Regional Composition

For the purposes of IDPC’s regional work, Latin America includes: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Drug Situation


Latin America produces many of the illicit substances consumed globally, with the Andean region being the world’s primary producer of coca and primary supplier of cocaine products. According to the United Nations, over the past year, coca cultivation has increased in Colombia and Peru by 3 and 5 per cent respectively, while in Bolivia cultivation decreased by 12 per cent.  Poppy (from which opium and heroin is produced) is primarily produced in Asia, however it is also grown and produced on a smaller scale in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia and Peru.

Opium production in Colombia and Peru is relatively insignificant. Production in Mexico and Guatemala has increased in recent years, though levels still pale in comparison to that produced in Asia.  According to the 2012 Word Drug Report, the primary producers of cannabis in Latin America are Mexico, Bolivia, Colombia and Paraguay. New evidence shows that production of amphetamine-type stimulants (ATS) is increasing throughout the region. Since 2007, the manufacture of methamphetamine in Mexico appears to have increased significantly. Other countries, such as Nicaragua and Brazil, have also witnessed a growth in ATS manufacturing (See 2012 World Drug Report)


Trafficking routes from cocaine producing countries in the Andean region enter the United State and Canada through Mexico, Central America or via the Caribbean. Attention has recently shifted to Central America as sources report that an estimated 80 per cent of the cocaine bound for the U.S. now passes through the isthmus. The increase in land-based trafficking (owing to a crackdown on Caribbean based routes) has resulted in greater social, economic and political upheaval in Central America. Trafficking routes to Europe are either direct or pass through neighbouring countries.  Because of its closer proximity, European routes often include transhipment points through West Africa. In recent years, West Africa has grown in importance, with traffickers developing transhipment hubs where cocaine from the Andean region is then moved to Western Europe or stored for later sale. Cannabis trafficking is mainly intra-regional and domestic cultivation has increased over the last decade (See 2012 World Drug Report).  In general, Latin America is most affected by the heavy streams of drug trafficking throughout the region and is less affected by drug use.


Although reliable data on drug consumption in the region is lacking, a 2011 study by the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD), shows that the primary drugs consumed in Latin America are cannabis and cocaine and its derivatives. Heroin is not widely used in the region with the exception of Colombia and parts of northern Mexico (based on its proximity to the US). People who inject drugs primarily inject cocaine and its derivatives, with higher injection rates in the Southern Cone. Data is often not provided on injection rates; however the highest prevalence rates are in Brazil with 540,500 people who inject drugs, in Argentina with 65,829 people who inject drugs and in Chile with 42,176 people who inject drugs (IHRA regional overview). Access to harm reduction and quality treatment – particularly within the prison system where it is practically non-existent – continues to be a concern in the region. Also of concern, forced treatment programmes can be found across the region.

Cheaper and more harmful derivatives of cocaine are used in some Latin American countries. Cocaine base paste (CBP), known as paco or bazuco, is used in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay, while “oxi” or “oxidado” (which literally means rust in Spanish) is common in the Amazonian region of Brazil. Oxi is a derivative of cocaine and is often mixed with substances such as gasoline, acetone, batter fluid or other chemicals. The drug can cause stomachaches, vomiting and constant diarrhea, but the most alarming is that many users die within a year. These forms of cocaine paste are relatively cheap and thus are consumed primarily by the urban poor, with devastating health and social effects.

Regional Drug Policies

Historically, regional drug policies have been dictated and imposed by the United States, particularly in the Andean region and Mexico, and have focused on interdiction, militarisation and disrupting transit flows. The criminalisation of producers, crop eradication and increased law enforcement became the regional norm, with financial assistance provided by the United States. Recently, however, Latin American countries have begun to assert control on a national and regional level, experimenting with new means through which to address the issue and using multilateral agencies as a mechanism to influence changes.

At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia in April 2012, the region’s presidents, led by Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, tasked the Organisation of American States (OAS) with undertaking a review of the effectiveness of current drug control policies and exploring alternative approaches. The request grew out of growing recognition across Latin America that present policies have failed to achieve their desired objectives, that countries across the region have paid a high price in implementing those policies, and the need to place higher priority on reducing unacceptably high levels of violence. The request for the OAS study reflects growing regional independence from U.S. policy and the United States’ waning influence in the region.

In complying with its mandate, the OAS produced an analytical report, “The Drug Problem in the Americas” and a complementary Scenarios planning study. The OAS report lays out various alternative drug policies that could be considered by member states including the decriminalisation of consumption, regulated cannabis markets, and national and international drug law reforms (thus pointing to the possibility of reforms of the international drug control conventions). Of the four scenarios, one titled “Pathways” starts from the premise that present policies are causing too much harm and proposes experimenting with legal, regulated frameworks, starting with cannabis. The OAS analytical and scenarios report provide a very important tool for the regional drug policy debate.

At the annual OAS General Assembly meeting in Guatemala in June 2013, drug policy was chosen for the thematic debate. The declaration agreed upon at the end of the meeting, “For a Comprehensive Policy Against the World Drug Problem in the Americas,” calls for countries to initiate a multi-layered process of consultation in a variety of national and regional forums, taking into account the recently-released OAS drug policy studies and the outcomes of the General Assembly meeting and concludes by entrusting the Permanent Council to call for a Special Session to be held no later than 2014. While a new regional consensus on drug policy issues is still a long way off, there is now an unprecedented opportunity for debate. These regional forums will also help prepare the way for the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) which will focus on the drugs issue.

These regional processes provide a strong foundation from which countries can begin to implement national reforms as well as participate in the global debate on reforming drug policy. One of the most far-reaching regional reforms has been Uruguay's approval of a new law in December 2013 to create legal, regulated cannabis markets. In Bolivia, the government has challenged the international drug control conventions, specifically with regards to the coca leaf. It is the first country to denounce and return to the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs (which erroneously classifies the coca leaf as a dangerous narcotic). To harmonise this prohibition with its national constitution, Bolivia decided to withdraw from the Single Convention and to re-accede with a reservation on coca leaf chewing on 1 January 2013 in order to permit the domestic use of coca, and thus protect the historic and cultural right. Fifteen countries (including Canada, the United States and Mexico) objected to the Bolivian reservation; however, that was not sufficient to block its return to the Convention.

See: The drug policy reform agenda in the Americas; A breakthrough in the making? Shifts in the Latin American drug policy debate

Supply reduction

Supply reduction measures focusing on forced crop eradication have treated subsistence farmers as criminals and have led to increased poverty, food insecurity, internal displacement, human rights violations, violence, political instability and environmental damage, without decreasing the amount of crops for the illicit market being produced in the region.


While Colombia and Peru have maintained a focus on forced crop eradication, the Bolivian government has adopted a different approach which is showing positive results. Bolivia’s cooperative coca reduction strategy allows each farmer to grow one cato of coca (about 1,600 square meters) in the Chapare coca growing region; however, any coca grown beyond that is subject to eradication. An elaborate coca monitoring strategy is being put in place which allows the government to monitor coca from its initial cultivation to its transport and sale. The European Union has provided significant funding for the Coca Social Control Support Programme. Bolivia’s approach mirrors that being put forth by donors such as Germany’s GIZ: an alternative livelihoods approach, which is based on improving the lives of poor farmers by providing alternative sources of income and overall improvements to their quality of life, prior to substantial reductions in crops deviated to illicit markets.

Drug interdiction is another form of reducing supply by disrupting the transportation of illicit drugs to their intended markets. Often interdiction programs combine law enforcement and military drug control activities. The provision of military equipment and training – and still increasing roles for U.S .military forces -- has led to what became called the “militarisation” of drug policy, hence the “war on drugs.” The so-called “balloon effect” refers to the process whereby increased enforcement actions in one area result in the shifting of trafficking or production to another area, displacing the target but not generating the enduring changes sought. In 2010, the UNODC reported that the highest level of seizures of cocaine (and its derivatives) occurred in South America, accounting for 52 per cent of the world total. Seizures in North America accounted for another 25 per cent of the world’s total seizures. In contrast, South America only accounted for 3 per cent of the global seizures of heroin and morphine and only 0.005 per cent of the seizures of opium. The United States has focused primarily on supply reduction when addressing the ‘world drug problem’ and has provided the majority of funding to implement eradication and interdiction programmes in producer countries.


Drug trade-related violence

Although much more research needs to be done on the links between the drug trade and violence, high homicide rates in some Latin American countries are linked to the illicit drug trade. The violence associated with the drug trade affects producer and transit countries alike.

The hard-line responses deployed by governments can also generate violence, exacerbating the situation. Although Mexico’s military had long been tasked with illicit drug control, in 2006 former President Felipe Calderón declared a war on organised crime and increased the military’s role, particularly in patrolling the streets. With strong support from the US government under the Merida Initiative, Calderón began a wide-scale, militarised fight against drug trafficking organisations. This increased militarisation of the country has resulted in more than 70,000 deaths, 25,000 forced disappearances and hundreds of thousands of people displaced due to the violence. Human rights abuses perpetuated by security forces against civilians were widely reported. The capture or death of high-level traffickers resulted in greater violence as lower-level operatives vie for power.

Drug trafficking organisations have proven to be adept in adapting to law enforcement strategies and are often more innovative than the security forces.  Because of pressure from law enforcement, Mexican trafficking organisations have expanded or moved their operations to neighbouring countries in Central America, which have even weaker state institutions and are less prepared to deal with increased drug trafficking.

Several countries in Latin America, including Brazil, have long suffered from urban violence associated with the drug trade and are actively seeking ways to mitigate the violence through community policing and increased social programmes. Both of these initiatives have had some results, but have also been criticised for the lack of quality implementation.

Criminal justice system

The Latin American criminal justice system as it relates to drug offences, for production, trafficking and use, continues to lack basic resources and has resulted in exacerbating the already weak institutions in the region. A major issue is the lack of proportionality in sentencing for drug-related offences, with blurred or non-existent distinction made between possession of drugs for personal use and trafficking; a lack of hierarchy of drug offences, the rank or position of the accused in drug-trafficking networks; violent and non-violent offenses; and differentiating between types of drugs.

Harsh drug laws have led to massive overcrowding, inhumane conditions and violence in prisons across Latin America. In the last decade in Brazil, the prison population has doubled from 233,000 to 473,000 prisoners, due in part to a 2006 drug law that increased penalties for small-scale drug dealers. Inhumane conditions and ineffective security in prisons has resulted in fires and massacres, including a fire in February 2012 in Honduras which killed 350 inmates, and a massacre in Mexico that same month which resulted in the deaths of 44 inmates and the escape of 36 organised crime members. In practice, gangs run many prisons in Latin America, with guards serving as perimeter security and to transport prisoners to court (Systems Overload: Drug Laws and Prisons in Latin America; Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law (Colectivo de Estudios Drogas y Derecho, CEDD).

Drug courts are now being considered by governments in the region (and are already in use in Chile), in particular Mexico, to divert people dependent on drugs towards treatment programmes. However, evidence on drug courts shows that such mechanisms can have a negative impact on people who use drugs, in particular the fact that they lead to the criminalisation of users, it suspends their rights to due process, and leaves access to drug dependence treatment in the hands of the courts, rather than tackling drug dependence through a right to health lens (Drug courts: Scope and challenges of an alternative to incarceration).

Public health

The greatest public health issue facing Latin America regarding drug use is the lack of access to quality, evidence-based treatment. Treatment centres are often community-based without proper oversight, regulation and results. High-quality centres are only available to high-income people, leaving low-income communities with few choices regarding dependence treatment. Forced treatment centres are disturbingly common.

There are an estimated 1.6 million people living with HIV in Latin America. In Argentina, injecting drug use has been a major factor driving the spread of HIV, with prevalence of 50 per cent for people who inject drugs. The same is true in Brazil, where 48 per cent of people who inject drugs are living with HIV. Cocaine and its derivatives are the most commonly injected drugs, along with a small percentage that inject heroin. Cocaine users face the greatest risk of HIV infection because they inject more frequently than heroin users. Levels of Hepatitis C infection in the region are believed to be as high as 69 per cent among injection drug users (IDUs) in Brazil and 96 per cent in Mexico. A recent study (UN World Drug Report 2011) of Mexican drug users in prison settings found that 92 per cent were injecting and half of them were combining heroin and cocaine, which is commonly known as “speed balling”.

Harm Reduction policies are relatively underdeveloped in Latin America. The only country with both Needle Syringe Programmes (NSP) and Opiate Substitution Treatment (OST) in the region is Mexico, while Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay have NSPs. Many of these programmes have low coverage and urgently need scaling up.

Key Resources

For more information regarding drug policy in Latin America, please click here.

IDPC Members in Latin America

For a full list of IDPC members in Latin America, please click here: