Cocaine production is the highest it's been since 2016 because South American cartels took advantage of the retreat of the Covid-19 pandemic to ramp up coca production and smuggling, the Guardian reports. “The pandemic was a bit of a blip for the expansion of cocaine production, but now it has rebounded and is even higher than what it was before,” said Antoine Vella, a researcher with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which issued a new report. Cartels were forced to stockpile mass quantities of cocaine early in the pandemic when flights were suddenly grounded and road traffic heavily policed, but they quickly adapted. Major drug busts revealed cocaine to be cleverly concealed inside avocados, facemasks and even crates full of squid on cargo ships. In the most sophisticated of cases the drug was chemically broken down, mixed into liquids, waxes and fabrics so it could not be seen, and then extracted and transformed back into a powder at its destination.
Despite record cocaine seizures of nearly 2,000 tons in 2021, anti-narcotics efforts have only slowed the growth of cocaine smuggling. The amount of cocaine flowing through North Sea ports such as Antwerp, Rotterdam and Hamburg now eclipses those in Spain and Portugal, historically the drug’s gateway into western Europe. Demand for cocaine is currently concentrated in Europe and North America. The two regions are home to one-fifth of the world’s population and three-quarters of its cocaine consumers. Countries such as Brazil – South America’s largest cocaine consumer – are seeing a spike in overdoses, however, suggesting they are seeing rapidly growing supply and consumption. The amount of land used for Colombian coca cultivation increased by more than 40% in 2021, reaching 204,000 hectares. The demobilization of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has made cocaine production easier and more lucrative, the UNODC says. “The group with the largest capacity to exert violence suddenly disappeared – and that in itself is an incentive for the production of coca and cocaine,” said Jorge Restrepo, director of the Bogotá-based Resource Center for Conflict Analysis.