Pay­ing for house­hold sta­ples with co­caine paste in Colom­bia

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

LA PAZ: Cus­tomers in Lorena’s shop place in­nocu­ous white peb­bles on an elec­tronic scale. In ex­change they take away sta­ples like cook­ing oil and eggs - in the depths of the Colom­bian jun­gle, you pay with co­caine base paste. “Ev­ery­thing is bought and sold this way. Cash is very rare and kept for emer­gen­cies,” said the 26-year-old woman, adding that in her life­time, more white pow­der had passed through her hands than cash.

It’s the same whether lo­cals are pay­ing for beer or the com­pany of a pros­ti­tute: cokeor in this case its raw ma­te­rial, coca paste-is king. Lorena has lived in the tiny jun­gle vil­lage of La Paz for seven years, a ham­let of 300 souls whose red­dish earth streets turn to mud in the rain. It lies on the banks of the Inirida River in the re­mote south­east­ern depart­ment of Guaviare, Colom­bia’s most un­der­de­vel­oped re­gion.

The lush green­ery of the land­scape lends it­self to the pro­duc­tion of the coca leaf, the ba­sic in­gre­di­ent of co­caine, of which Colom­bia, de­spite the ef­forts of the gov­ern­ment and the United States, is the world’s largest pro­ducer. There is no elec­tric­ity here, no potable wa­ter, no doc­tor and no po­lice. Au­thor­ity is ex­er­cised by dis­si­dent FARC guer­ril­las who have re­jected a his­toric peace deal to re­main in the jun­gle. “This is an­other Colom­bia. There is no health care, noth­ing. And there are seven-year-old chil­dren here who have never seen money,” said Or­land Castilla, a 64-year-old lo­cal com­mu­nity leader.

State guar­an­tees

The only links to the out­side world for La Paz’s 300 souls are the river, one dirt road and two tele­phone lines. A loud­speaker an­nounces in­com­ing phone calls. Ev­ery­one here owes their ex­is­tence to the cul­ti­va­tion and pro­cess­ing of the coca leaf. Con­trary to the end prod­uct, flown the clas­sic route from grass airstrips in Colom­bia to Mexico and on to the United States, pro­duc­ing coca paste is far from lu­cra­tive. The price of a gram of co­caine in the US is about $150. But for the pro­duc­ers here, the gram of coca paste never ex­ceeds 2,000 pe­sos, or around 70 cents.

The state guar­an­tees aid to those campesinos or farm­ers who will sub­sti­tute coca for le­gal crops. Those who refuse have to some­times face the con­se­quences of po­lice raids, lead­ing to oc­ca­sional clashes. A po­lice of­fi­cer was held for three days by campesinos after clashes on July 20 on the banks of the Inirida. Un­der pres­sure from the United States, the main mar­ket for Colom­bia’s co­caine, Bo­gota plans to re­claim 100,000 hectares (250,000 acres) from coca cul­ti­va­tion this year, by force if nec­es­sary. A hoped-for div­i­dend on the De­cem­ber peace deal with FARC is that the for­mer guer­rilla move­ment will en­cour­age a move to le­gal crops. Weak­est link

From first light on the farm of Miguel “Man­gos”, la­bor­ers empty bags of freshly picked coca leaves in a makeshift jun­gle lab­o­ra­tory. Miguel, 56, runs a gar­den trim­mer through the leaves and then sprin­kles a mix­ture of wa­ter and lime over them. It’s the be­gin­ning of a lengthy chem­i­cal process in­volv­ing ce­ment, fer­til­izer, gaso­line, and acids to ex­tract co­caine. The coca paste that emerges from the first rudi­men­tary process in La Paz has a co­caine con­tent of around 35 per­cent. For every $1,000 he in­vests, he makes 1,200 dol­lars. It al­lows him to sur­vive, he says. “I have planted ba­nanas, maize, cas­sava, but it is not prof­itable,” Miguel told AFP. To bring ba­nanas to the mar­ket re­quires trans­port and he ends up trad­ing at a loss be­cause of the costs in­volved, he said. “One kilo of coca, I can take it in my pocket,” he said.

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