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Coca cycle: from leaf to market

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From the jungles of Colombia’s far-flung Putumayo province and other coca-growing areas, cocaine follows a labyrinth of routes to reach consumers on U.S. streets.

Most cocaine leaves in large shipments by boat, but the drug has been found pressed into the pages of a Bible, made into sheet music, sewed into clothing and even surgically fitted into a woman’s gluteus muscles.

Often human “mules” swallow up to a kilogram of latex pellets filled with the drug and board commercial flights bound for major drug markets.

At every step of the way Colombia’s police, army, navy and air force try to stem the stream of cocaine out of the country. But despite major drug seizures both here and in the United States, an estimated 269 metric tons still make it through.

Nearly half of the cocaine that ends up on U.S. streets starts out in the fields of southern Putumayo province, where Alina Lopez has spent the last seven years harvesting seven of the more than 300,000 acres planted with the illegal crop throughout Colombia.

At first, she would sell the leaves for processing but then Lopez learned how to make coca paste herself in a small, rustic “kitchen” on her farm.

There, the tender green leaves are chopped up, then mixed with dry cement and

soaked in a vat full of gasoline and mixed with caustic soda to extract the alkaloids that produce cocaine’s high.

A dilemma for farmers
The result is a brownish-gray paste that is the first stage in the cocaine-making process.

Once the paste is a ready, farmer in Putumayo like Lopez face a dilemma.

Should they sell to paramilitaries, who pay top dollar for the paste — about $860 per kilogram — or to the leftist guerrillas, who offer about $180 less but have been known to kill sellers who offer their goods to the right-wing groups.

Many sellers have found a way to avoid trouble, according to Carlos Penaflor, who has first-hand knowledge of the market.

“The peasants aren’t stupid,” says Penaflor, who asked that his real name not be used. “If they have three kilos to sell, they tell the rebels they only have one and then come into town to buy supplies. Here, where the paramilitaries rule, they sell the other two.”

A rebel-run market
Every Sunday, a rebel-run paste market is held in different parts of Putumayo downriver from the town of Puerto Asis. While the market used to be filled with peasants selling their wares to representatives of Colombia’s drug trafficking organizations, Penaflor says, now guerrilla representatives do the selling.

Once the deals are made, the paste is whisked away by plane, boat, truck or bus to labs scattered around Colombia where the paste is refined into cocaine hydrochloride, the crystalline drug sold on the streets of the United States.

A former worker at a hydrochloride lab who asked not to be identified says he made about $350 a day working 10-hour shifts.

The processors work at night, extracting unwanted alkaloids from the paste using chemicals such as sulfuric acid potassium pergamanate, ammonia and acetone. The crystallized cocaine is then dried under heating lamps or in microwave ovens and compressed into one-kilogram — 2.2 pound — packages wrapped in plastic and latex to protect the goods from the elements.

Each package includes common commercial logos such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds or cartoon characters like Pikachu and Popeye as a sort of coded waybill, indicating whom the cocaine belongs to and where it is destined.

By boat and plane
From airstrips located near the labs, most of the cocaine is flown to distribution centers near Colombia’s Pacific or Caribbean coasts, where small shipments from several organizations are combined into multi-ton loads.

The bulk of the drugs leaves on vessels known as “go-fast” boats, fitted with powerful motors. The boats, manned by crews of five to six people in wetsuits, can zip through the ocean at 60 knots carrying up to six tons of cocaine.

“They look like flies out there on the ocean, and there’s nothing so bothersome as a fly,” says Capt. Jose Escobar, commander of the Colombian Coast Guard’s Atlantic fleet based in the port city of Cartagena.

Often, the boats hook up with large ships in international waters, where the cocaine is transferred for transport to Mexico or another transit country, or directly to the United States. But many of the go-fast boats plow straight through to Mexico, traveling more than 50 hours with a refueling stop at sea.

Delivering to the U.S. consumer
Once in Mexico, that nation’s powerful drug cartels take charge of getting the drugs into the United States through the southwest border, by far the largest single gateway for drugs into the United States.

A Drug Enforcement Administration agent in Bogota said the Mexican cartels charge the Colombian traffickers up 50 percent of the merchandise to place it in warehouses at major distribution centers such as Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. U.S.-based cartel members distribute the Mexicans’ cut, while the rest of the merchandise is handed over to Colombian and Dominican distributors, mostly on the East Coast, who put the drugs on the streets of the United States through intricate networks of retailers.

From those streets, Americans buy 269 million one-gram highs each year.