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coca bushes
Coca grows best in a hot humid climate at an elevation of between 1,000 and 6,000 feet. It grows best on the temperate slopes on the east side of the Andes. The quality of the leaves grown in Bolivia and Peru are regarded as higher quality than those grown in Colombia.

A typical peasant farmer slashes and burns a 15 acre plot out of the jungle: ten acres for coca and five acres for food such as maize or manioc. With proper weeding and fertilizing the leaves can be stripped every 35 days. An acre of coca trees produced about a ton of coca leaves, which yields about a pound of cocaine. Peasants growing coca earn about twice as much as they would growing coffee.╠

About a half million to a million acres of land is believed to be under cultivation for coca. Coca is an easy crop to grow, maintain, harvest and transport. It can be harvested four times a year. Most other crops in contrast can only be harvested once a year. Sometimes coca plants are grown on terraces that are somewhat reminiscent of those found on tea plantations. The leaves are often collected by peasant women who place the leaves in their aprons. Coca can easily be transported by plane.

Book: Illegal Drugs, Economy and Society in the Andes by Francisco Thoumi (2003, Johns Hopkins University Press) is fascinating study of the Andean drug industry by an independent researcher with a Ph.D, in economics from the University of Minnesota.

20120528-coca Mate_de_coca.jpg
tea made with coca leaves
Websites and Resources: U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) ; Vaults of Erowid ; United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) ; Wikipedia article on illegal drug trade Wikipedia ; Frank’s A-to-Z on Drugs ; ; Council of Foreign Relations Forgotten Drug War article ; Illegal Drugs, country by country listing, CIA

Books: Buzzed by Cynthia Kuhn Ph.D. Scott Swartzwelder, Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D. of the Duke University Medical Center (Norton, 2003); Consuming Habits: Drugs in Anthropology and History by Goodman, Sharratt and Lovejoy; Drug War Heresies: Learning from Other Vices, Times and Places by Robert MacCoun and Peter Reuter (Cambridge University Press).

Coca Farmers

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In Peru and Bolivia about 450,000 people make their living from coca. Many farmers who raised coffee, cacao and bananas during the 1970s switched to coca in the 1980's. Many leave the coca bushes virtually unattended and take a five day trek from their homes to the mountains, where the coca bush are, four times a year to harvest the leaves.

Most people involved in cocaine look upon it strictly as a business or admit perhaps its wrong but then ask how else they are supposed to make a living. Those not in the cocaine business are often poor, living in houses without windows and descent lights, while those in the business have enough money to afford a nice house in Lima and send their kids to university.╠

Coca prices go up and down. On average farmers are paid about $45 a load, which means a coca farmer growing four crops a year can earn about $700 an acre annually. (1992). In the mid-1980s, when times were good and prices were high, it was possible for a peasant farmer to make $7,000 a year growing about five acres of coca.

Cocaine Base and Cocaine Paste Production

Coca is made into cocaine base and cocaine paste before it is made into cocaine. Traditionally much of the processing from cocaine base and paste to pure cocaine has been done in Colombia. Colombia traffickers smuggle it out of the country and they are the ones who end up with the lionshare of the profits.╠

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harvested coca leaves
After the leaves are harvested by hand they are placed into a plastic pit. A solution of water and sulfuric acid are added. Every for five hours a man climbs in the pit and stirs the leaves by hand. After three days the now grey leaves are removed and stirred in buckets with lime water, gasoline, more acid, potassium permanganate and ammonia.

The reddish brown brew that is produced is filtered. A few more drops of ammonia are added to the mixture and it starts to turn milky white. Then a film starts to curdle and the mixture is filtered again, this time through a bed sheet, and after a little bit of drying and wringing the sheet is covered with white granules---cocaine base, 75 percent pure.╠

Instead of making cocaine base many Peruvian coca farmers earn extra cash by making cocaine paste with kerosene, which is about 25 percent cocaine, at home. The paste is then sold to middlemen who arrives by bus from Lima or who work at the local post office. In Colombia, coca leaves are ground and mixed with gasoline and cement to make a yellowish coca paste. ╠

A kilo of coca paste sells for perhaps US$500 and the chemicals to turn into pure cocaine, about $4000. In New York a kilo of pure cocaine goes for $25,000. In Europe $45,000.╠

Moving Coca Paste

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coca production in colonial Java
In Colombia, middlemen travel to coca growing regions by motorboat or car, determine its quality of the coca paste, fix a price, often between $750 and $1,600 a kilo, and work out the details of hwo it will be transported, usually by plane or boat. Natives employed by traffickers guard the airstrips and bring in fuel supplies.

Cocaine smugglers often work on commission. Boatman who carry cocaine base and paste to the large cocaine-making lab charge a certain price per kilo. By the time the loads reach their destinations they have gone through about three of four middlemen, each of whom marks up the price by 25 percent. Many boat smugglers are former farmers who transport the contraband in dried fish.

Before 1995, large planes flew between the coca growing regions of Peru and the laboratories in Colombia with little interference. Pilots dropped off large bundles of cash and picked up tons of coca paste. Local officials andmilitary officers with jurisdictions in the regions were given bribes to look the other way.

Cocaine Production and Pollution

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cocaine precursor chemicals
The cocaine base is taken to a large lab, where the base is combined with acetone, ether and hydrochloric acid---a more dangerous and complex process than making base---to produce cocaine hydrochloride. A chemist in Lima told National Geographic that making cocaine is easy as baking bread. "You put in so much of this, so much of that---just get the quantities right, that's all."╠

Cocaine-making seriously damages the environment. Sulfuric acid used to soak the coca leaves; lime , kerosene, ammonia and other chemicals used to make cocaine base; and acetone, ether and hydrochloric acid used to turn base into cocaine all leach into the soil and drain into rivers and streams. According to one estimate about 200 million gallons of kerosene, 8 million gallons of solvents, 2 million gallons of sulfuric acid, 1 million gallons of hydrochloric acid and 25,000 gallons of ammonia is used to make cocaine every year.

Hundreds of illegal coca farms and laboratories are contaminating the rivers of Peru, Colombia and Bolivia with millions of gallons of toxic chemicals, such as sulfuric acid, ammonia, lime, kerosene, hydrochloric acid and acetone. [National Geographic Earth Almanac, January 1994].

Coca and Cocaine Producers

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Amazon cocaine lab
The world's largest producers of coca are Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. Which ones are dominant vary from time to time often based on the politics of cocaine at a given time. In the 1980s and early 1990s about 60 percent of the coca leaf produced was grown in Peru, with around 15 percent from Colombia and 22 percent from Bolivia. Most of the processing from cocaine base and paste to pure cocaine was done on Colombia.

In 1997, coca production dropped dramatically in Peru and dropped modestly in Bolivia but rose sharply in Colombia. By the early 2000s Colombia had become the leading coca grower. Coca leaf production in 2000 (in thousands of tons in 2000) was: 1) Colombia (266); 2) Peru (54); and 3) Bolivia (13). At the time much of the coca leaf production was in rebel-controlled territories in Colombia.

Virtually all the world's cocaine is made in laboratories in Colombia. About 80 percent of the coca leaves that originate in Bolivia and Peru, pass through Colombia for refining and shipment to the United States and other destinations. Most of the drug is transported in small planes.

Cocaine Trade

Hello Kitty cocaine
The mark-up of cocaine from the time farmers are paid for their coca leaves to the time cocaine is sold on the street is a hundred fold. A farmer is paid about $600 for coca leaves needed to make one kilo of cocaine. This in turn makes coca paste that sells for around $850. The export price for a kilo of cocaine is about $1,500. The wholesale price in the U.S. is $25,000 for a kilo, $45,000 in Europe. A kilo of crack cocaine sells of about $50,000 on the street of New York, cocaine powder, $110,000.

At its peak in 1979 a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine sold for US$75,000, about 6½ time the price of gold. The decline of prices for cocaine has led to producers to develop new markets in Europe and enter the opium and heroin trade.

Making the cocaine and selling it abroad is where the big money is. In the 1980s and 90s Colombian drug such as Pablo Escobar made billions when they held a near monopoly on the cocaine trade.

These days drug lords in Bolivia and Peru are producing more cocaine themselves and smuggling it Europe and the United States rather than simply supplying coca leaves to Colombia. Smugglers and drug lords in Mexico are getting more involved in the cocaine trade.

Cocaine Smuggling

About 400 tons of cocaine is smuggled into the United States every year. It arrives by land, sea and air direct from the producing countries or via way stations in Mexico or countries in the Caribbean and Central America. The drug is transported in the hollowed out pallets on ships, stuffed into the panty hose of air line passengers, ferried on 125 mile-per-hour speed boats, and smuggled in scores of other ways. All kinds of people are mixed up in the trade. One customs agent in Florida told National Geographic , "I think the only type of [smuggler] we haven't arrested is a nun. We have arrested a priest.”╠

Scorpion brand cocaine
Cocaine is usually smuggled into the United States by air or ship. Heroin is usually smuggled overland. Pilots often demand about $500,000 to fly a load of cocaine. Even at that price if a pilots carries 250 kilograms he adds only $2,000 to the price of a kilogram which can sell for $100,000.

Shipments of drugs from Colombia to Mexico have traditionally been transported by Cessna aircraft. Drug traffickers from Mexico have up old Boeing 727s and French Caravelle jets and used them to smuggle several tons of cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. The jets travel at night with their lights and radar transponders turned off and with false identification numbers. The planes are landed on large airstrips, often with the knowledge of the military. The method is cost-effective and inexpensive enough that the jets could abandoned if necessary.

Smugglers known to customs officials as "internals" or "body packers" swallow condoms filled with cocaine or heroin. it is estimated that half the drugs transported by people through airports are smuggled in this way even though the condoms can be spotted with X-ray machines. One 21-year-old Colombian man who died from a heroin overdose after a condom leaked had his abdomen slit open by his drug dealing "contact" who removed the drugs and then dumped the body in a field.

One of the most popular smuggling methods in Mexico is using the hollowed-out chassis, gas tank, or secret compartments specially built into large coming over the border. The drug-carrying trucks easily get which get lost among the thousands of trucks that don't carry drugs but bring in produce and factory goods from Mexico. Once Customs officials figure out a way to crack down on a particular smuggling method. Traffickers simply turn to another method. Drugs are now frequently distributed using the international postal system.

Imaginative Cocaine Smuggling Methods

One-kilo bricks of cocaine are routinely found in the false bottoms of cages carrying poisonous snakes. One official told the New York Times magazine, "You've got cobras that are 12 feet long" and sometimes there are drugs in the snake. "Who's going to pull it out and feel it?"

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crack for sale
In June 1993, customs officials at Miami International Airport found 37 pounds (worth $1 million) of cocaine-filled condoms sewn into the rectum of live boa constrictor. Around the same time a Custom's inspector at Kennedy International found a strange lump in a sickly-looking 4-year-old sheepdog. The dog was X-rayed, and surgery uncovered five pounds of cocaine that had been surgically implanted in the dogs abdomen.

Customs officials in the U.S. have found cocaine in concrete fence posts from Venezuela that cost more to ship than they were worth, surfboards that have been hollowed and carefully refinished, and the carcasses of eviscerated parrots. A man walking slowly and painfully through an airport in Dan Juan, Puerto Rico was found to have half-pound packets of cocaine surgically sewn into his legs. Cocaine has been surgically bonded to fiberglass dog-kennel cages, and molded and spray painted into a bust of Jesus Christ. An oily sludge on the bottom of bags of tropical fish flown from Colombia to Miami turned out to be liquid cocaine, which doesn't dissolve in water.

Cocaine and heroin coming into the U.S. from Mexico have been smuggled in the stomachs of racehorses. An old trick is for small-time smugglers to to put a bag of heroin or cocaine in an ice cream cone and cover it with ice cream and slowly lick it while crossing the border. Cocaine and heroin coming in from Colombia have been packed plaster shells painted to look like yams. The same drugs from the Dominican Republic have been packed inside mannequins.

Colombian smugglers are using semi-submersible boats that ride low in the water. They are virtually invisible to radar, and are capable of carrying one ton shipments of drugs.

Efforts to Cut Off the Cocaine Supply

Cocaine hydrochloride for medicinal use
Most of the U.S. government's efforts to combat the supply of drugs has been directed at Mexico, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. The efforts has little effect other than relocating and reorganizing production. Dramatic decreases in coca leaf production in Peru and Bolivia, for example, were accompanied by equally dramatic increases in coca leaf production in Colombia.

Most programs are doomed because cocaine is simply too profitable. With the wholesale price being so high, distributors can easily afford to pay growers more money if necessary without profits being affected too much.

Drug enforcement officials track all suppliers of solvents derived from petroleum used to purify cocaine. Some have suggested eradicating coca crops by spraying herbicides from airplanes.

Programs to Encourage Farmers Not to Grow Coca

In the 1990s the Department of Agricultural Reconversion in Bolivia paid farmers about $800 for every acre of coca they uprooted. The program only applied to coca grown before 1988, when planting new plots of coca was outlawed. The money was paid by a host of organizations including U.S.A.I.D. and the United Nations Drug Control Program.

Farmers who participated in the program were visited twice by a reconversion inspector who measures the plot before and after the uprooting and testified the plants have been removed. The farmer then received a check and a certificate that qualified him for alternative crop programs. Many farmers who received payments continued to grow coca. Many eradicated only part of their coca holdings, generally when coca prices were down or they were strapped for cash.

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coca leaves
Proponents of U.S. financed programs to uproot coca plants point to fields emptied of coca bushes, growing only weeds. But on the slopes above them are vigorous healthy plants. Two-year-old plants can be pulled up hand but five year old ones are so deeply rooted you need a winch or have to cut them out.╠

Growing alternative crops is often easier said than done as the prices that can be earned from them is low, sometimes below the cost of production, and getting the product to market can be difficult. A crop like pineapple, which grows well in the soil and climate found in cocaine-growing regions can yield up to $30,000 a year but requires $20,000 in start up cost to plant the pineapples. Transporting oranges, bananas and yucca is prohibitively expensive. These crops often rot before they can be taken to markets. One cocaine grower told AP, "If someone can guarantee us another crop to sell, we'll rip out the coca leaf ourselves. If not, what can we do? If no one buys from us, we're going to persist with coca."

Other problems with anti-coca growing programs include a lack of manpower, resources and tactics to enforce restrictions on coca growing, which is done over a large area, often in remote valleys several days walk from the nearest road. Politicians will go along with the programs to a certain point because they like the money brought in by the programs campaigns but are reluctant to crack down too hard on coca-growers and loose their votes.

Combating the Cocaine Trade

U.S. Customs tries to fight back against drug smugglers with radar planes, P-3Orion spy planes and blimps to catch boats and low flying planes; X ray machines and special toilets to catch "body backers."But essentially there is too much of the drug, too many way to smuggle it along the long U.S. border...and too little manpower for the government to have much of an effect.╠

One of the most effective weapons against the drug lords in South America was the use of Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) military radar planes that scanned the skies looking for small planes carrying coca leaves from the coca leaf fields in Peru to the laboratories in Colombia. Four planes were used to track an area in the Colombian, Peruvian and Ecuadorian Amazon and Andes region that was roughly the size of the United Sates east of the Mississippi. [Source: James Brooks, New York Times]

In 1993, around 600 suspected flights were identified in Colombia and 27 drug planes were destroyed, almost all of them on the ground. In 1992 and 1993 the Peruvian Air Force intercepted 190 drug planes and shot down 11 of them. Often observers would track the planes and watch where they landed. This way drug enforcement officials were able to locate laboratories, warehouses and clandestine air strips. With he help of information supplied by the AWACS planes the Colombian government seized 31.5 tons of cocaine in 1993, a record.

The United States has a very sophisticated detection system that extends from the Mexican-U.S. border to Bolivia but because such a large area is covered surveillance is spread out pretty thin and there are lots of gaps. In 1996, the United States spent $3 billion to fight drugs but the anti-drug program was largely regarded as a failure because, despite large seizures and the interdiction of drug flights, massive quantities of drugs still got through.

The Peruvian and Colombians air forces are authorized to shoot down planes suspected of ferrying cocaine and blow up airstrips. The shoot up approach had it problems. It set off a wave of chronic violence in which drug traffickers in Colombia killed police, prosecutors and judges. Freezing the accounts of drug traffickers is regarded as the best way to get at them.

Certification is a process in which the United States decides whether or not 31 countries in Latin American and Asia or doing enough to combat drug trade. Decertification results in economic sanctions and the cut of aid from American and international institutions. Myanmar and Colombia have been decertified in the past.

Response to Efforts to Combat the Cocaine Trade

Anti-drug efforts are sometimes compared to the Pillsbury dough boy. If you squeeze it one place it simply bulges somewhere else. An American army officer in Bolivia told National Geographic, "Those narcos use textbook insurgency tactics. They're compartmentalized, good at intelligence. Whatever we do they're prepared." On a typical of searching for lad nothing turns up.╠

After anti-drug units began using ground and air-based American radar systems that were able to detect and track planes and jet fighters were given permission to shoot down planes that failed to identify themselves, drug traffickers were forced to change their smuggling strategies such as moving more cocaine overland through Brazil and Central America.

Manuals found in the possession of the Cali cartel explained how planes could avoid detection by refueling in-flight and having removable markings. They listed radio frequencies not monitored by authorities and noted areas where radar detection was weak.

After air routes between Colombian and Peru, Bolivia and Mexico were disrupted, raw cocaine was shipped from Peru, Colombia and Bolivia to cocaine labs in the Colombian Amazon by boats or by short, low-altitude flights above the rain forest canopy. To avoid trouble the cocaine-laden planes stayed far away from government bases and flew along the borders between Peru, Colombia and Brazil because the air forces in these countries are not allowed to enter the air space of the other countries. To avoid detection planes with a range of 8,000 miles, flying between Colombia and Mexico, fly west from Colombia over the Pacific and then fly back east to Mexico.

Effect of Anti-Cocaine Program

PET image of cocaine addict
One result of the anti-drug campaign was that flying cocaine got to be so risky that the rates for flying shipments doubled to $80,000. Cocaine inventories in producer countries rose and prices given coca farmers fell by 80 percent from $60 for a 26.5 pound sack to $5 a sack.

In 1994 the program was suddenly dropped out of fear of "liability suits from families of traffickers shot down by a air forces American-supplied information." After the program was suspended Peruvian and Colombian drug officials said the number of drugs increased.

Through the period demand for cocaine in the United States remained constant at about 300 tons a year. Declines in drug use in the United States have been primally the work of education and local drug programs.

Even with all the fancy technology most seizures are made through sheer luck of with information from informants and trained agents on the ground.

The United States has difficulty promoting free trade and clamping down on drug smuggling at the same time.

Cocaine Seizures

In the early 2001, the U.S. Coast Guard had two major cocaine seizures: one of 8 tones and another of 13 tons. These seizures, as large as they were, had no effect on drug prices.

The greatest drug haul of all time was the seizure of $7 billion worth of cocaine in a Los Angeles.

In 1994, U.S. Customs seized 204,391 pounds of cocaine. Officials believe, at most, this represents 10 percent of the drugs entering the U.S.

World cocaine seizures in 1994: 155.1 tons.

Cocaine bricks

Reaction to American Anti-Drug Efforts

Most coca growers don't see themselves as the problem but rather the cocaine consumers in the United States as problem.

The Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez told Newsweek: "The United States is the biggest consumer of drugs in the world. Production doesn't stimulate consumption---consumption stimulates production. I believe that what the United States is waging is a war of markets."

"Again and again I heard the same story," Jere Van Dyk wrote in National Geographic, "American demanded that people stop cutting the rain forest. Americans demanding timber. Americans demanded that people stop growing coca. American demanding cocaine.”

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons; DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) except Hello Kitty from xorsyst blog

Text Sources: Buzzed, the Straight Facts About the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy by Cynthia Kuhn, Ph.D., Scott Swartzwelder Ph.D., Wilkie Wilson Ph.D., Duke University Medical Center (W.W. Norton, New York, 2003); National Geographic, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wikipedia, The Independent, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2011

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