Drug Trafficking

A Golden Age

The Golden Age of Drug Trafficking: How Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin Move Around the World

Diplomats and top officials from governments around the world gathered last week at United Nations headquarters in New York to discuss what to do about the global drug problem. Over the course of four days and multiple discussions, the assembled dignitaries vowed to take a more comprehensive approach to the issue than in years past — but they also decided to keep waging the war on drugs.

The “outcome document” adopted during the UN General Assembly’s special session (UNGASS) calls for countries to “prevent and counter” drug-related crime by disrupting the “illicit cultivation, production, manufacturing, and trafficking” of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and other substances banned by international law. The document also reaffirmed the UN’s “unwavering commitment” to “supply reduction and related measures.”

Yet according to the UN’s own data, the supply-oriented approach to fighting drug trafficking has been a failure of epic proportions. Last May, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued its 2015 World Drug Report, which shows that — despite billions of dollars spent trying to eradicate illicit crops, seize drug loads, and arrest traffickers — more people than ever before are getting high.

The UNODC conservatively estimated that in 2013, the most recent year for which data is available, 246 million people worldwide, or 1 out of 20 individuals between the ages of 15 and 64, used an illicit drug, an increase of 3 million people over the previous year. More alarmingly, 27 million people were characterized as “problem drug users.” Only one out of every six of these problem users had access to any sort of addiction treatment.

Meanwhile, at a UN roundtable on drug-related crime and money laundering last week, the agenda noted that while drug treaties remain unchanged, organized crime has kept pace with the expansion of the global economy: “Advances in technology, transport, and travel have added to the fluid efficiency and speed of the global economy. They also offer similar efficiencies to the business of trafficking networks.”

In other words, globalization has led to an explosion of drug trafficking. More than 420 million shipping containers traverse the seas every year, transporting 90 percent of the world’s cargo. Most carry legitimate goods, but authorities cannot inspect them all, and some are used to smuggle drugs — or just as importantly, the chemicals used to make meth and cheaply process coca leaves and opium poppies into cocaine and heroin. Airplanes, submarines, speedboats, trucks, tunnels — taken as a whole, the systems used to move illegal drugs around the world comprise a logistics network likely bigger than Amazon, FedEx, and UPS combined.

Precisely how all of that illicit cargo moves around the globe is constantly shifting. New routes evolve as authorities crack down, laws evolve, wars erupt, and the climate changes. During UNGASS, VICE News spoke with UNODC officials from Mexico and Southeast Asia, as well as with independent experts on organized crime in Latin America, to learn about the latest trends determining how drugs are smuggled around the globe.

We also culled information from the aforementioned UNODC report, the US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy report, the White House’s reporton National Drug Control Strategy, and a variety of other sources.

This is what we learned about today’s golden age of drug trafficking.

Cocaine: Guerrillas and Gold
In 1998, the last time the UN held a special gathering to discuss drug policy, the stated goal was “eliminating or significantly reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant and the opium poppy by the year 2008.” Even in hindsight, at least part of that goal doesn’t seem entirely out of reach: Just a handful of Andean nations — Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia — are responsible for virtually the entire global supply of cocaine.

Funded in large part by the US — the world’s largest cocaine consumer — Colombia and Peru have spent decades and many dollars spraying poison on the fields of impoverished farmers, or campesinos, who turned to coca because it is significantly more valuable than other crops. Coca has also fueled conflict in both countries. Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas still control coca-rich territory in the country’s remote VRAE region, while FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) guerrillas in Colombia have funded the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running insurgency with profits from the drug trade.

While official estimates briefly put Peru ahead of Colombia in overall cocaine production, the homeland of Pablo Escobar regained the top spot after its output of the white powder spiked by 44 percent last year. A variety of factors are behind the surge, including a peace deal between the Colombian government and the FARC; and, oddly enough, the price of gold.

The Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime issued a report this month that linked Plan Colombia — the US-backed campaign that has funded coca crop eradication and paramilitaries to fight the FARC and ELN (National Liberation Army), another guerrilla group — to the rise of illegal gold mining. The drug war drove up the cost of doing business for guerrillas, narcos, and campesinos alike, who switched to gold as a safer, more lucrative alternative to coca, the Global Initiative said.

“These groups were quick to realize that taking control of large swaths of land remote from government attention and dominating the enterprises that mined that land would enable them to generate larger profit margins with much lower risk,” the report found. “The change of strategy by the drug trafficking groups proved so successful that in Peru and Colombia — the largest cocaine producers in the world — the value of illegal gold exports now exceeds the value of cocaine exports.”

According to James Bargent, a Medellin-based journalist and analyst who specializes in Colombian organized crime, the Global Initiative’s assessment is accurate. Speaking to VICE News following a trip to coca-producing areas in Colombia’s Antioquia region, he said falling gold prices combined with the looming demobilization of the guerrilla groups has led to a bumper crop of coca.

“You can trace up and down illegal gold mining and coca,” Bargent said. “When eradication was going crazy and planes were spraying everywhere and rounding up farmers, gold prices went through the roof, and a lot of farmers switched to mining. Now you’ve got the reverse happening. The state is cracking down on mining and prices aren’t as high so it’s less risky to go to coca.”

The guerrillas are deeply involved in the cocaine trade: In November, the Colombian military busted a jungle compound that belonged to the ELN with a laboratory that was reportedly capable of producing seven tons of powder per month. Other reports indicate that the country’s most powerful criminal organization, the Urabeños, is preparing to take over cocaine production after the guerrillas lay down their arms as part of the peace deal. But the guerrillas aren’t giving up their business without a fight — FARC and ELN fighters have clashed recently with Urabeños members in Antioquia, reportedly over coca-producing turf.

“The ELN and Urabeños are starting to face off over who is going to fill the vacuum when the FARC go,” Bargent said. “What I’ve been hearing is that the Urabeños are encouraging people to go back to coca [from gold mining], and are paying people more per kilo of leaf than the guerrillas. They’re trying to position themselves for when the FARC start stepping away.”

Colombian cocaine typically flows northward to Central America and Mexico by maritime routes, often via semi-submersible “narco subs” that can carry up to 14,000 pounds per shipment. Conventional boats also drop loads in the Caribbean, with the Dominican Republic emerging as a key transhipment point for cocaine on its way to both Europe and the US.

‘I don’t want to defy economic logic and say supply creates demand, but to a certain extent it feels that way.’

Peruvian coca paste is often processed into powder in Bolivia, and authorities in both countries have spent the last two years trying to dismantle a so-called “air bridge” that sees small aircraft fly from one country to the other via remote jungle landing strips. Peruvian cocaine tends to find its way to Europe through Brazil and Argentina, often with stopovers in West Africa. The UNODC reports that Colombian cocaine also moves to Europe through West Africa, sometimes after passing through Venezuela. Italy’s ‘Ndrangheta mafia is thought to control most of the continent’s cocaine trade.

“Between 2004 and 2007, at least two distinct trans-shipment hubs emerged in West Africa: one centred on Guinea-Bissau and Guinea, and one centred in the Bight of Benin which spans from Ghana to Nigeria. Colombian traffickers transported cocaine by ‘mother ship’ to the West African coast before offloading to smaller vessels,” according to the UNODC. “Some of this cocaine proceeded onward by sea to Spain and Portugal, but some was left as payment to West Africans for their assistance.”

According to the DEA, 90 percent of cocaine destined for the US moves through Mexico and Central America. The UNODC report noted that demand for cocaine in the US has fallen by nearly half since 2006, but the use of Central America as a transhipment point has led to the emergence of domestic cocaine markets in countries like Honduras and El Salvador. Steven Dudley, co-founder of InSight Crime, a foundation that studies organized crime in Latin America, says that the phenomenon is caused in part by traffickers paying middlemen with cocaine rather than cash.

“In Central America, in very poor neighborhoods in [the Honduran city of] San Pedro Sula, we’ve seen people selling powder cocaine,” Dudley said. “On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a big deal, but we’ve never had that before. That’s just an illustration of the incredible increase of availability of drugs in those areas. I don’t want to defy economic logic and say supply creates demand, but to a certain extent it feels that way.”

Colombian counter-narcotics police secure a cocaine production laboratory operated by FARC guerrillas in January 2012. (Photo by Mauricio Duenas/EPA)

Once the coke reaches Mexico, groups such as the Sinaloa Cartel shepherd it overland through regional territories called “plazas” to the US border. Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC representative for Mexico, said cocaine seizures in the country started to plummet sometime around 2009 as violence peaked during an all-out war between cartels and the government.

“Cocaine was not moving north through Mexico because it was too risky,” Mazzitelli told VICE News. “These trafficking routes, they were not safe anymore.”

He said cocaine seizures have picked up again over the last eight months or so, a trend he connected to the destruction of Los Zetas, a group blamed for much of the bloodshed in Mexico’s drug war, and a consolidation of power by the Sinaloa Cartel, led by recently captured kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and his partner Ismael “El Mayo” Zambada, who remains at large.

“Basically, the drug business was disrupted by violence,” Mazzitelli said. “This is a normal economic feature — more violence means more economic risk to the operators who are moving stuff. Now the situation has been stabilized.”

“The Pacific (Sinaloa) Cartel in the middle of the violence was proposing to the other cartels to join to a federation,” he added. “They were business-oriented, they were saying ‘Let’s stop this and get back to business.'”

Once a cocaine shipment reaches the US border, cartels employ a dizzying array of tactics to smuggle it across, including hiding drugs in shipments of legitimate goods, having human drug mules carry loads by foot across the desert, and building lengthy and elaborate cross-border tunnels. It’s a constant game of cat-and-mouse with law enforcement.

“Clearly, traffickers are always thinking about new methods for moving stuff,” Mazzitelli said. “As soon as the focus is on tunnels, traffickers will find a new way to do this, using speed boats, unmanned drones, or small airplanes, trucks, cars — whatever, this depends on the capacity of the drug trafficking organization.”

Heroin: Afghan Poppies and Golden Triangles
Much like cocaine, the global heroin supply originates from just a few countries, but one in particular has emerged as the source for nearly all of the world’s smack. According to the UNODC, Afghanistan “has a virtual monopoly on the illicit production of opium, producing 6,900 tons in 2009 — 95 percent of global supply.”

Afghanistan has long been a source of heroin, but the remarkable surge in poppy production from the country can be traced directly to the US-led invasion of the country in 2001. That year, according to the UNODC, Afghan growers cultivated about 8,000 hectares (20,000 acres) of poppy plants. By 2014, that figure skyrocketed to more than 224,000 hectares (553,500 acres). The plant, which had been outlawed under Taliban rule, now funds the group’s ongoing insurgency against the US-backed government in Kabul.

“A symbiotic relationship exists between the insurgency and organized narcotics trafficking,” the US State Department wrote in its 2015 report on the global drug trade. “Traffickers provide weapons, funding, and other material support to the insurgency in exchange for the protection of drug trade routes, cultivation fields, laboratories, and trafficking organizations.”

Afghanistan supplies nearly all of the heroin consumed in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, while also commanding a sizable share of the market in parts of Asia, the Pacific, and North America. The UNODC estimates that the global heroin business is valued at $55 billion annually, and Afghanistan is thought to produce 375 tons of the drug every year. That’s significantly more than the next two largest heroin producers — Mexico (26 tons per year, according to the US) and Myanmar (about 50 tons, per the UNODC) — combined.

Historically, Afghan heroin has flowed into Europe via what’s known as “the Balkan route,” an overland path that stretches west through Iran, Turkey, and Greece and up through Serbia, Hungary, and other nations in the Balkans. The UNODC notes that this route is “exceedingly well organized and lubricated with corruption.” Another path, the “Northern Route,” sends heroin to Russia through the “stan” countries: Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.

“About a third of the heroin produced in Afghanistan is transported to Europe via the Balkan route, while a quarter is trafficked north to Central Asia and the Russian Federation along the northern route,” the UNODC says. “Afghan heroin is also increasingly meeting a rapidly growing share of Asian demand. Approximately 15-20 metric tons are estimated to be trafficked to China, while a further 35 metric tons are trafficked to other South and Southeast Asian countries.”

One recent development has seen more Afghan heroin — an estimated 35 metric tons per year — shipped across the Indian Ocean to parts of East and Southern Africa. The UNODC said it’s also becoming more common for heroin smugglers to use their networks to smuggle hashish, methamphetamine, and other illicit goods.

“To a certain extent, there has also been a shift in the focus of the trafficking routes themselves,” the UNODC wrote. “There is increasing evidence that routes traditionally used for smuggling one type of drug are now being used for smuggling other drug types.”

According to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, at least 90 percent of the heroin seized in Canada from 2009 to 2012 came from Afghanistan. That’s a stark contrast to the United States, where the vast majority of heroin now comes from Mexico. The UNODC attributes the recent surge in heroin addiction in the US to “changes in the formulation of OxyContin, one of the main prescription opioids that are misused, as well as an increase in the availability of heroin and a decrease in its price in some parts of the country.”

‘The Mexicans are producing a better-quality product and moving into markets previously dominated by the Colombians.’

Opium poppies can be found in nearly every region of the world, but they were introduced to Mexico in the late 1800s by Chinese immigrants. The plant it is now grown primarily by impoverished campesinos in mountainous parts of the states of Guerrero and Nayarit, and in the so-called Golden Triangle, a lawless region on the frontiers of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. The Sinaloa Cartel controls most of the heroin production, and the organization has started to move from producing lower-quality “black tar” heroin to higher-grade “China white,” which is more lucrative and prized by consumers in the northeastern US.

For years, Colombia was the leading supplier of “China white” in the US, but poppy production has steadily declined in the country over the last half-decade. Bargent, the Colombia-based organized crime expert, said Mexicans have stepped up to meet the American demand.

“All evidence points to a massive decline [in Colombian heroin production], and that’s in large part because Mexicans are filling that market,” Bargent said. “What appears to be happening is the Mexicans are producing a better-quality product and moving into markets previously dominated by the Colombians, and I don’t think there’s any pushback from them on that.”

A boy extracts raw opium used in heroin production at a poppy field in Nangarhar, Afghanistan in April 2016. (Photo by Ghulamullah Habibi/EPA)

The only other significant heroin-producing region is another Golden Triangle, — the border area between Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. Poppy cultivation is down overall in Myanmar, but is has increased in conflict-plagued eastern parts of the country that remain under the control of warlords and groups like the United Wa State Army, a 20,000-strong rebel group that is heavily involved in the narcotics trade. According to Tun Nay Soe, UNODC program coordinator for East Asia, an estimated 90 percent of heroin produced in Myanmar ends up in China, with the remaining 10 percent going to other countries in Southeast Asia.

Jeremy Douglas, the UNODC regional representative for Southeast Asia, said the relatively weak borders in the Golden Triangle make it ripe for exploitation by smugglers. Product moves over land north into China, or on boats down the Mekong River and throughout the region.

“Between Laos and Thailand, you can pretty much get most things across,” Douglas said. “It’s not exactly rocket science. The same with Thailand and Myanmar — the flows aren’t really held back by the control of mechanisms you’d have at most borders because they lack the protective capacity.”

High-ranking officials from China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam gathered last week at the UN for a “side event” to discuss the development of “a coordinated regional response to drug production.” Douglas, who hosted the discussion, said improved border security was on the agenda, but he was encouraged by the calls for increased “balance” in the collective approach to drugs in the region. Most nations in the regions have harsh drug laws — China routinely puts drug offenders to death — and offer little access to rehabilitation for addicts.

“They need to look at the demand for the drugs, which is unabated,” Douglas said. “As long as the demand is there, organized crime is going to meet it.”

Methamphetamine: Huge Profits and ‘Super Labs’
Demand for methamphetamine has soared since the UN’s last drug summit in 1998, and it has become one of the most popular — and profitable — illicit substances in nearly every corner of the world. From Australia and Asia to Africa and North America, meth is the poster drug for the global narco economy.

The quantities of meth confiscated by authorities over the past decade reflect its rise. According to the UNODC, global meth seizures nearly quadrupled from 24 tons in 2008 to 114 tons in 2012. Meth seizures in Mexico increased from 341 kilograms in 2008 to 44 tons in 2012. In Australia, meth seizures in Australia soared by more than 400 percent in a single year, climbing from 426 kilograms in 2011 to 2,269 kilos in 2012.

In Asia, meth is primarily produced in China, where the precursor chemicals needed to synthesize the drug are abundant, and in the lawless Golden Triangle region of Myanmar and Laos. Douglas, the UNODC rep in Southeast Asia, said that “crystal meth is exploding in the region.” According to the UNODC’s preliminary estimate, 25 tons of meth were seized last year across the region.

Douglas said part of meth’s appeal for drug traffickers is the relatively low startup and overhead costs. Producing heroin requires paying hundreds of farmers to tend crops that can produce only a limited amount of poppy gum per harvest. For meth, it takes only a shipment of relatively easy-to-obtain chemicals and a little bit of scientific knowhow. The drug can be shipped to countries like Australia, which offers the highest price per kilo of meth anywhere in the world, and sold for an enormous profit.

“They don’t need to employ thousands of farmers to produce starting materials,” Douglas said. “Basically they just need to get access to the precursors. It’s a much more tight-knit business model and more profitable for organized crime than heroin.”

A new development, according to Douglas and Soe, is that Indian pharmaceutical companies are supplying meth manufacturers in Myanmar with the necessary lab ingredients. Authorities have busted shipments of millions of pseudoephedrine pills crossing east from India through the porous border with Myanmar. The UNODC officials said the pills were recently manufactured, indicating they were likely made-to-order for illicit purposes rather than diverted from legitimate use.

But for the most part, the chemicals used to make the world’s meth originate in China, where a booming pharmaceutical industry manufactures all the raw ingredients to produce “ice,” the common name for glassy shards of high-purity crystal meth. According to data presented by the Chinese government at UNGASS, the country seized a whopping 20,338 tons of meth precursor chemicals from 2009 to 2015. Busts have shown that individual villages are capable of producing enormous quantities of the drug. On a single day in 2013 in Boshe, a village northeast of Hong Kong on the Chinese mainland, authorities seized three tons of meth and more than 100 tons of precursors.

“[With] crystal meth, the leader appears to be China, but they also produce significant amounts in the Philippines and in Indonesia, and also to some extent in Myanmar,” Douglas said. “But what we’ve seen in recent years is industrial-scale production from a few labs in China.”

The DEA estimates that Mexican cartels produce 90 percent of the meth consumed in the United States. Most of the mom-and-pop meth cooks in the Midwest have been put out of business by laws restricting access to cold medicine that contains precursor pseudoephedrine, and that void had been filled by high-purity product from so-called Mexican “super-labs” fueled by Chinese chemicals.

A police officer in the Philippines holds high-purity crystal meth — known locally as “shabu” — after a bust south of Manila in January 2014. (Photo by Dennis M. Sabangan/EPA)

In one infamous case, a Chinese-Mexican businessman named Zhenli Ye Gon was arrested in 2009 after police found $207 million in cash hidden in his Mexico City mansion; he later admitted to selling tons of meth precursors to the Sinaloa Cartel. Another cartel, the Knights Templar, is known to send illegally mined iron ore to China from ports in the state of Michoacan in exchange for meth precursors. (It’s arguably not the oddest such commodity trade on record: South African meth manufacturersreportedly swap poached abalone — a type of shellfish prized in China — for precursors.)

The connection between Mexican groups, particularly the Sinaloa Cartel, and Asian crime syndicates is well documented. Early last year, an alleged Sinaloa Cartel operative named Horacio Hernandez Herrera was arrested in Manila, and local authorities later confirmed that his organization has attempted to gain a foothold in the country’s domestic meth trade. Shortly after Herrera was detained, police in the Philippinesseized 84 kilograms of high-grade “shabu” crystal meth worth $9.4 million and arrested three suspects with alleged links to the Sinaloa Cartel.

Mazzitelli, the UNODC representative in Mexico, pointed out that the Sinaloa Cartel has also been linked to meth manufacturing operations as far afield as Nigeria. Last month, authorities in that country’s Asaba Delta state arrested four Mexicans and dismantled a “super laboratory” that reportedly had the capacity to produce four tons of meth per week.

“They are everywhere,” Mazzitelli said of the Sinaloa Cartel. “They have the capacity to negotiate with Nigerian criminal groups, European criminal groups — they provide to everybody. They are businessmen.”

He compared the cartel to a “multinational” corporation, and cited the “entrepreneurial spirit” of Mexican traffickers and the “technical edge” the Sinaloans have over their competitors as reasons for the group’s global expansion.

“In these last 15 years, they have transformed the illicit drug business into a worldwide business,” he said. “They are everywhere. They had the capacity to take advantage of the globalization of the demand for illicit drugs. They have the capacity to provide all types of drugs everywhere.”

Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton

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