Some 4% of the world’s population has consumed cocaine in his or her life. That is almost 300 million people. Approximately half of this cocaine comes from Colombia.
Last year alone, at least 17 million people used the illicit drug, allegedly consuming between 700 and 800 tons of pure cocaine with a street value of at least $20 billion.
The demand for the drug comes primarily from the United States and Europe, but South America — particularly Brazil — has also grown into a major consumption market.
Prevalence of cocaine use per country
Supplying the demand
Almost all cocaine consumed across the globe comes from Colombia, Peru and to a lesser extent Bolivia; countries where coca — the crop used for cocaine — has been common for centuries and is consumed legally by chewing the leaves or making tea.
In Colombia, the coca used to produce cocaine is grown mostly in remote parts of the country where the state has long lacked control.
Because of the lack of state control, the necessary amount of land is available for all kinds of illegal or informal activity.
Colombian coca farmers use approximately an accumulated area of between 69,000 hectares and 188,000 hectares to produce the country’s cocaine.
The UN estimated in 2016 that some 106,000 Colombian farming families live off coca.
These families receive on average little less than $1,200 a month from selling coca, which sells at a little more than a dollar per kilo, depending on the region.
To produce one kilo of cocaine some 125 kilos of coca is needed, which would cost a local drug lab $137.50. Once the lab has turned the coca leaves first into coca paste, then into coca base and ultimately into real cocaine, the value will have increased to $2,269.
By the time it gets to the street in, for example the United States, that kilo of cocaine will provide $60,000 in revenue. In Australia this could be as much as $235,000.
A resilient industry
Authorities are trying to curb coca cultivation by eradicating plants and, until recently, spraying chemicals over areas where coca fields are most prevalent.
Nevertheless, Colombia last year had a potential cocaine production of 487 tons, more than half of what is consumed globally.
According to Colombia’s Defense Ministry, it destroyed more than 65,000 hectares of coca in 2014. This it likely inaccurate as it would be almost the entire area used for coca cultivation.
It is safe to expect that next year’s coca cultivation will only see an increase or decrease of several thousands of hectares.
Colombia does not have an extensive crop substitution program like Peru, meaning some farmers continue cultivating coca after their current harvest has been destroyed.
The lack of absolute results in the reduction of coca cultivation demonstrates how easily coca farmers recover territory for their illicit crops.
Coca cultivation in Colombia
Cocaine is made in three separate chemical processes; first the coca is converted into coca paste, then coca base before it becomes real cocaine.
The converting of coca leaves into coca paste is mainly done by the farmers and to a lesser extent by the drug trafficking organizations. This because for one kilo of cocaine requires approximately 125 kilos of coca leaves.
The dried coca leaves are drenched in gasoline for between 8 to 12 hours to extract the alkaloid or coca base.
Next, the gasoline and the leaves are separated from the alkaloid and water and sulfuric acid are added, combined with pulverized limestone or ammonia.
This is then mixed with acetone and laid to rest. The substance is then filtered with more ammonia and washed in water. The water is evaporated by putting the substance in a slow-burning oven, converting it in something similar to oil.
Once cooled down, this substance has become coca paste, which is dissolved in ether. After another filtering round, chloride acid and more acetone are added. Once this is dry, the cocaine is ready.
The drug labs are generally controlled by local drug trafficking clans, individual guerrilla units, or collaborators of larger organizations with direct ties to the organizations that traffic the drugs to the US, Europe or the Southern Cone where local drug dealing organizations take care of street sales.
Moving the product to the border
Once the coca is processed to cocaine, it is trafficked by local drug traffickers, guerrillas and nationally operating groups to either one of the country’s two coastlines, or one of the country’s borders. A relatively small amount of cocaine is taken to airports.
The cocaine is hidden in trucks or cars if transported over land, or is moved in small boats through dense jungle areas where rivers provide the perfect corridors for almost unhindered illicit trafficking. Along these routes, the drug traffickers intimidate locals and bribe officials to prevent their routes and shipments from being exposed.
Nevertheless, according to Colombia’s Defense Ministry, more than 150 tons of cocaine is seized annually.
Cocaine seizures inside Colombia
In response, drug traffickers increasingly appear to use airplanes to move their cargo, avoiding road and naval check points.
Means of transport seized by authorities
This part of the trade is supervised by national criminal organizations with business relations to international cartels. In some cases, these groups have access to their own transnational routes.
Most of Colombia’s current drug trafficking organizations were formed a decade ago by mid-level commanders of state-aligned paramilitary groups that were active between the 1980s and the early 2000s. Some have their roots in the old Medellin and Cali cartels. They bribe security forces, politicians and judicial authorities to protect their routes, and secure the continuity of their business.
How the drugs are trafficked to the US and Europe
When drugs arrive at Colombia’s Caribbean and Pacific coast lines they are loaded onto small ships or submarines and sailed to transit hubs in the Caribbean and Central America, in some cases already under the supervision of transnational crime groups like the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel.
In the cases of port cities, local crime gangs with close ties to local law enforcement and port authorities oversee the loading of the drugs into containers, often in coordination with international drug trafficking cartels.
Over the past few years, Venezuela has become a major transit hub for cocaine. Hundreds of clandestine airstrips have been found in the country, allegedly used to fly cocaine to Central America or, in fewer cases, to Caribbean islands like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or the Bahamas.
Smaller amount of drugs are trafficked by air, in risky operations by “drug mules” who either swallow small amounts of drugs, or carry pounds or kilos of the illicit substance in their luggage. These drug mules generally work for Colombian organizations with a criminal partner organization in the destination country.
Large quantities of drugs find their way out of the country through the country’s ports where corruption is rife. One important criminal organization running such operation is “La Empresa,” a local mafia that’s long been in charge of Colombia’s largest port, Buenaventura. They will have foreign partners on the receiving end, more often than not these would be cells or gangs linked to large organized crime organizations.
It is almost impossible to define which form of transport is most effective to get the drugs to its consumption markets in the US, Europe and South America.
The UNODC has said that — when referring to global trafficking of all drugs — most seizures were made while drugs were transported by air or road, but even though only a few busts have been made in ports or clandestine maritime entry points, the largest drug seizures were made there.
Number of seizures
Quantity of seized drugs
A declining business?
While still a major business, the United Nations has registered a recent drop in the global popularity of cocaine consumption. Also the United States anti-narcotics agency DEA has claimed a reduction in cocaine and crack use in 2014.