Some 4% of the world’s population has consumed cocaine in his or her life. That is almost 300 million people. Approximately half of this cocaine comes from Colombia.
In 2016, 18 million people used the illicit drug worldwide, consuming much of the hundreds of 1,400 tons of cocaine produced in the Andean region, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The demand for the drug comes primarily from the United States and Europe, but South America has also grown into a major consumption market.
Prevalence of cocaine use per country
Supplying the demand
Almost all cocaine consumed across the globe comes from Colombia, Peru and to a lesser extent Bolivia; countries where coca — the crop used for cocaine — has been common for centuries and is consumed legally by chewing the leaves or making tea.
In Colombia, the coca used to produce cocaine is grown mostly in remote parts of the country where the state has long lacked control.
Because of the lack of state control, the necessary amount of land is available for all kinds of illegal or informal activity.
Colombian coca farmers use approximately an accumulated area of between 169,000 hectares to produce the country’s cocaine, according to the UNODC.
The organization estimated in 2016 that some 106,000 Colombian farming families live off coca.
These families receive on average little less than $1,200 a month from selling coca, which sells at a little more than a dollar per kilo, depending on the region.
To produce one kilo of cocaine some 125 kilos of coca is needed, which would cost a local drug lab $137.50. Once the lab has turned the coca leaves first into coca paste, then into coca base and ultimately into real cocaine, the value will have increased to $2,269.
By the time it gets to the street in, for example the United States, that kilo of cocaine will provide $60,000 in revenue. In Australia this could be as much as $235,000.
A resilient industry
Authorities are trying to curb coca cultivation by eradicating plants and, until recently, spraying chemicals over areas where coca fields are most prevalent. Nevertheless, Colombia had a record potential cocaine production of 1,379 tons in 2017.
According to Colombia’s Defense Ministry, it destroyed more than 52,000 hectares of coca and seized more than 400 tons of cocaine in 2017.
The United Nations said in September 2018 that it was too early to assess the success of a voluntary crop substitution program that kicked off in May 2017. The UNODC certified that 23,000 hectares were removed by farmers between May 2017 and May 2018 as part of the national program that seeks a long term solution for coca cultivation.
Sources: US Department of State / UNODC
Notwithstanding, coca cultivation in Colombia’s vast lawless regions reached record levels in 2016 already.
Colombia does not have an extensive crop substitution program like Peru, meaning that many farmers can easily replant coca almost immediately after the destruction of their current harvest.
The failure to produce long-lasting results in the reduction of coca cultivation demonstrates how easily coca farmers recover territory for their illicit crops.
From coca to cocaine
Cocaine is made in three separate chemical processes; first the coca is converted into coca paste, then coca base before it becomes real cocaine.
The coca is grown by tens of thousands of peasants in areas that suffer traditional state neglect.
The converting of coca leaves into coca paste is mainly done by the farmers and to a lesser extent by the drug trafficking organizations. This because for one kilo of cocaine requires approximately 125 kilos of coca leaves.
The dried coca leaves are drenched in gasoline for between 8 to 12 hours to extract the alkaloid or coca base.
Next, the gasoline and the leaves are separated from the alkaloid and water and sulfuric acid are added, combined with pulverized limestone or ammonia.
This is then mixed with acetone and laid to rest. The substance is then filtered with more ammonia and washed in water. The water is evaporated by putting the substance in a slow-burning oven, converting it in something similar to oil.
Once cooled down, this substance has become coca paste, which is dissolved in ether. After another filtering round, chloride acid and more acetone are added. Once this is dry, the cocaine is ready.
Potential cocaine production
The drug labs are generally run by the farmers under control of local drug trafficking clans, individual guerrilla units, or associates of the international organizations that traffic the drugs to the US, Europe or the Southern Cone.
Moving the product to the border
Once the coca is processed to cocaine, it is trafficked by local drug traffickers, guerrillas and nationally operating groups to either one of the country’s two coastlines, or one of the country’s borders. A relatively small amount of cocaine is taken to airports.
The cocaine is hidden in trucks or cars if transported over land, or is moved in small boats through dense jungle areas where rivers provide the perfect corridors for almost unhindered illicit trafficking. Along these routes, the drug traffickers intimidate locals and bribe officials to prevent their routes and shipments from being exposed.
Nevertheless, according to Colombia’s Defense Ministry, more than 150 tons of cocaine is seized annually.
Cocaine seizures in Colombia
Source: Defense Ministry
The export of cocaine is supervised by transnational crime organizations that do business with foreign crime organizations, particularly Mexican cartels. In a few cases, the Colombian groups have maintained direct routes to foreign markets.
Most of Colombia’s current drug trafficking organizations were formed a decade ago by mid-level commanders of state-aligned paramilitary groups that were active between the 1980s and the early 2000s.
Some of the organizations have their roots in the old Medellin and Cali cartels.
The traffickers bribe security forces, politicians and judicial authorities to protect their routes, and secure the continuity of their business.
Trafficking cocaine to the US and Europe
When drugs arrive at Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific coast lines they are loaded onto small ships or submarines and sailed to transit hubs in the Caribbean and Central America, in some cases already under the supervision of transnational crime groups like the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel.
In the cases of port cities, local crime gangs with close ties to local law enforcement and port authorities oversee the loading of the drugs into containers, often in coordination with international drug trafficking cartels.
Over the past few years, Venezuela has become a major transit hub for cocaine. Hundreds of clandestine airstrips have been found in the country, allegedly used to fly cocaine to Central America or, in fewer cases, to Caribbean islands like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or the Bahamas.
Smaller amount of drugs are trafficked by air, in risky operations by “drug mules” who either swallow small amounts of drugs, or carry pounds or kilos of the illicit substance in their luggage. These drug mules generally work for Colombian organizations with a criminal partner organization in the destination country.
Large quantities of drugs find their way out of the country through the country’s ports where corruption is rife. One important criminal organization running such operation is “La Empresa,” a local mafia that’s long been in charge of Colombia’s largest port, Buenaventura. They will have foreign partners on the receiving end, more often than not these would be cells or gangs linked to large organized crime organizations.
Main cocaine flows (2012-2016)
It is almost impossible to define which form of transport is most effective to get the drugs to its consumption markets in the US, Europe and South America.
The UNODC has said that — when referring to global trafficking of all drugs — most seizures were made while drugs were transported by air or road, but even though only a few busts have been made in ports or clandestine maritime entry points, the largest drug seizures abroad were made there.