20120528-cocaine lab _amazon.jpg
Amazon cocaine lab
Cocaine hydrochloride (cocaine HCL) is cocaine in its powdered form. It is primarily produced from the leaves of one of two species of erythroxylon plants — erythroxylon coca or erythroxylon novogranatense — that are found principally in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia.Traditionally, the production of cocaine HCl includes three steps. The first is the conversion of the coca leaf into coca paste; this is almost always done very close to the coca fields to cut down on the transport of the coca leaves. The second phase is the conversion of coca paste into cocaine base. The final stage is conversion of base to HCl. In recent years, this process has been cut into two stages, where leaves are converted directly to cocaine base. [Source: UNODC]

Much of the world's cocaine is made in laboratories in Colombia. Traditionally, about 80 percent of the coca leaves that originated in Bolivia and Peru, passed through Colombia for refining and shipment to the United States and other destinations. Most of the drug was transported in small planes. In recent decades Colombia produced more coca leaves itself.

According to the UNODC: Transformation of cocaine base to cocaine end product (cocaine hydrochloride) increasingly taking place outside the main countries of coca bush cultivation Most cocaine continues to be trafficked in the form of cocaine hydrochloride, the final product. Nonetheless, there are indications of a trend in the trafficking of intermediary products, most notably cocaine base, from Colombia to other countries in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and, according to media sources, Europe, suggesting that the final steps in the manufacturing of cocaine hydrochloride are increasingly taking place outside Colombia. The quantities of coca paste and cocaine base seized in South America, Central America, the Caribbean and Europe, although still smaller, also increased far more than those of cocaine hydrochloride from 2018 to 2019. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]

Colombia: World’s Top Cocaine Producer in 2020 Despite Shrinking Coca Fields

In 2020, Colombia reduced the land area for coca cultivation by seven percent but was still the world's largest producer of cocaine and coca leaves according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Columbia had 143,000 hectares of illegal coca plantations in 2020, down from 154,000 hectares in 2019, the report said. However, "cocaine production continued to increase," UNODC representative Pierre Lapaque said as there was higher coca leaf yield despite the shrinking surface area. Colombia thus remained the world's biggest producer of cocaine, derived from the coca leaf, ahead of Peru and Bolivia. [Source: AFP, September 6, 2021

AFP reported: Production of cocaine hydrochloride was estimated at 1,228 metric tons in 2020, an eight percent rise from 2019, said the UNODC. The United States, a major funder of the war on drugs, is the main consumer of Colombian cocaine. Conservative President Ivan Duque, in power since 2018, has made the fight against drug trafficking a priority and has launched a plan to halve coca plantations — which reached a record 171,000 hectares in 2017 — by 2023.

The report said nearly half of Colombia's coca plantations in 2020 were in protected areas such as national parks or indigenous reserves. And much of it was found in the restive border area with Venezuela, where armed groups and drug traffickers operate.

Cocaine and Coca Paste Laboratories

20120528-cocaine Precursor_chemicals.gif
cocaine precursor chemicals
According to the UNODC: Analysis of dismantled coca/cocaine production sites (including laboratories manufacturing cocaine) confirms these patterns. Excluding the three Andean countries in which most coca leaf is produced, there has been an increase in the number of countries reporting coca/ cocaine-related processing, from 12 in the period 2010–2014 to 19 in the period 2015–2019, as well as in the number of dismantled coca/cocaine production sites, from an average of 64 per year in the period 2011–2014 to 93 in the period 2015–2019; such sites were detected not only in South America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Venezuela) and Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) but also in North America, Europe, Asia and Oceania. [Source: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), World Drug Report 2021]

Nonetheless, most coca/cocaine production sites continued to be reported in the three Andean countries (on average, 9,414 sites or laboratories per year in the period 2015–2019). Most of them were involved in the production of coca paste or cocaine base; the number of dismantled laboratories manufacturing cocaine hydrochloride amounted to an annual average of 354 in the period 2015–2019.

However, while the number of coca/cocaine production sites dismantled in the Andean countries fell by more than 50 percent between 2016 and 2019, the number of sites dismantled elsewhere doubled over the same period. Similarly, if only the number of laboratories manufacturing cocaine hydrochloride is considered, data from countries outside the Andean region show a doubling over the period 2016–2019, to 110 laboratories dismantled in 2019. The number of dismantled laboratories manufacturing cocaine in the Andean countries also increased, to 417 between 2016 and 2019, although the figure remained 20 percent lower than in 2015.

Although most of the laboratories dismantled outside the Andean region seem to have been used for the secondary extraction of cocaine from the material in which it was incorporated for trafficking purposes, some have also been used to complete the final stages of cocaine hydrochloride manufacture; in a number of cases, the laboratories were used for both purposes. For example, the largest cocaine-manufacturing laboratory ever identified in the Netherlands was dismantled in a former horse riding facility in Nijeveen, a village in the north of the country, in August 2020. The laboratory, which had been converting cocaine base into cocaine hydrochloride using clothing impregnated with cocaine base, had the capacity to produce 150 kilograms to 200 kilograms of cocaine hydrochloride per day, which is a very large quantity by international standards. The discovery of the laboratory led to the arrest of 17 people (13 Colombian citizens, 3 Dutch citizens and 1 Turkish citizen), which underlies the international dimension of cocaine-manufacturing activities taking place outside of the Andean region.

Cocaine Base and Past 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. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, January 1989 **]

In one of the most commonly used procedures, coca leaves are pulverized; mixed with an alkaline material (e.g., baking soda), an organic solvent (e.g., kerosene, benzol, or gasoline), and water, and then shaken. The water and leaves are then discarded. An acid (e.g., sulfuric acid) is mixed with the solution to remove residual solvents. Baking soda is added and the mixture is dried, creating a putty-like substance called "coca paste" or "basuco." In some South American countries, the paste itself is smoked instead of being further processed into powder. The practice of smoking coca paste has never been popularized in the United States [Source: CIA]

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. [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, January 1989]

Colombian Cocaine Paste Lab

In makeshift labs across Colombia, farmers and technicians to turn coca leaves into coca paste, which eventually becomes cocaine. At such labs, farmers sprinkles cement over mulched coca leaves to prepare them. A lab worker mulches coca leaves with a weed eater. Then the mulched coca leafs are soaked in gasoline and pressed to squeeze out the basic liquid extract of coca paste. [Source: Toby Muse, Business Insider, October 28, 2020]

Reporting from a small makeshift lab in Antioquia, Colombia Toby Muse wrote:This coca laboratory operates only because it has the permission from the FARC dissidents who rule from the jungles. And right now, the coca is about to change. To evolve. “Laboratory" is a grand term for wooden poles buried in to the earth holding up a roof made up of large sheets of black plastic. Even with no walls, it's gloomy inside as the five men prepare for the day's work. Huge barrels stink of gasoline and ammonia. This is their office. They start at 6 a.m. and work until 4 p.m. Like office workers, they eat lunch here, listen to the radio, chat, and joke around. Here they will turn the coca leaves into coca paste, a brick of dried powder that is just one stop short of pure cocaine. [Source: "Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels — from the Jungles to the Streets" by Toby Muse, William Morrow, 2020]

“The farmer's wife arrives with lunch. Today it's chicken, rice, yuca, and a bottle of apple soda. Colombians are gourmands and lunch is the countryside's most important hour. Now is the time to talk. “This helps keep people alive. But no one is getting rich off this," Pedro says pointing to the lab. Carlos runs through the farmer's costs to process a ton of coca leaves: $250 for the coca pickers, $80 to the laboratory workers, $150 for the gasoline, other materials another $50. “He's left with $200 . . . That's not much," Carlos concludes. That's $200 every ninety days and it comes expensive — the farmer now lives outside the law. Someone steals from him, threatens him, slaps him like a dog? Well, live with it, because with a field full of coca, he's not phoning the police anymore.

Book:"Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels — from the Jungles to the Streets" by Toby Muse, William Morrow, 2020]

Making Cocaine Paste at a Colombian Jungle Lab

Toby Muse wrote: Pedro and Carlos empty the sacks of coca leaves on to the floor. A one-ton mattress of green coca leaves. It's irresistible — some coca-pickers, known as raspachines, dive on top of it, like kids into a mound of snow. "Stop it!" Pedro yells and the raspachines stop messing around and file out. He cranks up the wood chipper and it whirs away. Pedro thrusts armfuls of coca leaves in and out sprays shredded coca. It takes about two hours to pass a ton of coca through the wood chipper. [Source: Toby Muse, Business Insider, October 28, 2020; "Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels — from the Jungles to the Streets" by Toby Muse, William Morrow, 2020].

The mulch of coca is spread across the floor. Carlos tosses an ammoniac solution over it. He dusts that with a mix of cement, lime powder, and ammonia. The ammonia fills my lungs, like a chemical weapons attack. I rush outside and gasp the air. The workers in the laboratory laugh. Two of the workers March up and down over the mulch, mixing it all together with their rubber boots. They look like old Italian grandmothers crushing grapes for wine. They smirk, aware of how ridiculous it looks. For all the billions made, the production is still rustic.

The mulch is shoveled into huge metallic barrels and the gasoline is added. Around seven of these barrels are needed to hold the ton of coca leaves. There it's left to sit for three days. The gasoline extracts the coca base. They roll out drums packed three days earlier. The drums are drained. The gasoline now holds the cocaine alkaloid. A filthy mulch is left behind in the drum and that's tipped out into mounds next to the lab, out in the open in the clearing.

“Pedro's pouring out the final solution into a barrel, passing it through cloth, ensuring any solids are left behind. “Dip your finger in and lick it." “I lick my finger gingerly. It tastes of gasoline and immediately puts my tongue to sleep. “This solution will dry and solidify and become coca paste — one step short of pure cocaine. A ton of coca leaves has been turned into a kilo and a half of coca paste. Pedro grabs one that dried out today, a dirty whitish and yellow solid blob. “A kilo and a half!" he says, putting it in a tatty plastic bag. He steps out of the lab and gets on his motorbike and revs the engine. He'll drop the coca off with the farmer who owns the coca field, passing the coca paste up the next link of the chain. The motorbike's gas tank has a sticker: If God is with me, then who would be against me?

Colombian Coca Paste Lab Workers

Toby Muse wrote:“Farmers used to grow seven, eight hectares of coca and could make decent money. But the fields became too easy for the police to spot and swoop in and destroy them. Now almost all farmers grow a hectare or so.[Source: Toby Muse, Business Insider, October 28, 2020; "Kilo: Inside the Deadliest Cocaine Cartels — from the Jungles to the Streets" by Toby Muse, William Morrow, 2020]

"Across Colombia, a lot of people look to the coca because it produces a lot of jobs. Not riches, but a lot of jobs," says Pedro. For the men here in the laboratory, coca exists because of the poverty of the countryside. It's that simple: give the farmers an alternative and they'll ditch coca now. Pedro used to grow coca until the government arrived, promising to help transition him to legal crops. “The government told us they would help us if we grew cacao. The kilo was three dollars. And that's an okay price. It promised to help us export the cacao. But the government made some deals and flooded the country with cheap imports ... It's now a dollar a kilo. You can't cover costs at that price. So, what did the people do?" He sweeps his arm around the laboratory.

“Pedro was out of the laboratories for sixteen years. When the price of cacao dived, he asked his cousin for work. So, it's back to the labs. “I've got four hectares of cacao, but here I am working in the laboratory. It's not paying. I had to come here, leaving my wife and kids back home." He earns $16 a day and he'll be gone from his home for three months. “Here in the countryside, ninety percent of people just survive. What does that mean? You work to eat, not to have. Not to make money. Be it coca, cacao."

“I ask about the FARC's peace process. “War and cocaine. Everyone gets rich off of both. That's why it won't end," says Pedro. "This industry isn't what it used to be," says Pedro. "Before, the coca farmers made good money. They sold their coca, spent the weekend with two, three prostitutes, brought their whiskey, and returned home with still enough money to make the wife happy. Now ..." His voice trails off.

“The reason is that the price of coca has remained the same for the past twenty years. All other prices have gone up — the prostitutes, the booze, food — but the coca paste still sells at around $400. Yet it's all they've got. This part of the country has been growing coca for the past three decades, but no one's seen as much coca as there is now.

Moving Coca Paste

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 Powder (HCL) Production

Coca paste is almost invariably converted into powder cocaine in the producing country before being exported to the United States. This is accomplished by, first, dissolving coca paste in hydrochloric acid and water, and then adding potassium salt, which causes undesirable substances to separate from the mixture. When ammonia is added to the remaining solution, powder cocaine precipitates out, and is then removed and dried. While the active ingredient in powder cocaine — cocaine alkaloid — does not differ from that in coca paste or crack, the salt that is added during this process renders cocaine hydrochloride unsmokeable. However, the salt renders the cocaine hydrophilic, meaning it readily dissolvable in water. Thus, cocaine hydrochloride can be mixed with liquid and injected into the bloodstream or insufflated (snorted) and absorbed through the nasal mucous membranes. [Source: CIA]

Cocaine base is typically taken to more sophisticated larger laba, 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." [Source: Peter White, National Geographic, January 1989]

Crack Production

Cocaine base is cocaine hydrochloride that has been reverse-engineered back to a chemical base state, thereby rendering it smokeable. During the process of creating cocaine base, the cocaine alkaloid is "freed" from the salt that was added during the production of cocaine hydrochloride. The resulting substance is chemically similar to coca paste, but without many of the adulterants found in paste [Source: CIA]

Freebase cocaine is manufactured by dissolving powder cocaine in water and a strong alkaloid solution, such as ammonia, to remove the hydrochloric acid. When ether or another organic solvent is added, the solid substance that crystallizes is purified cocaine. The rock of cocaine is placed in a pipe, which often is glass and fitted with one or more mesh screens upon which the chunk of cocaine rests. Technically, crack is not smoked: the user heats the side of the bowl, causing the cocaine base to vaporize, and inhales the cocaine alkaloid-laden vapors through a stem connected to the bowl. [Source: CIA]

Crack cocaine is created through a process that is substantially similar to that used to create freebase, except without the use of volatile chemicals. Powder cocaine is dissolved in a solution of sodium bicarbonate and water. The solution is boiled and a solid substance separates from the boiling mixture. When this solid substance is removed and allowed to dry, the resulting chunks or "rocks" of cocaine are "crack."

When heated, cocaine base, which has a melting point of 89 to 92 degrees Celsius, will sublimate or, put differently, will convert from a solid state to a vapor without becoming a liquid. This allows it to be inhaled. Cocaine hydrochloride, with a melting point of 190 to 195 degrees Celsius, will simply burn at lower temperatures, losing almost all of its psychoactive properties before it ever becomes a vapor.

Cocaine Pollution

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].

Reporting from the small makeshift lab in Antioquia, Colombia Toby Muse wrote:“At one corner of the clearing is a muddy chute that leads to a stream. It carries all the chemicals and dredge straight to the pristine streams. This happens thousands of times a day across this country, acids and gasoline dumped in the streams. Add the thousands of acres of rain forest chain-sawed down to make way for new fields of coca, and cocaine ain't exactly environmentally friendly.

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 April 2022

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.