Cocaine lines to be snorted
U.S. Coast Guard captain, Charley Diaz, was trained to prevent drug smugglers from traversing American waters. He knows what to look for: a suspicious crew, illegitimate documents, a ship that intentionally stays under the radar… however, Diaz’s years of experience didn’t quite matter on March 21, 2007, when a Panamanian ship called the Gatun, sporting 40,000 pounds of cocaine prominently on its upper deck, came sailing into view.
American coast guard official on the Gatun
In a sequence of events that led to the largest drug bust in United States history, Diaz stopped the Gatun and confirmed that the deck was, in fact, stacked with bales of cocaine. The total value of the cargo had a street equivalency of $600m and who knows how many lives. The Coast Guard’s ability to thwart the drug smugglers is reassuring, but how did the cocaine, which originated as an innocent sprout from the grounds of South America, get as far as it did?
An aerial view of the Gatun with its illicit cargo.
Part One: Botany
An Andean woman holds the unprocessed coca leaf.
Andean woman purchases coca leaves at a market.
The coca plant is native to the Southwestern Andean lands of South America. Though there are 17 other species of the genus Erythroxylum that can produce cocaine, coca yields the highest crop – harvested 4 to 6 times per annum. Coca has been chewed in Andean culture for centuries due its effects, but it wasn’t until the 1850s when German chemist Albert Niemann isolated the chemical compound in the plant, cocaine hydrochloride, that the following process born.
A Colombia man in the Sierra Nevada soaks coca leaves in hydrochloric acid.
Barefooted workers stomp on the dissolving coca leaves.
First, the leaves of the coca plant are stripped off and put into a large ditch with water and hydrochloric acid. They are stomped on by barefooted locals, often causing serious skin irritation and burns. But no one worries about worker’s rights when it comes to the illegal drug trade. Eventually the leaves dissolve, and when mixed, form a white paste. This is the end of the road for the farmers, who now sell their product at low prices to labs for the serious chemistry to take place.
A Colombian man in the Sierra Nevada makes cocaine paste.
Part Two: The Serious Chemistry
The paste is washed with kerosene, and once cooled, the kerosene is drained and the unprocessed cocaine forms into white crystals. The crystals are then dissolved in methyl alcohol, and recrystallize. The new crystals are washed in sulfuric acid, and at this mid-processing stage, crack is produced.
Crack cocaine is different from street cocaine. Crack cocaine is a less processed form of cocaine, and snortable cocaine can be deprocessed to return to the state of crack. Crack is a less valuable drug because it is not water-soluble, and therefore can only be smoked. Because the blood is composed of 55% water, only water-soluble substances can be injected or snorted without leading to a stroke. Snorting a drug is much more potent, and hence, cocaine is more expensive.
Woman smoking crack
The crack is dissolved and washed in sodium carbonate or benzole to be oxidized – thus rendering the drug water soluble. Blocks of cocaine form, which can be crushed into powder and diluted by the seller. Mixing cocaine with talc, confectioner’s sugar, or baking soda, makes overall sales more lucrative. The bales of cocaine are often branded with a symbol, such as the scorpion, to indicate the source.
Bales of cocaine adorned with the infamous scorpion logo.
Part Three: The Drug Smuggler
Cocaine smuggling is an extremely risky and an extremely profitable business. Notorious drug lords like Pablo Escobar and cinematic cartel leaders like Tony Montana suggest the life of a drug smuggler is characterized by wealth, empire, treachery, and an ultimate fall. Perhaps it is that grand and tumultuous, and it certainly is lucrative, but the life of a smuggler more often ends in prison, and less often in a swimming pool with a statue inscribed, ‘The World is Yours’. The United States, especially, has increased mandatory sentences for drug-related offenses, and prisons are overflowing with cocaine traffickers.
The notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar.
Though the risks taken by the drug cartel leaders are great, the threat to the health and personal safety of their employees is much greater. Smugglers of cocaine, in order to fool international border security, will engage in a practice known as body packing. Smugglers will swallow condoms filled with cocaine, and later extract the cocaine balloons from their feces. However, if the balloons burst or leak while in the body, the smugglers will suffer horrific problems, likely leading to death.
Cocaine wrapped in latex, ready for body packers to swallow and smuggle.
Stomach infected by burst cocaine sacs.
Cocaine is a commodity that shows, even in the illegal sphere, that the world has developed a global trade interdependency and exchange. We see the evolution of a cultural element as it is shared from country to country. When the people of the Andes chewed the coca leaf centuries ago in religious ceremonies they never dreamed it could be converted into a $300bn industry. Cocaine also illuminates the unequal distribution of wealth. The small farmers who risk their health stomping on the cocaine paste do not see the money that the drug lords do. Perhaps then, the cocaine trail – with its thousands of workers, its influence on global trade and cultural exchange and its power to corrupt – is just a microcosm of the world economy.
Cocaine lines, to be snorted through the dollar bill.