MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Authorities in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Chile are fighting to contain the growing abuse of cocaine paste — a cheap, yellowish cocaine smoked by thousands of people throughout South America’s Southern Cone.
In all four countries, the abuse of cocaine paste, also known in Argentina as paco, is far lower than that of marijuana or cocaine. Only 0.8 percent of Uruguay’s 3.4 million inhabitants use cocaine paste, according to the National Home Survey on Drug Use; that compares to 4 percent for cocaine and 12.2 percent for marijuana.
Cocaine paste is often linked with criminals and those living on the fringes of society, authorities say. In fact, the proportion of cocaine paste users rises to 8 percent in the poorest neighborhoods of Montevideo, according to that same survey.
Milton Romani, a Montevideo psychologist and substance-abuse expert who in April finished a six-year term as secretary of the Uruguayan National Drug Board, suggests that the abuse of cocaine paste is “a sign of the times” that first appeared in Argentina with that country’s 2001 peso devaluation, then spread rapidly across the Río de la Plata to Uruguay.
“The financial crisis gave birth to a new market for drug traffickers. Cocaine base is a low-cost product that could penetrate a particular market segment, because drug trafficking follows market rules,” said Romani, an international human rights adviser. “Traffickers have to change with the times. Since they can no longer acquire large quantities of precursor chemicals, they must look at the way they make cocaine: the large laboratories in Bolivia are broken up into several drug kitchens throughout Bolivia and Argentina.”
In fact, the strong dollar caused the cost of powder cocaine to skyrocket throughout the region, as did the 1998 decision to ban precursor chemicals, which by 2000 was having an impact. Both made cocaine paste a cheaper and more readily available alternative, authorities say.
Between 2001 and 2005, according to a study by the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute, the use of paco in Argentina jumped by 200 percent, with more than 150,000 youths taking it regularly. Even so, its users represent only 0.5 percent of Argentina’s population, said Mariano Donzelli of the Secretaria de Programacion de la Drogaddicion y la Lucha contra el Narcotrafico (Sedronar). That compares to cocaine, which is used by 2.6 percent of Argentines, and marijuana, which is smoked by 6.9 percent of the country’s inhabitants.
In Chile, cocaine paste is abused by 0.4 percent of the population, compared to 0.7 percent for cocaine and 4.6 percent for marijuana, according to CONACE (Consejo Nacional para el Control de Estupefacientes de Chile). Its principal consumers are men aged 18 to 34 and from low-income groups.
Cocaine paste is obtained from an intermediate phase in the transformation from coca leaf to cocaine hydrochloride.
“When precursor chemicals were blocked in producer countries, those countries began to find it difficult to manufacture their final product, so they began to cut [the cocaine] with just about anything,” said Uruguayan judge Jorge Díaz, who specializes in organized crime. “Instead of exporting already purified cocaine from Colombia, they now export the cocaine paste — since production levels continue to be high — and they finish it later.”
Romani said each kitchen is a small cog in the network that exports cocaine hydrochloride, which continues to generate the most business for drug traffickers, since that cocaine is shipped to Europe or the United States.
Several variants of cocaine paste exist throughout the region, each with its own brand and distinct ingredients. It’s a very cheap product; a quick high costs less than $3.00. Users smoke it in a homemade pipe, and a single dose weighs less than a gram. The drug takes five to eight seconds to reach the brain, but the high generally doesn’t last for more than 10 minutes.
Even so, it has devastating short-term effects including anorexia, antisocial and violent behavior, psychoses and hallucinations, according to a 2010 report by Uruguay’s Clemente Estable Biological Research Institute. “The first time a person uses cocaine paste, the pleasure is very fleeting,” Romani said. “Users then consume more of the drug to calm their anxiety and ill feelings.”
Authorities say those living in poor neighborhoods eke out a living trafficking in cocaine paste, often as part of small, family-run networks. “This occurs in vulnerable sections of society because the factors that lead to all micro-trafficking are occurring there,” Romani said. “These are sustenance level networks that arose in the midst of the crisis.”
The same pattern is found in Brazil, and it’s beginning to take root in Bolivia as well.
Criminal organizations with specific characteristics are necessary to coordinate the importation, transportation, exportation and sale of cocaine. The effort requires a large initial investment. For example, in Uruguay one kilogram of cocaine powder costs $7,000 to $7,500, according to local officials; cocaine paste, by comparison, costs $2,000 per kilo. Díaz said shipments never exceed 30 kilos, and that shipments of 25 to 30 kilos are attempted only by very sophisticated trafficking networks. Smaller deliveries, which constitute the vast majority of shipments, usually employ “mules” or human couriers.
“They find jobless youths, often drug addicts, and they pay them 10,000 pesos [about $550] per trip. The courier goes to Argentina, usually to Buenos Aires,” he said. “They even go and return by bus, bringing 10 or 15 kilos.”
The paste is delivered to a certain area of Montevideo and from there it’s distributed to various neighborhoods that same night, since the points of sale receive their supplies on a daily basis. The mules make two or three trips a week, saving up money and getting to know their dealer. After awhile, they begin to buy some of the drugs for themselves. They transport 10 kilos for the dealer who hired them, and generally keep one kilo for their own use.
Over the past few years, said Díaz, the trafficking business has spread like wildfire, and this has made it difficult to eradicate.
“It’s very difficult to fight these dealers, because the dealers transport small amounts that they divide up quickly. Second, there are many small groups involved in trafficking. A sort of cottage industry has sprung up in the poorest areas: the families live off of this.”
Even after a raid, he said, a family will keep selling drugs, “because if you prosecute the husband, the wife will take over; if you prosecute the wife, her mother will take over.”
Added to this is the danger that small-time neighborhood trafficking rings might save up enough money in order to later export and traffic cocaine. However, few mechanisms or structures currently exist to encourage regional cooperation in battling cocaine paste.
“We enforce laws on precursors, we prevent cocaine from being exported [to Europe or the United States], we have to combat coca cultivation, and we get stuck with this junk too?” Romani said.
Recently, the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission — a unit of the Washington-based Organization of American States — has embarked on an initiative, spearheaded by Brazil with U.S. support, to deal with the spread of cocaine paste.
The joint platform involving Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay consists of a first stage for technical and scientific cooperation to determine which substances will be targeted; a second phase for coordination of specific police and interdiction operations, and a third stage for medical treatment.
Yet drug abuse alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a rise in violent crime, said Mario Layera, director-general of the Uruguayan Drug Trafficking Enforcement Bureau.
“What I have seen in my area is that when drug abusers don’t have money, they will try by any means necessary to get their fix. First they sell everything they have, and later they start to steal other’s property to get money,” Layera said. “But I think those actions are better classified as simple theft and not as violent crime. To put it simply, using drugs isn’t what makes me a thug or mugger. Rather, it is other factors related to my actions or my personality that lead me down that road. I think violence is caused by many factors, and we should study all of them.”
Alcohol and drugs accounted for 36 percent of crimes committed by Uruguayan prison inmates, according to a recent study by the Uruguayan National Drug Board. Half of those were alcohol-related; the other half were related to cocaine paste. This means that only 18 percent of the prisoners surveyed attributed their crimes to cocaine paste.
Unfortunately with cocaine paste, the first target of the violence it creates is the user’s own family. Someone who abuses cocaine paste “begins stealing from his immediate family,” Romani said.