is the epicenter of the world's cocaine industry, providing up to 80 percent
of all cocaine.
Coca has played various roles in religious and social ceremonies of Andean indigenous civilizations, including the Aymara Indians of Bolivia who originally named the plant "kuka," which means "food for workers and travelers." Many of the native tribes also chewed the leaves to improve blood oxygen circulation and counter the effects the high altitudes.
The plants thrive on the eastern side of the Andes mountains, where the climate is warm and moist. Typically, the plants are most successful in areas 1,500 and 6,000 meters above sea level. The plants can grow as high as eight feet, and their leaves are rich in vitamins, protein, calcium, iron and fiber. The amount of cocaine in the leaves varies between .1 and 1 percent, and increases with the altitude.
The majority of Colombia's coca leaves are cultivated on large plantations, or "fincas," in southern and central regions. The fincas utilize sophisticated agricultural technology to enhance harvest yields. According to the U.S. State Department, drug cartels bought most of the plantations in the 1980s. Recently, drug growers have destroyed nearly 2.4 million hectares of tropical forests to increase areas for coca cultivation.
Most of Colombia's opium poppies are grown within the country on small family-owned farms. Despite the relatively large harvests, the poppy's affect on Colombian culture and the state has not been as profound as cocaine.
Poor peasants, or "campesinos," are recruited to work the land and harvest illicit crops as their major source of income. In other cases, according to the Colombian government, the FARC forces farmers to pick coca fields.
To date, illicit crops yield the most lucrative revenue of all Colombian agricultural goods. The Colombian government has implemented a counter-narcotics strategy of offering stipends to families that agree to substitute their coca and poppy harvests with legal crop alternatives, such as yucca and maize.
Harvested coca leaves undergo a complex transformation in clandestine processing laboratories to become the fine, white powder (just one of its many byproducts) that is then exported. In order to process cocaine, drug traffickers must import several chemicals, such as potassium permanganate.
The majority of narcotics labs are located in remote southern and central regions, away from the coca plantations. Colombia processes three-quarters of the world's cocaine hydrochloride (HCL).
production involves a three-step process:
Cocaine alkaloids are then extracted from the solution and put into another hydrochloride solution. More sodium bicarbonate is added, and the coca paste precipitate is filtered off and dried.
Paste to Base:
Ammonia is added, and another precipitate is formed - which, after separation and drying, serves as the cocaine base.
3. Base to cocaine hydrochloride (HCL), or 99 percent pure cocaine
Acetone or ether is then added to remove any undesired materials. Hydrochloric acid is added to the solution, which causes the cocaine to crystallize. It is then dried under heat lamps or in microwave ovens.
At each step in the process, significant quantities of various toxic chemicals are used and subsequently dumped, causing serious detriment to the environment.
To meet rising consumer demand, drug producers created "crack cocaine" -- an amalgamation of cocaine HCL and baking powder -- as an inexpensive product-replacement for cocaine. The name "crack" denotes the sound the drug makes when burned. The adulterated substance, however, is significantly more lethal.
BUSINESS OF NARCOTICS:
Highly organized smuggling cartels based in cities, like Cali, Medellin, and Bogota, arrange for the export of narcotics by the bulk, primarily to the United States. Europe and Brazil, however, are increasingly another destination for cocaine.
Narcotics can be shipped from ports along South America's coastal regions or transported via ground routes running through Colombia and its neighbors Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela.
Traffickers utilize fishing vessels, commercial cargo ships, and stealthier speed boats to smuggle massive amounts of cocaine from Colombia to Central America, Mexico, and several Caribbean countries. The shipments move from there to the U.S. mainland. Cargo ships will often travel directly from Colombia to the United States or Europe, with the illegal goods hidden in secret compartments and containers built into the ships, and will then unload narcotics right on the destination port or arrange a transfer to boats before reaching the port.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency reported in 2001 the most popular method of transport was through concealment in clothes or luggage carried by special couriers.
Colombia, ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, has worked to combat the egregious money laundering flows by drug cartels. But, the corrosive effects of drug money appeared to reach Colombia's highest government offices. In 1998, former president Ernesto Samper was accused of receiving several million in campaign donations from drug cartels. The U.S. consequently revoked travel visas for Samper and several members of his Cabinet members. An investigation by the Colombian Attorney General into the alleged links between the government and drug cartels indicted Samper's defense minister and several others, though Samper was later cleared of any wrongdoing.
The drug trade has also taken a profound toll on the integrity of Colombia's judicial system, which is already challenged by the 38-year old war between illegal armed groups. With an enfeebled law enforcement system, drug cartels can do business with near impunity.
In general, drug abuse in Colombia has consistently remained low, although a rising number of Colombians are using marijuana and basuco, a highly addictive cocaine paste derivative.
The Colombian government initiated this eradication strategy in 1984, but with over $1.3 billion in U.S. aid, the counter-narcotics technique has grown into a massive operation.
Assisted by U.S. equipment and training, Colombian agents spray fine mists of glyphosphate-based Roundup weedkiller, primarily over the southern region of Putumayo. The spray shrivels the coca crops, and any other crops in the vicinity.
Opponents argue that risks associated with this method outweigh the benefits. While Roundup is widely used in the U.S., there have been no studies on effects when applied from air in concentrated forms in the tropics. The herbicide contains Polyoxyethyleneamines, which irritate the respiratory tract, eyes, and skin. A byproduct of Roundup is Dioxin, which is a carcinogen.
Though Roundup is ostensibly effective in eradicating illicit crops, a major disadvantage is that it also eliminates food crops. Many small farmers in southern Colombian lose their legal crops due to the aerial fumigation counter-narcotics sprays -- even after they agree to participate in the Colombian government's alternative development program.
The United Nations Drug Control Program has requested an independent international monitoring of counter-narcotics fumigation methods in Colombia.
-- By Sarah Clune and Liz Harper, Online NewsHour