Drug trafficking in Central America affected by Covid-19: implications for local development issues

By Martin Mowforth

In May 2020, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued a ‘living’ research brief – ‘living’ suggesting that it is subject to daily change – entitled ‘COVID-19 and the drug supply chain: from production and trafficking to use’.

Among other things the report suggests that the restrictions on and reductions of legitimate economic activities are also causing restrictions on and changes in drug trafficking routes and practices. This is particularly the case of drug trafficking by air which “is likely to be completely disrupted by the restrictions imposed on air travel.”

Before the UNODC report was made public, the Financial Times (7 May 2020) had already reported that traffickers were switching to parallel routes, loading their drugs on “submarines or speedboats or offloading [them] on beaches in Central America.” Land routes, however, have also been hit by the virus, particularly because legitimate land transport has also been drastically reduced. This leaves maritime routes as increasing in importance for the traffickers.

One worrying implication of these changes is that drug production in Central America may be stimulated because of the difficulties being experienced by the major producing countries. As Ricardo Flores points out in the Salvadoran daily paper La Prensa Gráfica (11 May 2020), in the last decade Honduras has become a narco-state with a proliferation of drug-producing laboratories transforming the coca leaf into cocaine. The danger here is that the stimulation of more local production will transform Central America from purely a transit route for drugs into a major producer area too. The Salvadoran paper, however, adds that this is unlikely to affect El Salvador as it is a small, densely populated country leaving little room for the production of a coca crop.

An even more worrying aspect of the pandemic is that the loss of employment by so many people could potentially push some or many of them, especially the poor, into involving themselves in the distribution of drugs. In El Salvador, for instance, numerous transport workers, especially boatmen, have been prosecuted for drug trafficking. Authorities have warned that the most likely people to be diverted from their usual economic activity into drug trafficking are artisanal fisherfolk.

The UNODC is also concerned that drug traffickers are trying to improve their image among the general population by providing services, especially to vulnerable groups, who might then be expected to, and possibly willing to, comply with traffickers’ requests or demands.


United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (May 2020) ‘COVID-19 and the drug supply chain: from production and trafficking to use’ UNODC Research Brief.

Schipani, Long and Webber (7 May 2020) ‘Cocaine trade caught in disrupted global supply chains’ Financial Times.

Ricardo Flores (11 May 2020) ‘Covid-19 motiva a narcotraficantes a utilizar más la vía marítima: ONU’ La Prensa Gráfica.