Why Monitoring Precursor Chemicals Won’t Halt Cocaine Production

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Peru’s IDL-Reporteros takes a look at the chemicals used to manufacture cocaine, and the reasons why governments in Peru and elsewhere in Latin America have had such a hard time regulating them.

In the three main cocaine-producing countries of the Andes (Peru, Colombia and Bolivia), forced eradication of coca is a central pillar of counter narcotics policy. Despite its popularity, however, eradication has provoked numerous political headaches for Andean governments and has been largely ineffective at stopping the flow of cocaine northward. Because of this, some have suggested that it may be better for governments to shift their energies to controlling the other, legal ingredients in cocaine.

After all, as an investigation by Peruvian journalist Romina Mella of IDL-Reporteros sets out, the process of making cocaine is relatively simple and requires only a few key components. Aside from coca, the whole process makes use of just six ingredients: sulfuric acid, potassium permanganate, sodium carbonate, kerosene, acetone and hydrochloric acid.

So why aren’t governments like Peru’s, which are struggling to crack down on cocaine production, able to effectively regulate these cocaine precursors? According to Mella, there is a simple explanation: all of the chemicals involved in the production of cocaine are easily substituted, except for one. And the one that isn’t (hydrochloric acid) is relatively easy to manufacture. As she writes:

It’s as simple as that. In fact, the sale of kerosene was banned in 2009 by the government of Alan Garcia, but this had no significant impact.

According to studies of Peru’s controls on chemicals conducted by the DEA and analyses of the remains of seized coca maceration pits, the kerosene was simply substituted by 84 and 90 octane gas. This was first subjected to a washing process with sulfuric acid to remove the lead, in order to prevent the cocaine hydrochloride from having reddish color. When gasoline wasn’t used, producers obtained kerosene, jet fuel (often from corrupt members of the security forces), varsol or dilutec (two common solvents used to clean engine parts).

As InSight Crime has reported, kerosene is still tightly regulated in the Apurimac and Ene River Valley (VRAE) region, but elements of the Peruvian military have sold fuel to drug producers on numerous occasions. Indeed, a November 2009 diplomatic memo released by the whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks alleges that military officers are routinely given fuel by the military command as a means of boosting their pay. The cable alleges that such allotments are “usually more than can be reasonably consumed,” and are frequently sold on to third parties, often for cocaine production. Furthermore, the other ingredients in cocaine production are just as easily obtained. According to Mella:

Sulfuric acid is frequently replaced by muriatic acid or water mixed with salt, wild lime (easily found in the VRAE) or bleach. When police raid cocaine laboratories, it is common for them to find these products in the coca maceration pits.

Sodium carbonate can be replaced by calcium carbonate, lime, urea or cement. The latter is commonly used in the Putumayo river region [along the border of Colombia], where laboratories are often operated by Colombian groups.

The same goes for the ingredients necessary to purify the raw cocaine paste: potassium permanganate could be replaced with sodium hypochlorite if necessary, but so far cocaine producers have had easy access to it. In this stage the necessary sodium carbonate can be replaced by calcium oxide, calcium hydroxide, ammonium or calcium carbonate.

In the third stage, where the product is crystalized, acetone can be replaced by ethyl acetate, toluene, benzene, ethyl ether, methyl ethyl ketone or methyl isobutyl ketone. However, acetone is so readily available that these substitutes have not been found in seized laboratories.

The only ingredient that cannot be replaced is hydrochloric acid. However, it can be produced with relative ease. Mella claims that a common way of doing this, known as the “yogurt method,” involves distilling a salt (sodium chloride) and sulfuric acid with muriatic acid and water. A second method uses only the muriatic acid, and results in more pure hydrochloric acid. The materials used in both of these methods are fairly easy to come across, and cost only about $300 to $350 per liter of acid.

Ultimately the low cost and easy availability of these materials make it almost impossible for governments in Peru and elsewhere to make a dent on cocaine production. As Mella notes:

So the rather depressing conclusion is that so long as the price of drugs remains highly profitable (and there is no indication that this will change), the interdiction of precursors is not a viable strategy to substantially weaken the drug trade.

Does that mean we must abandon it as completely unproductive? Not necessarily. The routes used to smuggle chemicals into the [cocaine producing regions of] Huallaga, VRAE and Monzon are the same that traffickers use to bring out processed cocaine. Following the precursors will always lead right to the finished product, and to its handlers. For this reason, a careful study of the patterns of their movements can provide important intelligence

In short, measures to control, monitor and seize these chemical ingredients are not enough to form the core of a successful counternarcotics strategy, but it has proved its usefulness in the field of intelligence.

The full piece, in its original Spanish, can be read here.

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