The Institute of Geosciences (IGc, in Portuguese) of Brazil’s University of São Paulo (USP, in Portuguese), is helping the Federal Police (PF, in Portuguese) identify the origin and routes of cocaine trafficking from Andean producing countries to the Port of Santos, São Paulo state.
In December 2021, the IGc signed a cooperation agreement with the PF to conduct research applying geochemical analyses and pollen study techniques, to help determine where the drug was grown, based on traces of local vegetation found in the drug and its packaging. The Port of Santos is the largest and most important in Latin America and a strategic point for international narcotrafficking from Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay to the United States, Europe, and Africa.
The explanation for the process is that cocaine is made under precarious conditions in the forest and picks up pollen from the local vegetation, which remains in the drug and its packaging. The pollen makes it possible to identify where the plants were grown, the area where the drug was processed, and the route traveled to reach the Port of Santos, since the packaging also traps pollen during the journey.
The unprecedented project in Brazil was conceived by PF criminology expert Fábio Salvador, after participating on the evaluation board of IGc student Cynthia Ramos’ master’s degree, who researched forensic potential of pollen particles and spores. Encouraged by Salvador, Ramos began her doctorate to continue the study, focusing on cocaine and seizures in the Port of Santos.
Salvador explains that IGc studies will benefit and amplify the PeQui project, which the PF developed to learn about and describe the chemical profile of drugs, while establishing characteristics such as products used in manufacturing, transport conditions during trafficking, and purity of each sample. This data is combined with investigation results and serves to establish connections between gangs and suppliers.
“This PeQui classification is fundamental for us to know about the cocaine that transits through Brazil. However, another aspect of the research was missing from the project, which is the traceability of this cocaine,” Salvador told Diálogo. “This project is important to the USP as it allows us to say with assurance that the packaging found in the Port of Santos, or any other port, has traces from one of the Andean countries, of a travel route. Traceability through pollen has proven to be relatively inexpensive and successful,” he added.
No drugs are sent to USP labs. Every two weeks, the PF puts aside four samples from different drug shipments seized at the Port of Santos hidden in bags of sand, rice, coffee, etc. The samples are sent to the PF in São Paulo, where IGc researchers destroy the drug with chemicals, leaving only the biological residue for microscopic analysis in the USP’s labs.
Ramos’ advisor, IGc professor Paulo Eduardo de Oliveira, brings from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, plant samples from Andean countries and Brazil that are necessary for the analysis. The museum is among the largest herbaria worldwide with one of the largest plant depositories in Central and South America. “I go there every year to collect samples,” he told Diálogo.
Oliveira believes that identifying locations can help Brazil with practical solutions such as directing actions to combat drug trafficking alongside the police of other countries. For his part, Salvador believes that knowing the origin of the drug will make it possible to focus efforts on specific points with greater chances of successful seizures.
“We believe there are three possible sources for the origin of the drug: Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. These country’s road, rail, and waterway routes to Brazil are totally different. If the cocaine arriving at the Port of Santos comes from Colombia, the investigation may be directed to the routes from Colombia to control the transit of this illicit material,” said Salvador, who believes that within the first year of study it will be possible to start delivering initial results to the public and focus police investigations on these routes in Brazil.