Chilean authorities have dismantled yet another cocaine lab, used by a group of Bolivians and Chileans to process the drug into its liquid form, suggesting that Chile's role in the drug trade may be evolving beyond that of a transshipment point.
Following a six-month investigation, Chilean police seized more than 530 kilograms of cocaine and dismantled a large cocaine processing laboratory in the town of Nancagua, roughly 200 kilometers south of the capital Santiago, reported Publimetro on March 28.
In addition to impounding 450 kilograms of liquid cocaine and 85 kilograms of cocaine base, authorities arrested four Chileans who allegedly smuggled the product into the country, and two Bolivians who would process the drug into its liquid form. Police also found precursor chemicals needed to process the drug into its liquid form, reported Cooperativa.
Carlos Yánez, the head of the Antinarcotics and Organized Crime Brigade (Brigada Antinarcóticos y Contra el Crimen Organizado), said that the criminal group was also involved in distributing some of the product in the Santiago metropolitan area, according to Publimetro.
The official also noted that this was the fourth cocaine lab dismantled in the country this year. A total of 16 were discovered last year.
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The size of the most recently dismantled lab, combined with the fact that nearly 20 other such facilities have been discovered in the past year, suggests that Chile's role in the drug trade might be evolving beyond that of a transshipment country with a sizeable domestic consumption market. Rather than importing refined cocaine products for sale in Chile, crime groups there now appear to be refining the drug themselves.
The dismantled structure appears to have exploited Chile's local consumption market, one of the largest in Latin America, to distribute part of the drugs smuggled in the country. This might have been done by selling directly the cocaine paste -- a cheap form of the drug whose widespread consumption has become a serious challenge for many South American nations -- or refining the product into cocaine powder, which can be sold at a higher price.
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The impounded liquid cocaine, however, was almost certainly destined for exportation. This form -- which was first discovered in 2011 in Bolivia according to BBC Mundo -- is much harder for authorities to detect, and thus easier for traffickers to smuggle across borders. In addition, reports have signaled Chile's role as a transshipment point to be growing.
But if both the cocaine base and the two chemists originated from Bolivia, it is surprising that the suspects chose to process the drug into its liquid form in Chile rather than in Bolivia, which would likely have rendered the smuggling of the product across the border less risky.
One of the reasons that may explain this decision is the accessibility in Chile of precursor chemicals needed for the process, partly due to the country's vast chemical industry. But whereas Chile's precursors were traditionally shipped north to coca-producing countries -- in particular Bolivia and Peru -- the total of 20 dismantled labs since 2016 suggest that this trend may be evolving, and that Chile may become an important processing country in the drug trade, in addition to being a consumption and transshipment point.