Smuggling coca base from Colombia to Central American countries like Honduras — rather than powder cocaine — may now be traffickers’ preferred method of moving the drug northwards, highlighting the changing economics of the region’s drug trade.
According to a report by Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Colombian anti-drug police believe that the country’s drug trafficking organizations see trafficking coca as a better investment than smuggling cocaine hydrochloride. The newspaper also reported that traffickers are now referring to coca base as “re-oxidized coca,” a reference to a step in the cocaine-making process in which chemicals like potassium permanganate are added to the base, in order to further purify it.
This preference for trafficking coca base was recently made evident in Honduras, where authorities seized a nearly 650 kilo shipment of base that originated in Colombia.
Additionally, Colombian anti-drug police now say that at least two cocaine laboratories found in Honduras were built with Colombian equipment and run by Colombian traffickers, El Tiempo reported. Like other Central American countries, Honduras was once typically used as a transit nation for moving cocaine northwards, not for actually producing it. But in 2011, the country discovered its first cocaine lab — an implication that rather than moving powder cocaine through the country, smugglers are bringing in coca base, and processing it into cocaine on Honduran ground.
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There have been few media reports thus far on seizures of “re-oxidized” coca base — there was one reported seizure of about 260 kilograms in Panama in April 2014.
But it would make economic sense, if Colombian traffickers are indeed leaning towards trafficking coca base to Central America, and then “re-oxidizing” it with potassium permanganate in countries like Honduras. As coca base is cheaper to produce and to transport, the smugglers lose less money if their shipment is intercepted. As one unnamed Colombian police official told El Tiempo, “The narcos think that if they lose coca base, there’s a smaller loss, almost half the value [of refined cocaine].”
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Another reason why Colombian traffickers might prefer to smuggle coca base is that precursor chemicals like potassium permanganate have greater restrictions in Colombia than in Central America. According to the US State Department, Mexico does not regulate the import or export of several important precursors, including potassium permanganate.
There is one downside to this new business model for the Colombian traffickers. If the Colombian are processing coca base in Central America, then selling it on to Central American buyers — most likely the Mexican cartels — this means that it is the Mexicans who are profiting the most from actually moving the cocaine into the US and selling it on.