The coronavirus pandemic is having a dramatic if unintended impact on the global drugs trade, with closed borders making smuggling more difficult and pushing up the price of street narcotics.
A United Nations report has found that normal smuggling routes have been disrupted by nationwide lockdowns in countries hit by COVID-19, forcing drug traffickers to switch to less reliable methods.
At the same time production on the ground has been disrupted, with lockdowns robbing drug producers of the labour they need to harvest and process crops such as poppies and cocaine leaves and increasing the deadly competition between rival drug cartels.
The report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also warns that shortages could lead to the use of "harmful domestically-produced substances" instead, especially among heroin addicts.
Following the introduction of flight bans and tighter border controls in the wake of the pandemic drug traffickers have been less able to exploit legal trade routes to “camouflage” their activities.
“The measures implemented by governments to counter the Covid-19 pandemic have thus inevitably affected all aspects of the illegal drug markets, from the production and trafficking of drugs to their consumption,” the report states.
According to the UN, traffickers anticipated the difficulties and have tried to make increasing use of sea traffic to keep their supply chains going (see photograph below).
Bob Van den Berghe, of UNODC’s Container Control Programme, said: “Based on seizures of bigger-than-usual shipments of cocaine, it would be fair to say that Europe was flooded with cocaine ahead of lockdowns.”
The report says that "a recent uptick in heroin seizures in the Indian Ocean could be interpreted as indication of an increase in the use of maritime routes for trafficking" towards Europe.
It adds: "There are indications that the reduction in air traffic to Europe resulting from the COVID-19 measures may already have led to an increase in direct cocaine shipments by sea cargo from South America to Europe".
UNODC confiscated 17.5 tonnes of cocaine bound for Europe from South America during the first three months of this year.
In Rotterdam alone drug seizures increased from 4.1 tonnes in the first quarter of last year to 6.6 tonnes in the same period this year.
In Antwerp a 5-tonnes of cocaine was found last month hidden in a refrigerator also containing squid from South America. Weeks earlier police in the Peruvian port of El Callao intercepted a shipment of cocaine hidden in surgical masks bound for China.
However the slow down in international trade has now also had an impact on the shipment of drugs by sea routes.
Mr Van den Berghe said lockdowns in Latin American countries have led to a drop off in global maritime trade and “a very substantive drop in the seizures”.
He said: “It has become more difficult for criminal organisations to get cocaine into the maritime ports because borders are closed, roads are closed, you have police officers everywhere.”
UNODC found that “reports emerging from different countries point to a shortage of drugs among end-consumers caused by reduction in imports of drugs and/or by strict lockdown measures, with reports of heroin shortages in Europe, South-West Asia and North America in particular".
There are also indications of a slow down in the flow of cocaine from countries such as Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, where the drug’s raw material, coca, is grown.
Brazilian gangs ship cocaine to Europe via west Africa, using Guinea-Bissau, Guinea and Senegal as entry points, experts say, but UNODC said transit hubs such as Niger had reported “a cease” in trafficking.
But the report warns that the coronavirus crisis has also presented drug gangs with new opportunities, allowing them to pose as community benefactors in return for greater influence.
"There are indications that drug trafficking groups are adapting their strategies... and that some have started to exploit the situation so as to enhance their image among the population by providing services, in particular to the vulnerable," it states.
One effect of the disruption to smuggling networks has been to drive up the street price of drugs, with the wholesale price for a kilo of cocaine coming through Rotterdam going from €25,000 a kilo late last year to €32,000 a kilo now.
Jeremy McDermott, co-director of the Medellin-based think tank InSight Crime, said: “People are prepared to pay more money because it’s much harder to get your drugs than before when you could go out and meet your dealer. Now you have to use the drug delivery networks or the dark web. For the retail drug dealer it’s a dream scenario. For the drug producer it’s frustrating.”
The rise in street prices could also lead to users switching substances.
The report states: "Many countries across all regions have reported an overall shortage of numerous types of drugs at the retail level, as well as increases in prices, reductions in purity and that drug users have consequently been switching substance (for example, from heroin to synthetic opioids) and/or increasingly accessing drug treatment.”
An increase in the use of pharmaceutical products such as benzodiazepines has also been reported, already doubling their price in certain areas.
UNODC warns drug shortages could also lead to an increase in injecting drug use and the sharing of injecting equipment, carrying an increased risk of spreading diseases like HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and COVID-19 itself.