Understanding the white powder
Visiting a cocaine factory in the Sierra Nevada of Colombia
By Gaëlle Sévenier, free-lance reporter
The manufacture of cocaine is a process shrouded in mystery and
secrecy for most Western travellers. Bombarded by Western movies
and films, cocaine labs are thought to be guarded installations
where mad drug lords, speaking in English like Tony Montoya, concoct
their next two ton shipment of cocaine for 'los gringos en Miami'.
In Colombia, however, a country renown for being the number one
cocaine producer in the world, the real manufacturers, poor, rural
farmers, have decided to open their doors to a limited amount of
visitors to show them the process of making this cocaine. A live
tour of a drug factory is definitely a once in a lifetime experience.
It also helps to understand that Colombian farmers are also victims
from the white powder.
During the 6 day trek to the Lost City of Colombia,
a few hours away from Santa Marta on the Atlantic coast, it is now
possible for backpackers to visit a small cocaine factory. Two farmers
and their families have understood the interest of travellers, and
for only a few dollars, show them the entire process of making the
basic "cocaine paste" which will then be refined further
in bigger factories to make the final powder.
During the second day of the trek to the ancient ruins,
the hikers walk next to a series of little farms, with children
playing in the back-yard and women washing clothes. If the coca
plants weren't lining the trail everywhere, no one would ever imagine
that this is one of the places where a key ingredient is produced
in the international drug trade.
Alfredo is a 50 year old farmer living in the Sierra
Nevada of Colombia. With his wife and four children, Alfredo works
for the paramilitaries to grow coca leaves. In his back-yard, he
installed a home made "cocaine factory", a series of dirty
baskets where the coca leaves distil in gasoline, sulphuric acid,
permanganate of potassium and other toxic ingredients.
Alfredo is amused by the interest of travellers in
the cocaine production. While the interested hikers are watching
him with their eyes wide open, he is pouring all the ingredients
in the baskets, steering with a wooden stick. The chemical result
appears so disgusting that one can not imagine putting this chemical
potupurri up one's nose afterwards.
The farmer has a few big holes in his jeans. He explains
that he accidentally dropped a little bit of the sulphuric acid
on himself when he was adding it to the mixture. Mariela, his wife,
wants him to delegate this work to someone younger, because he often
gets sick from breathing the ingredients.
When asked if he has ever tried his home made product,
Alfredo is horrified. "No way, this stuff is horrible."
Alfredo is however very ashamed of himself to admit that "once,
I tried to smoke marijuana in a joint... I didn't like it. I would
never do it again!"
Alfredo wants to tell the world that he is sorry to
participate in the cocaine business. "I hate doing this. Because
of this product, there are many wars, many people are killed. I
know the money is then used to buy weapons from the US or Europe.
I don't understand why people abroad buy cocaine for such high prices.
But my family and I don't really have any choice...."
The farmer wishes he could only cultivate cacao, rice
or yucca. "But those products are all so cheap, it doesn't
pay for clothing," he laments. "At least with the cocaine,
we sell it for $1 per gram. Even if half of the money is used to
buy the ingredients, it is a lot of money." When sold in Europe
or in the United States, Cocaine costs from $50 to $100 per gram,
and many ingredients have been added to it to increase the weight.