With the declaration by the United Nations on Thursday that Colombia has reduced its coca crop by 25 percent, meaning Peru has likely passed the country as the world’s largest cultivator of coca, Colombians can breathe a sigh of relief. Ravaged by a decades-long civil war in large part funded by that country’s massive drug trade, Colombia is now making progress in bringing its conflict with the FARC rebel group to an end.
But success in Colombia far from heralds the end of the drug war, and decreasing production there only illustrates the degree to which the manufacture of drugs — in particular cocaine — is shifting globally. Even as the traditional strongholds of cocaine use — North America and Europe — witness decreases in the drug’s prevalence, cocaine is becoming more popular elsewhere in the world, particularly in Asia and South America. With economies booming and incomes rising, the once-favorite drug of American yuppies is now more accessible to the new upper classes of the developing world.
Welcome to the new cocaine war.
The story of declining coca production in Colombia and its gradual shift to Peru is part of a long-running trend in cocaine manufacturing. Since the 1990s, crackdowns in one Latin American country have pushed production elsewhere. While cocaine production has generally decreased over the past decade, that decline has been centered in Colombia.
New drug-consumption trends are creating something of an altered picture. Though the rate of drug use remains far lower in Asia than elsewhere in the world, drugs, including cocaine, have made remarkable inroads on the continent in recent years. For Latin America’s cocaine barons, growing disposable income in Asia has created a potentially lucrative market. In July 2012, for instance, authorities in Hong Kong seized their largest-ever shipment of cocaine, valued at a whopping $98 million.
That trend is mirrored in the United Nations’ annual drug report from this year, which documents how the share of global cocaine use is moving away from regions like North America and into other countries:
The prevalence of global cocaine use tells a similar story:
But as methods of making the drug have changed, and as the production and distribution of cocaine have evolved, the drug’s customers have changed too. These changes have undermined the widespread perception that cocaine is predominantly a rich man’s drug. The United Nations has examined this question and found that in Latin America cocaine use is far less tied to increases in income, which likely reflects the availability of the drug along supply routes and the presence of cheaper versions of the drug. In Europe, meanwhile, higher rates of cocaine use are associated with greater levels of per capita income.
With the cocaine market gradually shifting away from the United States, cartels are now moving into countries like Brazil. With its 5,000-mile border with Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia — the world’s three-largest cocaine producers — smuggling the drug into Brazil is a relatively easy and lucrative enterprise. From there, the drug either hits the domestic market or is shipped to Africa en route to Europe. Providing 36.8 percent of global cocaine demand, the United States is still far and away the world’s largest market for the drug. But Brazil is not far behind, with 17.7 percent of the global market. Though trendlines on cocaine usage are moving the right direction in the United States — cocaine use has dropped by an estimated two-thirds in 30 years — drug cartels can still make enormous sums off of moving the drug into the U.S. market.
Colombia’s success in decreasing coca production can be largely attributed to its militarized approach to dealing with its cartels and an aggressive eradication program. Politicians in both Colombia and the United States are likely to point to the U.N.’s findings about coca production as an example of the success of the so-called Plan Colombia.
But as cocaine begins to move out of Colombia, other markets are opening up for the drug, ensuring its continued prevalence both in Latin American and elsewhere around the world.