Colombia Targets ‘Precursor Chemicals’ Used to Make Cocaine

By Geraldine Cook
June 03, 2011

Colombian authorities have been cracking down on precursor chemicals used to make cocaine.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Colombian authorities have been cracking down on precursor chemicals used to make cocaine.
These acids, solvents and bases have a wide range of legitimate industrial uses. However, chemicals like acetone, sulfuric acid and potassium permanganate also can be used to make heroin or to convert semi-refined coca paste — also known as cocaine base — into the 90 percent pure white powder sold on U.S. streets.
When it comes to plant-based illegal narcotics, precursor chemicals are the most expensive part of the drug-making process. Officials say a kilogram of cocaine can cost between $750 to $1,200 to produce.
Amid a crackdown on precursor chemicals in Colombia, officials say traffickers are moving some of their drug processing laboratories to Central America.
During a raid near the Guatemalan border in March, for example, Honduran police agents discovered a huge drug lab capable of producing eight tons of cocaine. Agents found microwave ovens, air compressors and sleeping quarters for at least 12 as well as barrels of acetic acid, acetone and calcium chloride.
“They are producing cocaine base here in Colombia, then sending it to countries with little control over precursor chemicals,” Gen. César Pinzón, commander of the anti-narcotics division of the Colombian National Police, said in a recent interview. “That’s the main reason” for the shift.
Although Honduras has passed laws against the trafficking of precursor chemicals, “they aren’t enforced,” Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez told McClatchy Newspapers.
A similar transition occurred in the production of methamphetamine. Small-scale meth labs in the United States were eventually replaced by massive “super labs” in Mexico following a U.S. crackdown on the domestic sale of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the two main chemicals used to make the drug.
Colombia has among the world’s strictest regulations on precursor chemicals. Yet preventing them from getting into the hands of the cartels is a frustrating battle. Indeed, to produce the global supply of cocaine and heroin, traffickers must divert less than 1 percent of the worldwide supply of these chemicals, officials say.
That’s not hard to do because precursor chemicals have a broad range of industrial uses and are widely available.
Acetone, for example, is a key ingredient in paint. Potassium permanganate — known as “PP” to anti-drug agents — is an oxidizer used to treat wastewater, sanitize animal skins and keep bananas from ripening too fast. But PP is also what sets Colombian cocaine apart.
Following the path of least resistance, traffickers sometimes arrange for the import of precursor chemicals into neighboring countries where controls are less stringent, then smuggle them across borders. In other cases, seemingly legitimate companies will import far more chemicals than they need and sell the excess to drug cartels.
Anti-drug cooperation has increased between drug-producing nations like Colombia and major exporters of precursor chemicals like the United States and Germany. But other exporters are less transparent. China remains problematic due, in part, to the sheer size of its chemical industry and the fact it has 80,000 chemical companies — which makes oversight of exports a challenge.
Traffickers sometimes bribe company employees to supply them with the desired chemicals, or steal them outright. In Mexico, four guards were killed in 2006 during the theft of one metric ton of ephedrine, which is used to make methamphetamine.
Finally, there are front companies that produce nothing but import precursor chemicals in order to sell them to the bad guys.
“We have tried to inspect many non-existent companies,” said Colombian Police Maj. Carlos Oviedo, who heads the department’s precursor chemical control unit. “Sometimes we arrive at the street address and there’s no company, just a house.” Oviedo says his agents often count on inside information from company employees to detect chemical diversions. In other cases, the police target jungle warehouses where tons of the chemicals are stored. They can also pounce as the chemicals are being transported on trucks from Bogotá, Medellín and other major cities to southern jungle towns.
That’s how Colombian police agents last year confiscated 120 tons of acetone and other chemicals from a fictitious paint manufacturer that was sending these supplies to cocaine laboratories in the southern departments of Cauca, Caquetá and Putumayo.
Local authorities must also keep close tabs on the sale of mass consumer substances like gasoline, cement and baking soda — all which can be used to make drugs. In southern jungle towns, like San José del Guaviare and Puerto Asís, daily sales of gasoline and kerosene are restricted to 55 gallons per customer while the daily limit on cement is 100 kilograms.
But traffickers keep inventing new ways to get what they need. Amid increased scrutiny of gas sales, traffickers have at times tapped directly into gasoline pipelines, Oviedo said.
Traffickers also are able to recycle some precursor chemicals. Yet at the end of the drug-producing food chain, massive quantities of toxic waste are simply dumped into the jungle.
During Colombia’s peak years of cocaine production in the early 2000s, John Walters — who was then the U.S. “drug czar” — said clandestine labs were dumping 370,000 tons of chemicals into the environment every year.
The chemicals inevitably find their way into rivers, streams and groundwater. “Affected waterways are almost entirely devoid of many species of aquatic and animal life,” Walters wrote.
In fact, it was environmental degradation that led to the discovery of the huge cocaine laboratory in Honduras. Police officers were tipped off by farmers living near the lab who complained about contamination of the local water supply.
Great article, it is great that they create laws to control illegal drug production. It is important to publish methods to detect such substances. This is all very serious for humanity, but glysophate pollution is also very serious. The program should watch over consumers. Demand is the main problem. When it stops being a business, there will be no more PROFIT. EDUCATION IS FUNDAMENTAL, FROM THE FIRST YEARS OF SCHOOL WHERE THE DAMAGE DRUGS DO TO PEOPLE AND THE ENVIRONMENT IS EXPLAINED