COCAINE: A BRIEF HISTORY
The coca leaf is considered the most potent stimulant of natural origin and is legally grown in South America for use in products such as tea, appetite suppressants, and certain medicines. The coca leaf used by illicit drug producers, however, is grown and manufactured in the hidden reaches of the Andes mountain range in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. In the mountains, manufacturers produce up to 617 tons of cocaine per year, creating 70 to 90 percent of the world's supply.
Since 3000 B.C., South Americans have been chewing the indigenous coca leaf because of its energy-producing qualities (calling it a gift from God), and by the 1400s, had entire plantations of coca, making the plant an integral part of Peru's economy.
However, the potent alkaloid cocaine was not extracted from the coca leaf until 1855, after which the pharmaceutical company Merck produced it for use as a surgical anesthetic. Sigmund Freud also had his hand in popularizing cocaine, treating nervous disorders, depression, and his own morphine addiction. He also published a paper lauding the drug ("On Cocaine"), and that same year Merck produced 3,179 pounds of booger sugar. Two years later in 1886, they produced 158,352 pounds; the same year, coca was used in Coca-Cola. Unsurprisingly, cocaine became quite popular. By 1912, however, 5,000 cocaine-related fatalities were reported, and by 1914 it was banned by the U.S. government--and so started the illicit cocaine trade.
To many, a cocaine purchase is as simple as a phone call and a trip to the ATM. However, Drug Enforcement Agent Ken Magee--based here in Portland--spent seven years in Colombia investigating the drug trade and has seen firsthand the sweat that goes into transporting cocaine.
Many coca farmers set up shop in remote Andean mountain locations unreachable by river or road. Magee explains that "depending on the technique [farmers] utilize to cultivate the plants, they take up to two years to mature. The coca leaves are allowed to dry in the sun are then placed in a watertight container and stomped on to macerate the leaves. Then chemicals are added to extract the alkaloids. This solution is then put in another container where lime or cement is added, and a certain amount of gasoline. Eventually, cocaine hydrochloride is produced. Then it leaves South America."
The U.S. is powerful and full of laws, so stopping drug smugglers should be pretty easy, right? But the border is long, the ocean is big, and no matter how hard the government tries, it's impossible to be everywhere at once. With tightened border security because of the war on terrorism, you'd think smugglers would be hard-pressed, but according to Agent Magee, that's not necessarily the case.
"When borders tighten, two things happen," he says. "Initially, there will be more seizures, but eventually you'll find less seizures because the traffickers find alternative smuggling routes."
Making it even more difficult are sophisticated and highly organized cartels bent on collecting billions in drug money (it is estimated that the street value of Colombian- produced illicit drugs is 50 billion dollars per year)--$2 billion of which they launder through self-owned legitimate businesses. Their operations are so sophisticated in fact, that the cartels themselves have been known to tap phones at the Colombian Defense Ministry.
According to Magee, the cartels see that cocaine leaves Colombia pretty much "any way you can think of. There are mules that carry it on their body. People that swallow cocaine in condoms. People smuggle it in their luggage. People smuggle it in air cargo. There is maritime transportation [by boat]. When there are millions of cargo containers coming into the U.S. every day, you can't search them all."
The ENN Daily report explains that "small planes flying along the Western coast of Central America account for much of the cocaine that reaches the United States. The planes drop their cargo at designated zones in the Eastern Caribbean Sea, where it is picked up by small boats." Additionally, cartel members forcefully bribe ranchers along the Mexican/U.S. border into letting them smuggle across their land. General Barry McCaffrey, head of President Clinton's drug control program, recounted that ranchers described groups who crossed their land as "gangs of 20-40 people carrying automatic weapons." Agent Magee says it is as if the smugglers are saying to landowners, "Would you like lead or gold? We will kill you or you'll take our money."
"The types of people who carry [cocaine across the border] come in all shapes and sizes," says Agent Magee. "Some are bribed, some are duped, and some are just corrupt and know if they strap a package on their bodies, they'll get a few thousand dollars. The whole smuggling trade is an extremely dangerous one. For example, I can think of one case where traffickers convinced a woman to take two pounds of cocaine and have it surgically inserted into her buttocks. Well, it got infected before she even got to the airport. She was arrested in Colombia, and told the police what was transpiring She told them she was to be met in Florida at the airport and be taken to a small clinic where a doctor on the payroll of the drug traffickers was going to remove the cocaine. Would you believe them? In my opinion, they were probably going to execute this woman, gut her, get the cocaine, and dump her in the Everglades."
On the other side of the border, the cartel's operations are equally sophisticated. According to Magee, "the cartel has various organizations throughout the U.S. We refer to them as cells, meaning a small group of people that are a working organism. One person in charge of transportation, another in charge of distributing the cocaine, another in charge of guarding the money, another in charge of security of the whole operation, and someone in charge of getting the narcotic proceeds back to whatever country the debt is owed to. Normally the cells operate independently of one another. For example, the cell in Las Vegas has no idea who any of the other members of the organization are. That way if a cell gets taken down, the other cells are protected."
When a kilogram brick of cocaine leaves South America it's usually about 80 percent pure. When you purchase cocaine in Portland, on average, it's 55 percent pure. That's because it's been mixed--or cut--with inositol (a Vitamin B supplement), lactose, mannitol, or other sugars.
"Reason being," says Agent Magee, "if you take some cocaine and cut it by one third, you've increased your product by 33 percent. So if the average kilo sells for $25,000, and there are 1,000 grams of cocaine in a kilo, and you sell it for $70 a gram, that's $70,000. Cut it by a third and you've got 30 percent more money." In other words, $93,310--a profit of $68,310 per kilo.
Last year Portland's Drugs and Vice Division seized 20,504 grams of cocaine (20.5 kilos), a combined loss of approximately $1,435,280 to dealers and suppliers. Regardless, because of the profit to drug cartels, cocaine is still as easy to get in Portland as a payday loan. So the next time you're sniffing a rail off the back of a toilet, take a moment to consider what's going up your nose--and the thousands of people who helped put it there.