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
Based in Austria, the office published on March 16 its Global Report on Cocaine 2023 detailing local dynamics and global challenges around cocaine by combining various quantitative and qualitative data, official reports and interviews of prosecutors, health professionals, journalists, law enforcement, etc.
And according to the research, coca bush cultivation soared 35 percent from 2020 to 2021, the sharpest year-to-year increase since 2016. More than 300,000 hectares (3,000 square kilometers; 1,160 square miles) were used to grow coca leaves in 2021, more than the size of a small country like Luxembourg (2,586 sq km; 998 sq mi.).
Coca leaf cultivation declined gradually for a decade until 2014 when it bottomed out. It doubled between 2013 and 2017, peaked in 2018, and rose sharply again in 2021.
Almost 2,000 tons of pure cocaine hydrochloride were produced in 2020, according to estimates based on countries’ official data included in a previous UNODC report.
But the supply also grew because processes to transform coca leaves into cocaine hydrochloride, the scientific name of cocaine, became more efficient. And the rise took place despite the fact seizures from law enforcement also reached record-high levels.
Nevertheless, interceptions of cocaine from authorities grew faster than supply, indicating they contained the growth of the global amount of cocaine available for consumption.
Authorities seized more than 1,400 tons of cocaine worldwide in 2020, and almost 2,000 tons in 2021, according to preliminary figures. Comparison with the production data is challenging as seizures occur at different points in the supply chain with cocaine at different purity levels. When Europeans and Americans consume cocaine, the product is between 60 and 70 percent pure cocaine and cut with other substances, according to the UNODC.
Three countries are the main producers of cocaine: Colombia (61%), Peru (26%), and Bolivia (13%).
The COVID-19 pandemic: disruptive effect on cocaine market
According to the report, the COVID-19 pandemic had a “disruptive effect on drug markets.”
As governments were trying to curb the infections, many bars, night clubs were closed and social gatherings limited, reducing demand associated with these settings. Wastewater measurements from Australia suggest consumption declined by approximately one-half in 2021 from late 2020, before rebounding moderately in the last quarter of 2021. Wastewater-based indicators also suggest a dip in consumption in 2020 before rebounding in 2021 in Western and Central Europe.
At the same time, international travel was severely curtailed and producers struggled to ship and deliver their products. But coca cultivation in Bolivia and Peru rose as eradication efforts were more limited.
And although the available data do not allow the research to establish the link conclusively, it points out that traffickers struggled to ship cocaine outside of Brazil during the pandemic, the price of cocaine dropped, and the number of deaths attributable to cocaine use in Brazil dramatically increased at the same time.
Colombia is still the dominant departure route of cocaine, especially to North America where most cocaine is Colombian, but products sent to Europe are increasingly leaving from Central and South American countries.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARCs) used to control most of the coca-production regions in Colombia. But now that most of them have dropped their weapons since 2016 and the peace agreement with the government, cocaine production is “fragmenting into a myriad of trafficking networks” of all sizes, structures and objectives, from new small local producers to foreign groups from Mexico and the Balkans and various specialized groups across the supply chain without aiming to control a territory.
And for cocaine delivered to Western Europe, ports on the North Sea like Antwerp in Belgium, Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Hamburg in Germany, have taken over as the main entry points instead of Spain and Portugal.
The report notes imports of cocaine seem to be shifting from Rotterdam to Antwerp in recent years. Customs authorities seized almost 90 tons of cocaine at Antwerp and 71 tons at Rotterdam seaports in 2021. However, most cocaine reaching Antwerp is believed to be channeled into the Netherlands.
With the development of new routes, countries in Africa – particularly those in West and Central Africa – are increasingly being used as key transit zones for the drug. Seizure data suggest that the role of Africa as a transit zone for cocaine on its way to European markets has picked up substantially since 2019 with Nigerian trafficking groups dominating smuggling activities across West and North Africa.
Brazilian crime groups seem to increasingly target Portuguese-speaking countries like Mozambique, Angola and Cabo Verde.
While cocaine use is concentrated in the Americas and parts of Europe, “the potential for the cocaine market to expand in Africa and Asia is a dangerous reality, said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly. The surge in the global cocaine supply should put all of us on high alert,” she added.
There were an estimated 21.5 million users of cocaine in 2020 worldwide: 30 percent in North America, 24 percent in Central and South America and the Caribbean, and 21 percent in Western and Central Europe. But if the prevalence rates of Europe or North America extend to other regions of the world, there could be between 55 million and almost 80 million more users of cocaine globally.
The report also shows the use of crack cocaine is on an upward trend in several Western European countries such as Belgium, France, Spain and Italy, with a ratio of crack users compared to cocaine powder users that doubled between 2016 and 2021.
Data from the United States, also suggest people who use methamphetamine don’t use much cocaine, whereas cannabis showed the opposite relationship: Heavier users of cannabis were more likely to be heavier cocaine users.