Mexican drug cartels have strengthened their presence in the United States and Europe, and consolidated business in Asia and Oceania thanks to the rise of methamphetamines. That’s according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which presented the report Synthetic Drugs and New Psychoactive Substances in Latin America and the Caribbean last week in Vienna. The document warns that there has been an increase in the trafficking of methamphetamine, a drug principally made in the Mexican states of Baja California, Sinaloa, Jalisco and Michoacán. Mexican drug traffickers, led today by the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG), have widened their channels of international distribution. Cocaine and cannabis continue to dominate the illegal market, but methamphetamine and the advent of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, “have significantly changed the synthetic drug landscape” and the challenges it poses, says the report.
One such challenge is the rise of online drug sales, a trend that is linked to the travel restrictions introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic. “Traffickers may shift even more toward online drug-trafficking business models to expand their businesses and networks, and that this particular trafficking model may become a more prominent fixture in the illicit regional drug market after the pandemic,” the document warns.
Evidence shows that demand for methamphetamine already dominates the synthetic-drug market and is on the rise. “Large amounts of methamphetamine are trafficked from Mexico to the United States and an increasing amount of methamphetamine has been seized in both countries along this part of the border,” the report explains. “In 2018, methamphetamine seizures along this border were more than three times higher than in 2013, and the amounts seized in the financial year 2020 were double those of 2018.” Methamphetamine seizures in the US also doubled between 2017 and 2019, according to the document.
Although the number of illegal labs dismantled in Mexico has dropped, the UNODC says that this does not necessarily mean that methamphetamine production has fallen too. Indeed, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), “the production capacity of individual laboratories in Mexico has recently increased, so that a smaller number of large-scale manufacturing facilities are required to produce large amounts of methamphetamine,” the report explains.
At the US-Mexico border, drug traffickers are using different techniques to avoid detection, such as dissolving methamphetamine in solvents to “traffic it in liquid form,” says the document. Once over the border, the drug is usually taken to “a conversion laboratory in the destination country, where the solution is converted back to crystalline methamphetamine.”
Mexican drug cartels are also continuing to increase their activities outside of the region. According to the report, Mexican drug traffickers have increased their distribution in Europe. In March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic hit Europe, Spanish authorities seized a shipment of more than 270 kilos of methamphetamine from Mexico. This is so far the largest methamphetamine operation ever to be carried out in Spain. Not long after that operation, Slovakia seized a shipment of 1.5 tons of methamphetamines.
Online trafficking and distribution of drugs via postal or courier services in the region are likely to have gained popularity during the pandemic
The UNODC report indicates that “in both of these cases it remains unclear whether Europe was intended as the final destination for the seized methamphetamine or whether these shipments were destined for onward trafficking.” Several Mexican nationals have also been arrested for their involvement in the manufacture of methamphetamine in Europe, including four in the Netherlands in 2019. The drug is also being trafficked to several countries in Asia and Oceania. While some of these shipments are sent from the US, the UNODC document states that their size “suggests that criminal groups with access to large amounts of methamphetamine are involved” – in other words, Mexican drug cartels.
Japan, Australia and New Zealand are among the countries most affected in the Oceania region. According to the UNODC, there have been a number of cases of methamphetamine being trafficked “by plane, by ship and by mail.” The report links this last mode of trafficking to the coronavirus crisis, given restrictions on movement made street-level dealing more difficult. “Online trafficking and distribution of drugs via postal or courier services in the region are likely to have gained popularity during the pandemic,” it finds. The report also warns that “while there is increasing awareness of synthetic drugs among governments in the region, many still lack the functional capacity to systematically scrutinize their mail stream for such substances.”
The document does not discuss violence, which is the main consequence of drug trafficking. In recent years, the Mexican government has tried to change its approach to the fight against organized crime, which has cost the lives of tens of thousands of civilians. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador supports a policy of “hugs not bullets.” This program, which has come into question, seeks to help alleviate poverty and promote development in the areas affected by drug trafficking.
The Mexican government has also signed a new security agreement with the US administration of Joe Biden, which aims to find solutions to the structural causes of the problem, although there are few details about the pact. The plan, dubbed the United States-Mexico Bicentennial Framework for Security, Public Health and Safe Communities, intends to switch the focus to drug consumption, and its main goal is to support economic development in areas used for drug manufacture and those along the border. The previous plan, called the Mérida Initiative, was formed under the administration of former US president George Bush, and has since reached its end. Under this policy, the US has spent about $3 billion (€2.58 billion) since 2007 to assist Mexico in the fight against organized crime. It is not currently known what the budget will be for the new strategy, a detail that will need to be confirmed by the end of the year.
Covid limits migration despite more people displaced by war and disasters | Global development
The coronavirus pandemic had a radical effect on migration, limiting movement despite increasing levels of internal displacement from conflict and climate disasters, the UN’s International Organization for Migration said in a report on Wednesday.
Though the number of people who migrated internationally increased to 281 million in 2020 – 9 million more than before Covid-19 – the number was 2 million lower than expected without a pandemic, according to the report.
“We are witnessing a paradox not seen before in human history,” said IOM director general, António Vitorino. “While billions of people have been effectively grounded by Covid-19, tens of millions of others have been displaced within their own countries.”
Internal displacement caused by violence, conflict and disasters increased to 40.5 million from 31.5 million. Globally, the IOM said governments implemented a total of 108,000 restrictions on international travel, alongside internal restrictions on movement, disrupting migration during the pandemic.
Prior to the report’s release, Vitorino told IOM member states on Monday that international cooperation was needed to ensure people were not stripped of the option of migrating when they needed to.
He also pointed out that people from countries with low levels of vaccination could be excluded from emigrating. “We must acknowledge the deep impacts the Covid-19 pandemic has had for people on the move: people stranded in transit, families separated across borders, migrants left unemployed but unable to afford the return home,” said Vitorino.
“The resulting complex patchwork of measures, frequently changing in scope and application, has placed a chilling effect on cross-border mobility, particularly for those unvaccinated.”
The report said conditions were particularly harsh for people from developing countries working in the Middle East and south-east Asia, with the pandemic affecting their incomes and housing, while they were also often excluded from access to healthcare and welfare.
However, the feared 20% drop in remittances – which can be a key lifeline to poor families during crises – that was predicted by the World Bank in April 2020 did not materialise and had been much lower, at 2.4%. This might be partly related to people being forced to send money to their families through formal routes, the report suggested, because options such as carrying cash were blocked off, as well as many working in jobs on the frontline of the pandemic that continued despite lockdowns.
Poland curtails media access to Belarus border
Poland’s president on Tuesday (30 November) signed into law legislation that will limit the access of aid charities and journalists to its border with Belarus as the country grapples with a simmering migrant crisis, Reuters reports. The law is a blow to the opposition parties that advocated for unlimited media access, an amendment approved by the upper house of parliament on Friday but rejected by the lower house.
Even after 40 years the response to Aids in many countries is still held back by stigma | Hakima Himmich and Mike Podmore
Forty years after the first cases of Aids were discovered, goals for its global elimination have yet to be achieved. In 2020, nearly 700,000 people died of Aids-related illnesses and 1.5 million people were newly infected with HIV.
This is despite scientific and medical advances in the testing, treatment and care of people living with HIV.
Part of the reason is something that those affected by HIV know all too well: discrimination. The history of the response to this virus has long been hampered by stigma and it continues to disproportionately affect key groups – men who have sex with men; sex workers; transgender people; people who inject drugs and prisoners. According to UNAIDS, the United Nations programme on Aids/HIV, these communities account for 93% of new HIV infections outside sub-Saharan Africa.
Social, state and symbolic discrimination and violence play a huge role in preventing people in these groups from accessing care and prevention services. It is difficult to protect yourself from HIV when, in some countries, having prevention tools in your pocket – whether it be sterile syringes or condoms – can lead to arrest.
It’s hard to talk to your doctor about sexual safety or access antiretroviral treatment when homophobia permeates your society. Discrimination is directly related to stigma and they are mutually reinforcing, acting as catalysts for transmission.
Punitive laws that infringe human rights also continue to hold back progress.
The criminalisation of certain behaviours and jobs – such as drug use, non-disclosure of HIV status, and sex work – infringes on the rights and freedoms of key populations and their ability to access justice and health services. Often, this is a result of prejudice among law enforcement.
Russia is one example of how pushing back on human rights, freedoms and personal autonomy also holds back the fight against HIV and Aids. In June, at the last UN high-level meeting on HIV and Aids, Russia submitted amendments to the final declaration to delete any reference to human rights, decriminalising sex work or harm reduction related to injecting drugs, claiming it was an affront to family values.
How can we not make the connection between these views and the worrying progression of the HIV epidemic in Russia? Russian government estimates suggest that new HIV infections increased annually by 10% to 15% a year between 2006 and 2015. It is a trajectory leading to enormous prevalence rates in key populations (including its estimated 1.8 million injection-drug users) and a general population prevalence of more than 1%. As in other countries where homosexuality is subject to social repression, there is reason to believe that these estimates are very conservative because the impact of homophobia reduces estimates of certain population sizes and incidence.
Alongside eliminating stigma, discrimination and criminalisation, nations need to consider how funding is directed. According to the Dutch organisation Aidsfonds, programmes targeting key, most at-risk groups in low- and middle-income countries receive only 2% of HIV funding.
Yet marginalised people have long proven their ability to implement innovative solutions to protect fellow human beings in the face of epidemics, whether it be Aids or Covid-19. Community-led responses that respect human rights in the local context are highly effective. Peer testing, for example, is extremely effective in reaching those furthest from the health system.
Cheick Hamala Sidibé, human rights officer at Arcad Santé Plus, has said that community-led initiatives during the Covid-19 pandemic by health workers in Mali – meeting people at home to offer HIV testing, distribute prevention kits and provide antiretroviral treatment – have pushed the government to improve its policy.
In Morocco, a third of those testing positive for HIV in 2019 were screened by community health workers from ACLS – a member of Coalition Plus, an international network to fight Aids and hepatitis – even though it uses only 10% of the kits available nationwide. In Ecuador, out of 40,000 tests, Kimirina, another Coalition Plus member, detected 900 HIV-positive people – nearly six times higher than the rate achieved by the public health system.
The new Global Fund strategy to fight Aids, TB and malaria places communities front and centre of the fight. Building on the fund’s proven impact, it’s vital that governments step up contributions next year in order to accelerate community-led responses.
Communities have always been best on the frontlines and sustainable funding of interventions designed and implemented by and for key population groups will go a long way to bringing the global HIV response on track.
Underpinning this must be a steadfast commitment to human rights; exerting political pressure to repeal punitive laws and enforcing laws to protect people from violence. Through this, we can, after 40 years, overcome discrimination and end Aids.
Hakima Himmich is the founder of ALCS in Morocco and has chaired the international network Coalition Plus since 2012.
Mike Podmore is director of StopAids, a UK-based network of 70 organisations, and a steering committee member at Action for Global Health UK and Global Fund Advocates Network.
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