The Walrus Blog

Better Dying Through Chemistry

Just your average clandestine jungle drug laboratory

How to ruin entire nations and destroy untold millions of lives, as explained to me by a slender young man with a pencil moustache, a furtive look, and a machete dangling in a braided leather scabbard on his hip, in a jungle drug laboratory — two benches covered with a plastic tarp — a day’s walk from the nearest road, in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains:

  1. Collect coca leaves. This is easy enough: coca grows like a weed, you get four harvests a year, and the 100kg of leaves a skilled worker can collect in a single day can be processed into 400 grams of cocaine.
  2. Powder the leaves with salt and chalk dust, mix well, stomp with your rubber boots for 15 minutes as if you’re crushing grapes to make wine, and wait a little while.
  3. Soak the results with gasoline. Cover in a vat, seal it airtight, and wait for several hours.
  4. Siphon out a dark and toxic liquid from the bottom of the vat, and mix thoroughly in a bucket with a roughly equal amount of sulfuric acid, the world’s most common industrial chemical. The mixture will separate into layers.
  5. Siphon out the bottom layer, a clear liquid. Add potassium permanganate, a potent oxidizer available in any drugstore. Filter repeatedly through denim, or best of all, felt from a pool table. (This may explain why billiard tables are so ubiquitous in remote Colombian villages.) The residue that slowly collects makes the filter increasingly effective.
  6. Add caustic soda to the resulting mix of cocaine and acid. Filter through cheesecloth. The result: a potent cocaine paste that can be smoked. (Or so I’m told. I can verify from personal experience that it numbs the tip of the tongue.)
  7. Elapsed time: 1 day.
  8. Further treatment — acetone, ammonia — is required to make the drug inhalable or injectable. This apparently requires electricity, so it’s done not in the jungle, where generators draw military attention, but in shantytown backstreets.
  9. A single gram of pure coca paste sells for $2.50 on the streets of Colombia. My understanding is that that price skyrockets to $50 or even $100 in New York or London.

Said the slender man, “Most farmers, mucho trabejo, poco dinero” — much work, little money — “but coca farmers, poco trabejo, mucho dinero.” Which pretty much says it all.

I walked away convinced that the War On Some Drugs cannot be won by going after the supply. Xocaine is just too easy to grow and make. I’ve left out the details of durations and proportions, which are tricky to pin down; but the requisite technical knowledge is ubiquitous in Colombia, and it’s much too late to stuff that particular mushroom cloud back into its uranium casing. The chemistry is too simple and too crudely effective to be stopped.

As for the raw coca, well — “Drug production remains the same regardless of the anti-narcotic strategy,” says Francesco Fiori, head of mission for Medecins sans Frontieres in Bogota, dismissing a decade of anti-drug efforts, and the countless thousands of tons of toxic herbicides airdropped on Colombia in that time, with a contemptuous shrug.

And so the cocaine trade continues to fuel the seemingly endless low-grade civil wars that wrack both Colombia and Mexico, arms entire guerrilla armies and countless gangs of brutal thugs, kills thousands and renders millions homeless, and gnaws relentlessly at the future of both nations with both the horror of violence and the rot of corruption — while the USA wastes billions every year on futile posturing, and yuppie coke snorters and crackheads alike don’t even realize that every gram of their cocaine is bathed in blood. Not that they would care if they did.

Some problems don’t have technical solutions, no matter how much money you throw at them. Sometimes what needs fixing is your laws and/or your society.

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Posted in World Fast Forward  • 


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