BOGOTÁ, Colombia – Javier Cortés García’s two-year downward spiral in which he dropped out of college and sold all of his belongings to fuel a drug addiction that caused him to live on the streets for five months started with three words: “Just try it.”
Almost sixteen years ago, Cortés was a student at the Universidad de Los Andes when several friends pressured him to try bazuco, a type of cocaine paste sold in powder form that’s also the cheapest narcotic in Colombia, where a dose costs $500 pesos (US$0.28).
“I had tried other drugs before that, but the addiction caused by bazuco is truly uncontrollable,” said Cortés, a 35-year-old graphic designer who has been clean for the past 11 years. “[You sometimes hear that] using bazuco is like doing something you know is bad and that you can give up at any time, [but] that’s a lie. You start sinking slowly into addiction, losing friends and losing yourself, especially. The five months I lived on the streets, I couldn’t even remember who I was – all I wanted was bazuco to somehow satisfy the craving – a craving that never ends until the next fix. It’s really like living a nightmare, but you’re wide awake.”
But Cortés’ story is becoming more common in Colombia, where authorities attribute bazuco’s low price to its high demand. By comparison, a hit of bazuco costs, on average about US$2.75 less than the amount of marijuana needed to fill a cigarette.
Another reason bazuco is so inexpensive is its poor quality, as all it takes to make a kilogram (2.2 pounds) is a gram of cocaine, plus solvents, sulfuric acid, ground-up bricks and even gasoline, according to Ernesto Mojica, a chemist at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia.
“Bazuco is a profitable drug for many people because of its peculiarity, as it is not a pure drug, like marijuana or cocaine,” he said. “In other words, the percentages needed to make bazuco don’t go beyond one gram, at most 1.5 grams if it’s good quality. But in the end, [it’s the use of ] solvents [that] makes this drug so cheap.”
The narcotic, which first appeared in the Andean nation in the 1980s, impacts memory function and can cause irreversible damage to the brain, liver and lungs, according to Adriana Serrano, a psychologist at Fundación La Luz, an institution that treats and rehabilitates drug addicts in Colombia.
“Aggressive behavior, incontrollable addiction and bodily destruction – those are the three main consequences of bazuco use,” she said. “The main reason bazuco is so addictive is [that] someone has to take several doses to feel its effect. However, all that repetitive use accelerates the damage to the body. I would go so far as to say that bazuco addicts are the most difficult to treat.”
Mónica Rubio, who has worked with drug addicts for the past 20 years, including Cortés during the first stage of his two-year recovery, agrees with Serrano.
“The worst part of treating a bazuco addict is they tend to be the most predisposed to going back on the drug,” she said. “It is true drugs such as heroin are quite addictive, but you have to take into consideration the cost of buying heroin compared to finding bazuco. The accessible price and the fact that it is one of the most sold drugs on the street can cause the patients to regress, since they know how easy it is to get it.”
Bazuco has flooded the streets because dealers can carry a high quantity divided into packets. And since it’s so inexpensive to make, it’s attractive to gangs of all sizes.
“The main problem with bazuco is that it is a drug created specifically for micro-trafficking,” said Brig. Gen. Luis Eduardo Martínez, commander of the Bogotá Metropolitan Police. “There are no big cartels involved, rather small groups distributing the drug. That causes the authorities to have to invest more resources in breaking up so many gangs.”
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he is planning to hire 20,000 more police officers this year who will focus on busting bazuco dealers, Martínez added.
“The prosecution of micro-traffickers is everyday work all over Colombia. We know how much damage this drug causes,” he said. “With these new officers, we will be able to strengthen our strategies to definitely weaken micro-trafficking.”
So far, the strategy is yielding positive results.
The National Police arrested six suspects, including two minors, in connection with a March 22 raid on a bazuco laboratory in the Rafael Uribe Uribe neighborhood in Bogotá where 6,000 packets of bazuco were seized.
The minors were placed in the custody of the Colombian Institute for Family Welfare (ICBF), which will place them in different correctional facilities. The four others were charged with drug trafficking and sent to prison to await trial.
The National Police apprehended two individuals accused of making and distributing bazuco in the city of Neiva in the department of Huila last February. The authorities destroyed the laboratory where the drug was being produced, and both drug-traffickers are in jail awaiting sentencing.
That same month, National Police also seized $79 million (US$40,000) in bazuco during a raid in the city of Manizales in the department of Caldas. Authorities also arrested an 18-year-old carrying 90 packets of the drug in Pereira, capital of the department of Risaralda. The suspect is facing two to five years in prison if convicted.