A new United Nations report into the use and sale of cocaine base in Peru traces the rise of a drug that has blighted communities around South America, but has become a boon to drug traffickers and criminal groups.
Cocaine base is the paste produced during the first stage of cocaine production, and is usually later processed into powder, cocaine hydrochloride (HCL). However, when smoked, base is also a highly addictive and destructive drug.
According to a new United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report [pdf], the first recorded consumption of cocaine base in Peru dates back to the early 1970s, although researchers believe it was commonly consumed in certain parts of the country up to 15 years before. By 1980, the drug had spread to the cities, although to this day, usage remains higher in many rural areas than in Lima and other cities.
In 1992, a Peruvian non-profit that monitors drug abuse, known as CEDRO, stated that 5.6 percent of the population had tried cocaine base, a record at the time. This was followed by a general downward trend until 2005, when use stabilized at between 2.1 and 3.7 percent. According to the UNODC, there are many explanations accounting for this drop in consumption, including changing perceptions of the risks of using cocaine base and the growing popularity of synthetic drugs in Peru.
The latest study in cocaine base consumption, published in 2012 by national anti-drug agency DEVIDA, found that only 1.5 percent of the population had tried base but that this number had increased significantly since 2006.
The DEVIDA study also suggested that nearly 60 percent of people who had smoked base in the previous year showed signs of dependency. The UNODC attributed this dramatic increase to the rising number of chronic users, the low price of the drug, and its increased production and availability.
Cocaine base is mostly produced in Peru’s coca growing regions, principally the area known as the VRAE, although labs have also been discovered on the edge of Lima and other coastal cities.
Product for domestic use is smuggled into the cities in heavy goods vehicles and delivered to suppliers, who usually handle two to four kilos at a time. The suppliers then distribute the base to dealers, who are often users themselves, and usually handle quantities no bigger than tens of grams. A 2012 CEDRO study identified 1,350 sites where base is sold in the cities of Lima and Callao alone.
According to the UNODC, the Peruvian trade is not controlled by organized criminal groups and thus operates as a relatively open market, in which independent drug dealers may participate with little fear of violent reprisals.
Internationally trafficked cocaine base leaves Peru by several routes and is usually destined for domestic markets in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay. In recent years, greater amounts of cocaine base has been trafficked via southern routes. This is most likely due to growing demand for cocaine base in Brazil, where it is not only smoked as a paste but is also used to produce crack, which was previously only made with cocaine HCL. Much of the Peruvian base destined for Brazil does not cross the countries’ shared border but instead is trafficked through Bolivia.
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Cocaine base is much easier and cheaper to produce than cocaine hydrochloride. The precursor chemicals used, such as petrol and cement, are cheaper and easier to obtain than the chemicals needed to process HCL. Additionally, the process requires much less expertise and can be carried out in rudimentary laboratories close to where coca is grown.
The end product is a paste containing a high concentration of cocaine mixed with impurities. Crucially, unlike powdered cocaine, it is smokeable and thus delivers a much more intense but brief high. This is what makes base far more addictive than cocaine HCL, as users are quickly locked into a cycle of short, sharp highs followed by a craving for more, the intensity of which is proportional to the intensity of the high. The impact on users’ health can be brutally destructive both physically and mentally — and devastating to families and communities.
In the hands of enterprising traffickers, who understood that the drug’s lower sale price could be offset by its low production cost and the high demand from consumers, the sale of cocaine base for consumption has spread through South America.
The low price of base has made it ideal for marketing in economically deprived areas and its impact has been especially devastating in South America’s urban slums. The spread of base in these areas has not just caused health and social problems, it has also generated a new, lucrative source of income for the violent street gangs that typically control street level drug dealing.
The Southern Cone nations have been especially hard-hit. According to the Argentine government, use of cocaine base, or “paco,” rose 200 percent between 2001 and 2005. Many analysts associate this increase with the poverty and lack of opportunity that followed the country’s 2001 economic crash. Use in Brazil has also spread quickly in that time, culminating in a media frenzy in 2011 over “Oxi”– ostensibly a new and shockingly dangerous cocaine derivative, in reality little more than rebranded base.
It is arguable that the spread of base consumption in South America is a direct consequence of law enforcement efforts to clamp down on the cocaine trade. Tighter restrictions on precursor chemicals, as well as the focus on interdicting drug shipments destined for overseas markets, has made it costlier and riskier for South America-based drug trafficking organizations to process cocaine HCL and move it to the United States and Europe. As a result, the quick and easy option of dumping base into the South American domestic market has become an ever more attractive option.
As a health issue, cocaine base use is among the most difficult addictions to treat, in terms of breaking dependency and in ensuring there is no relapse. As an organized crime issue, the relative ease with which it is produced and trafficked means it is likely to prove similarly difficult to tackle. Even more worryingly, any successes in tackling the international cocaine trade could well lead to the problem spreading and deepening throughout South America as squeezed drug traffickers opt for the easy dollar.