Ecuadorian authorities are employing a novel technique to destroy hundreds of tons of cocaine seized annually. It involves “encapsulation,” whereby the drug is mixed with cement to make concrete blocks to prevent its reuse and quickly destroy the illegal substance.
The cocaine is first converted into powder and then mixed with cement, salt, and chemical accelerants to form a slurry that is poured into molds. After drying, the concrete blocks harden completely, making it impossible to extract the cocaine.
“Encapsulation is cheaper, less complex, less toxic, and with greater processing capability than the incineration system,” Juan Belikow, professor of International Relations at the University of Buenos Aires, told Diálogo.
“As such, I welcome the idea of encapsulating cocaine and the toxic substances it contains. Moreover, I believe that seized cocaine should be destroyed as soon as possible to avoid risks of ‘leakage’ and corruption temptations,” Belikow said. “The immediate destruction of illicit psychotropics is a very good way to combat the problem of narcotrafficking in general.”
Investigative journalism organization InSight Crime, which specializes in organized crime in Latin America and the Caribbean, also praised the initiative. “Scaling of encapsulation operations could impact the future of drug destruction for governments across Latin America, and Ecuador is doing its part to prove how effective the process can be,” InSight Crime said.
In 2022, until October 14, Ecuador destroyed nearly 180 tons of drugs in total, and 61 percent of what was seized was destroyed using the encapsulation technique, Edmundo Mera, undersecretary for Drug Control at Ecuador’s Interior Ministry, told InSight Crime. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Ecuador began the encapsulation technique in April 2022, after receiving training on UNODC disposal guidelines.
In an interview with AP, Mera explained that incineration in Ecuador destroys between 70 and 80 kilograms of drugs per hour, while encapsulation destroys up to 1.8 tons of drugs per hour. “This is approximately 260 times faster,” Mera told AP.
Mera also explained that the chemical components of cocaine hydrochloride make it that at times the temperature reaches up to 1400 degrees Celsius during incineration, because the drug does not burn well. That would cause the collapse of Ecuador’s industrial furnaces if the burning rate were increased. “As such, in the most modern furnace, they work with no more than 70 kg per hour,” AP reported.
“Under that premise, the incineration of some 700 kg would take 10 hours and, according to the law, in all drug destruction proceedings a judge, a secretary, and the ministry’s judicial depository must be present. For these reasons, encapsulation is a more efficient destruction mechanism,” Mera told AP. The undersecretary clarified that the resulting cement is not used for construction, but rests in underground cells along with other waste and becomes the foundation for warehouses within the company or waste management company itself, AP added.
UNODC has provided guidelines on the encapsulation technique. “Encapsulation is a form of waste immobilization that renders the material to be disposed of unreactive and unable to escape into the environment to cause contamination,” the UNODC indicates in its 2020 manual Illustrated Guide for the Disposal of Chemicals used in the Illicit Manufacture of Drugs.
The U.N. manual makes the distinction between two types of encapsulation: drum and pit. Drum encapsulation, used for small and medium scale waste, requires only drums (metal or plastic) and concrete. In turn, pit encapsulation is indicated for large disposals. “The encapsulation pit must be a minimum of 500 meters from any waterways and at least 2 m above groundwater,” UNODC stated.
With this method, the drug is enclosed in drums or containers, which in turn are enclosed in a concrete and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) cell. “The size and depth of the well can vary but must allow for 1 m of fill at the top,” the UNODC indicated.
As of mid-February 2023, some 350 tons of cocaine and coca paste had been destroyed with the encapsulation technique, Reuters reported. “The procedure is helping to free up police drug collection centers. Some 83 tons of cocaine are waiting to be encapsulated.”
Ecuador has been ramping up efforts to fight narcotrafficking and criminal groups that use the country as a transit point to ship cocaine to the United States and Europe.