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National Drug Threat Assessment: Cocaine 2008

Large cocaine seizures and strong cocaine interdiction operations appear to have disrupted the ability of some foreign DTOs to supply cocaine to the United States and have caused many U.S. cities, primarily cities in the eastern United States, to experience decreased availability of cocaine during the first half of 2007. In certain cities, these shortages have continued through October 2007. However, Mexican DTOs will most likely undertake concerted efforts to reestablish their supply chain, and because cocaine production in South America appears to be stable or increasing, cocaine availability could return to normal levels during late 2007 and early 2008. Mexican DTOs are the dominant distributors of wholesale quantities of cocaine in the United States, and no other group is positioned to challenge them in the near term.


  • Potential South American cocaine production increased in 2006 as Colombian coca growers adapted their growing practices to counter intensified coca eradication.
  • The Eastern Pacific route, the primary cocaine transportation route within the Mexico-Central America Corridor, may be gaining even greater prominence in cocaine trafficking to the United States.
  • Cocaine smuggling through South Texas POEs most likely accounts for a greater portion of the cocaine available in U.S. drug markets than does cocaine smuggled through any other area of the Southwest Border, despite cocaine flow through California POEs increasing sharply in 2006.
  • Cocaine availability decreased in several U.S. drug markets during the first half of 2007, most likely because of a combination of factors that included large cocaine seizures in transit toward the United States, law enforcement efforts against prominent Mexican DTOs, violent conflicts between competing Mexican DTOs, and increased competition from non-U.S. markets.
  • High levels of cocaine-related crime, rates of abuse, and overdose incidents are a considerable burden to the nation--a condition not likely to diminish in the near term.

in Colombia, the intelligence community reporting indicates that many of the fields in the new growing areas were most likely planted away from traditional cultivation areas where eradication has intensified. Intelligence reporting also indicates that Colombian coca growers have responded to eradication efforts by the radical pruning (drastically cutting back the bush, often down to the ground, to protect the plant from the herbicide) and vigorous replanting of sprayed coca bushes. These practices allow for more rapid regeneration or replacement of sprayed fields.

Table 1. Estimated Andean Region Coca Cultivation and Potential Pure Cocaine Production, 2002-2006

? 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
Net Cultivation (hectares) 200,750 166,300 166,200 204,500 220,000
Bolivia 21,600 23,200 24,600 26,500 25,800
Colombia 144,450 113,850 114,100 144,000 157,200
Peru 34,700 29,250 27,500 34,000 37,000
Potential Pure Cocaine Production (metric tons) 975 805 775 910 970
Bolivia* 110 100 115 115 115
Colombia 585 460 430 545 610
Peru 280 245 230 250 245

Source: Crime and Narcotics Center.
* Amounts for 2002 through 2005 are based on old estimates of cocaine processing efficiency (1993) and thus could tend to understate actual output.
a. Numbers may not add exactly due to rounding and may differ from figures published in previous National Drug Threat Assessments because of updated data and improved methodologies.

The percentage of cocaine reported moving from South America toward the United States through the Mexico-Central America Corridor also remained steady at 90 percent between 2005 and 2006. However, a greater percentage of the cocaine that moved through the Mexico-Central America Corridor in 2006 appears to have moved through the Eastern Pacific Vector. The IACM estimates that 66 percent of the cocaine reported departing South America toward the United States during 2006 moved through the Eastern Pacific Vector. This was a 32 percent increase from the 50 percent that moved through the vector in 2005, according to the IACM. By comparison, the percentage of cocaine reported moving through the Western Caribbean Vector toward the United States decreased from 38 percent in 2005 to 24 percent in 2006. While these data appear to indicate more cocaine moving through the Eastern Pacific, it may be more reflective of situational awareness than actual changes in trafficking routes.

Figure 1. Vectors in the Transit Zone--CCDB-documented cocaine flow departing South America, January-December 2006.

Moreover, the large amount of cocaine seized at checkpoints and traffic stops on highways north of these POEs confirms the heavy flow of cocaine through the South Texas region. Notwithstanding South Texas' primacy with respect to cocaine flow into the United States, cocaine seizures at California POEs along the Southwest Border are very high and have increased sharply from 1.9 MT in 2004 to 2.4 MT in 2005 to 3.7 MT in 2006. Much of this increase is attributable to an increase in cocaine seizures at the Calexico POE, from which 2.3 MT of cocaine were seized in 2006, much higher than in 2004 (823 kg) and 2005 (760 kg).

Cocaine availability decreased in several U.S. drug markets during the first half of 2007, most likely because of a combination of factors that included large cocaine seizures in transit toward the United States, law enforcement efforts against prominent Mexican DTOs, violent conflicts between competing Mexican DTOs, and increased competition from non-U.S. markets. During spring 2007 federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies in several U.S. drug markets reported that cocaine availability decreased and that cocaine shortages were apparent in their jurisdictions. By June 2007 law enforcement agencies in 38 large and midsize drug markets reported decreased cocaine availability to various degrees. Cocaine shortages were most evident in the Great Lakes, New England, and Mid-Atlantic Regions of the country, but some major drug markets outside these areas also reported indications of decreased cocaine availability. These markets include Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and San Francisco. Investigators in many of the 38 drug markets report that drug distributors were unable to obtain their regular supplies of cocaine. Law enforcement reporting in many of these markets indicates that the decrease in availability was accompanied by a corresponding increase in cocaine prices and a decrease in cocaine purity. Some reported price increases were significant--nearly doubling in some cases--while others were less dramatic, remaining near or only slightly higher than the normal price ranges. Regardless of the amount of the reported price increase from city to city, the trend was evident, since cocaine prices in many different markets over a large portion of the country appeared to increase simultaneously. Decreased cocaine availability continued into the second half of 2007, but recent reporting indicates that cocaine availability levels may be returning to normal levels in some markets.

Analysis of Quest Diagnostics(Drug Abuse Warning Network) data appear to support the assertion of decreased cocaine availability. Quest Diagnostics data are available in 30 of the 38 cities in which cocaine shortages were reported. In 26 of the 30 cities, cocaine positivity rates--the percentage of workers or work seekers who show positive for recent cocaine use in occupational drug tests--decreased during the second quarter of 2007 when compared with the same period (second quarter) in 2006 (see Table 6 in Appendix C). Moreover, national cocaine positivity rates from workplace drug tests were 21 percent lower during the second quarter of 2007 (0.553%) than during the same period in 2006 (0.700%). (See Chart 1.) Additionally, DAWN Live! data are available in 10 of the 38 cities in which cocaine shortages were reported. These data reveal that the percentage of drug-related emergency department (ED) visits involving cocaine was lower during the second quarter of 2007 than the second quarter of 2006 in nine of the 10 cities (see Map 6 in Appendix B).

Chart 1. Rates of National Positive Cocaine Results in Workplace Drug Tests, 2005-2007*

The percentage of workers or work seekers who tested positive for recent cocaine use in occupational drug tests was 21 percent lower during the second quarter of 2007 than during the same period in 2006.

Source: Quest Diagnostics.
*Only 2 quarters are available for 2007.

Analysis of NSS data indicates a decrease in the flow of cocaine across the Southwest Border during the second quarter of 2007.According to the NSS, the amount of cocaine seized during the second quarter of 2007 was 39 percent lower (from 6,987 kg to 4,249 kg) than during the same period in 2006. (See Table 2.) In fact, NSS cocaine seizures recorded during the second quarter of 2007 were the lowest recorded for any quarter since the third quarter of 2003.

Table 2. Southwest Border Area Seizures for Cocaine, by Quarter, in Kilograms, Third Quarter 2003-Second Quarter 2007a

Third Quarter 2003 Fourth Quarter 2003 First Quarter 2004 Second Quarter 2004 Third Quarter 2004 Fourth Quarter 2004 First Quarter 2005 Second Quarter 2005
4,172 4,644 6,140 5,130 5,397 5,881 4,557 5,295
Third Quarter 2005 Fourth Quarter 2005 First Quarter 2006 Second Quarter 2006 Third Quarter 2006 Fourth Quarter 2006 First Quarter 2007 Second Quarter 2007
7,117 5,693 6,109 6,987 8,152 6,173 7,111 4,249

Source: National Seizure System.
a. Southwest Border area seizures include all seizures at POEs, between POEs, and within 150 miles of the Southwest Border.

Much of the second quarter 2007 decrease in NSS seizures for cocaine can be attributed to lower seizure amounts in Texas. NSS data show a 56 percent decrease in cocaine seizures in Texas from the first quarter of 2007 (5,244 kg) to the second quarter of 2007 (2,327 kg). Second quarter 2007 cocaine seizures in Texas were also significantly lower than cocaine seizures during the same period in 2006 (4,586 kg) and 2005 (3,490 kg). Southwest area cocaine seizure totals for other border states during the second quarter of 2007 were similar to those for past quarters.

Analysis of information and intelligence available to NDIC indicates that the factors most likely contributing to the shortage are large seizures of cocaine while in transit toward Mexico as well as law enforcement operations against Mexican DTOs operating inside and outside the United States, including extraditions of key members of Mexican DTOs. These seizures and law enforcement operations occurred nearly simultaneously and appear to have had a cumulative effect, resulting in disruptions to the cocaine supply chain. In addition, conflicts between competing Mexican DTOs and increased shipments of cocaine to non-U.S. markets may have affected the amount of cocaine available for shipment to the United States.


Uncertainty exists regarding the precision of coca cultivation estimates. Although the best available estimates indicate an increase in coca cultivation in South America, the rapid adaptation by coca growers and their changing cultivation practices challenge analysts' ability to develop cocaine production estimates with a high degree of certainty. The land area surveyed for coca cultivation in South America increased each year from 2004 through 2006, and in each year, coca fields were discovered in areas not previously surveyed or known for large-scale coca cultivation. Analysts are uncertain as to how long these newly discovered coca fields have been active. Moreover, analysts also are uncertain about the productivity of coca fields that are rapidly replanted after aerial eradication and about the productivity of vigorously pruned coca bushes.

While current data and reporting suggest that Mexican and Colombian traffickers are increasing the flow of cocaine through the Eastern Pacific, the trend may only be reflective of the counterdrug community's greater awareness of cocaine shipments in the Eastern Pacific versus shipments of cocaine in other vectors. Factors that affect the counterdrug community's ability to accurately and consistently estimate the annual flow of cocaine through different transportation vectors include the availability of information on drug movements, the accessibility of counterdrug assets such as ships and planes that are capable of detecting and interdicting shipments of cocaine, reporting from foreign counterdrug forces, and the changing of tactics by traffickers that thwart the detection/interception of cocaine shipments.

Increased cocaine trafficking and abuse in non-U.S. markets may have been a contributing factor to recent cocaine shortages in the United States; however, the full effect is very difficult to determine. The IACM indicates that the amount of cocaine being transported from South America to non-U.S. markets, particularly to Europe, has increased since 2004. Similarly, the IACM reports that cocaine consumption in non-U.S. markets is increasing. However, many of the cocaine consumption and flow estimates in non-U.S. markets are imprecise. The imprecision of these studies, combined with uncertainties regarding total cocaine production and U.S. consumption, makes it difficult to determine the extent to which expanding non-U.S. markets have contributed to recent cocaine shortages in the United States.


In many of the cities in which cocaine shortages were reported, DTOs will most likely reestablish cocaine distribution at or near 2006 levels in the near term. The disruption to cocaine distribution and availability in the first half of 2007 probably was not the result of a decrease in cocaine production or worldwide availability. Rather, the cocaine decrease in U.S. drug markets appeared to be partly the result of large cocaine seizures in the Eastern Pacific during a period of disruption and infighting among Mexican DTOs and increased cocaine shipments to markets outside the United States. Despite the disruptions, wholesale distributors will most likely either reestablish distribution with their original sources of supply in Mexico or establish new sources of supply with other Mexican DTOs. In fact, cocaine availability may already be returning to previous levels in some areas. The Philadelphia/Camden High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA)--the first drug market to report sustained cocaine shortages--reported in August 2007 that cocaine availability was returning to levels observed before the 2007 shortage.

Wholesale cocaine prices in the United States may remain high in 2008 even if cocaine availability returns to 2006 levels. Cocaine traffickers may try to exploit actual or perceived shortages of cocaine by inflating the price of kilogram quantities of cocaine. Competition among distributors will most likely bring about a balance in prices relative to supply; however, in the near term, distributors may hold prices at artificially high levels to increase their profits. For example, some investigators in Atlanta report that the city briefly experienced cocaine shortages during 2007 and that the shortages caused a permanent increase in cocaine prices at the wholesale and retail levels.

3. To estimate the amount of cocaine departing South America for world markets, the Interagency Assessment of Cocaine Movement (IACM) assesses that 940 MT of pure cocaine was produced in South America during 2006. This differs from the 970 MT estimate because the IACM constructs an "average" potential cocaine production estimate to account for differences in when annual coca cultivation surveys are conducted in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia.
4. According to the U.S. State Department, aerial eradication in Colombia is measured in the number of hectares sprayed annually.
5. Estimates of the amount of cocaine departing from South America toward the United States integrate production-, consumption-, and movement-based estimates and are presented as a range of the amount of cocaine leaving South America toward the United States during any given year. The exact amount of cocaine that departed South America toward the United States falls within this range and presently cannot be determined because of imprecision in the data.
6. The U.S. Arrival Zone is defined as all land, air, and maritime entry points into the United States, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and 150 miles inside the U.S. Southwest Border.
7. Quest Diagnostics is an independent corporation that conducts employment-related drug testing services for private industry and the federal government. As a public service, Quest publishes The Quest Diagnostics Drug Testing Index, a periodic report that examines drug test positivity rates (the proportion of positive results for a drug to all such drug tests performed) for the combined U.S. workforce--which includes general workers and federally mandated, safety-sensitive workers.
8. Drug Abuse Warning Network (DAWN) collects data from numerous hospital emergency departments in 13 metropolitan areas as well as from a nationally representative sample of hospitals. Data are collected on all drug-related emergency department visits to measure the effects of substance use, misuse, and abuse.
9. National Seizure System (NSS) data may not include all seizures for the second quarter of 2007, since some seizures are not reported to El Paso Intelligence Center (EPIC) on a timely basis or are not entered into the NSS immediately because of personnel limitations.
10. The most recently published DAWN estimates for all drugs are for 2005; however, unweighted data from 2007 DAWN Live! for 2006 and 2007 were provided to National Drug Intelligence Center (NDIC) for its use in preparing several recent cocaine assessments. Data from DAWN Live! are not representative or final and cannot be compared with other data from other years.

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