A Nervous Leap
I write this article with a bit of nervousness and trepidation, much the same way I felt during my late night interview with two quimicos (or chemists) during my recent trip to El Choco. They were a bit dodgy about the details and using their names but, they agreed to allow us to interview them, and it was quite interesting.
The Cocaine economy of Colombia is not a popular topic. I am not going to win the Nobel Peace Prize or receive accolades by my peers. However, this is part of the adventure, part of the reality and part of the violence that is Colombia. You can tell me how FARC just signed a peace accord with president Santos and you can tell me how we need to focus on the positive, you can’t tell me that it doesn’t exist.
- It exists on the streets where violent confrontations between opposing factions leave behind a trail of blood, and broken families.
- It exists in the bathrooms and back alleys of the nightclubs where the Colombian upper class go to party and blow off steam.
- Even the friendly backpacker and wandering hippie type will encounter it as they pass through, they might even try it in order to have the “full experience.”
- It exists in the campo’s (or back country areas) which have heavy guerilla or cartel presence.
- It even exists in the American government where the talking heads shake their heads and tell us that “drugs are bad kids.” Meanwhile behind closed doors they lend out resources and cargo ships to ensure the shipment makes it’s entry, thus lining their pockets and allowing them to wage an endless war on drugs.
The fact is that illegal drugs are big business and a part of life for many in this war torn and broken country.
For better or for worse the cocaine trade makes up at least 1% of Colombia’s economy if the authorities can be believed, even more if they are using their rose colored lenses to tell us pretty little lies.
Here are some cocaine facts:
- Cocaine is 2nd in the world for illegal drug trafficking output.
- Half of the total cocaine used internationally, comes from Colombia
- Despite being only 1% of Colombia’s economy around $10 billion is exported yearly. (More yearly revenue than Google)
- Since 2001 USgov.inc has spent more than $6 billion on crackdown against Marxist guerillas and drugs.
- Colombia produced an estimated 487 metric tons in 2014.
Here is my interview with Machete and his partner Juan (names changed for their protection):
What is your role in the production of cocaine?
Machete: We grow the crop, harvest it and then process it into pure high grade cocaine.
Can you tell me a bit about the process?
Juan: Now you can find videos on YouTube that will teach all the steps but here is the short version: The harvested leaf gets soaked in gasoline with some concrete powder. Next, we add caustic soda and later sulfuric acid with more water. Then we cut it with baking soda in a heating process which causes the water to evaporate off leaving bazooka, or hard cocaine bricks. In the last step, do one more process which turns it into white powder. When the product dries it’s ready to be packed and shipped.
That sounds kinda crazy, are there any risks?
Machete: It’s a dangerous process, sometimes things blow up. We have to be careful not to overheat when adding ingredients. I have to be careful who I sell it to. I could be killed fo selling it to a cartel from another pueblo or faction. And it’s illegal, of course.
How do you know when it’s ready?
Juan: By taste. We try a dab of the water/acid/cocaine mixture on our tongues. Here, try some. ((Opens a big plastic jug)) Author Note: I can’t even imagine what kind of outgassing comes from that jug after adding gasoline and acid to the mixture. That’s not even to mention I am chicken to try it. I politely declined.
The way you talk about the process is quite businesslike. How do you feel about producing cocaine?
Machete: The price relates to the level of danger. Juan: We harvest the crop and produce the mercancia (goods or product), pay the vacuna (or bribe), and send it on down the line. Things are pretty peaceful as long as we keep it in small quantities and not too often. Danger comes from other cartels and shipping it out, when you have 15+ kilos to ship out, it gets pretty hot. Each level comes with a risk. Farm to pueblo: low risk. Pueblo to City: more quantity and bigger gains for pirate actions/betrayal/attack by other cartels. There are always 3-4 people from producer to buyer and each one brings more violence to it.
Author’s Note: I discovered a few things when talking to them, better described as a general feeling for their situation. In parts of El Choco it is mostly small scattered farms which do a little bit extra to make ends meet. They are peaceful peasants, they avoid interacting with these people but it’s inevitable even if they aren’t producing cocaine. Its’ all organized and runs like a business owned by violent people who are attracted to the danger.
Earlier you mentioned small quantities, infrequently. What is your motivation? Isn’t this your full-time job?
Machete: We want to stay simple farmers, we don’t want a reputation, or to end up in prison. We have few plants, sometimes they come into season and then we make a little perico (cocaine). It’s just a way to earn a little money, get a bigger paycheck. Once in a while.
How much leaf do you need to make 1 kilo of cocaine? How do you know if it is good quality?
Juan: 1 kilo is about 30 bushels of coca leaf. From leaf to product is about 3 hours if you have a big enough pot. We can earn more than the minimum monthly pay in Colombia per kilo. As it passes through more hands it becomes a higher risk and is cut with more stuff as fillers and to make it last longer. You know it has been cut with something if you shake a bit out and leave it. Later, you return, if it looks yellow, it’s mixed with something. If it is still white, it’s pure.
Another Author Note: I did not get photos of the process because I am a terrible journalist probably. It was late at night, I was mentally translating from Spanish to English, while furiously taking notes. Basically I forgot. And to avoid any legal issues for me and them, it’s probably better that way. So you’ll have to just take my word for it on the authenticity of my interview. It wasn’t even the interview I had planned on. I had planned to interview a cartel boss but he was a slippery guy and time ran short. It was pretty much luck that these guys happened to come along and were willing to sit down and have a charla, or chat with me.
Nasty Little Habits
I’m not suggesting you contribute to this economy. I’m not even suggesting you go looking for your own “buy-in,” hook-up or stash. Knowledge is power. I get the jitters interviewing these types of characters, like a weird sensation in the pit of my stomach. It’s the sensation that danger is near, and I must tread carefully. Most of the time I walk by coca plants out there without even knowing what they are. As a young adult I had a pretty nasty little habit of chewing tobacco. It was a part-time addiction which left me with an unsatisfied need. I have filled that need over the years with the least damaging stimulant I could think of: Marijuana. (Ask me about my theory regarding Moses’ burning bush!) Over the years it has been on and off. My smoking habit had to be put on hold during my pregnancy and most of last year with Daniel. I have never felt the urge to go with something stronger and thank God I have never experimented with harder stuff. Especially if it undergoes such an unnatural process. Ew! If you have a serious drug problem whether it be alcohol, prescription drugs or illegal substances, definitely seek help.
Healthy Solutions to Colombia’s Cocaine Trade
What I am suggesting, is you help support products which can, over time, help to reduce coca farming. Items like coca tea (a great treatment for altitude sickness) and pure cacao help to give these farmers incentive to spend less time and money on coca plants with the intent and need to manufacture cocaine. Instead opt for legalization/regulation, natural alternatives and eco-tourism to help support the conservation and protection of natural resources while providing healthier uses for coca leaf and treatment for addiction victims. Be smart. Stop it where the money starts on the consumer end.
Be sure to check back in with www.openmindedtraveler.com for my 3rd and final installment of my 3 part series, Savage Paradise. In this last story I will discuss tourism and travel to El Choco. I will discuss travel conditions, safety, hiking information and things to see/do.
Tourism to El Choco
As of right now our tours to El Choco are a low key visit to the family farms with plenty of hiking, camping and a glimpse into the living history of Colombian peasant farm culture. El Choco is a living and breathing specimen of untouched natural beauty and Colombian history obscured by a dark and bloody reputation. Visit if you dare!
In the last story of my 3-part Savage Paradise series you will learn about tourism and travel to El Choco. I will discuss travel conditions, safety, hiking information and things to see/do. Click Here to Read Part III