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Supply chain blowback of cocaine production hopping the Andes to Argentina and Uruguay


In attempting to study the unintended blowback of forcing cocaine production to move from Andean states to Argentina and Uruguay, it is not new news that:

  1. Cocaine production shifted to Argentina and Uruguay because of an ill-thought-out restriction of precursor chemicals entering Bolivia which drove starved cocaine production east where the precursors were cheap and easily available - and actually improved shipping costs to Europe.
  2. Byproducts of cocaine production had long ago ravaged the poor of Bolivia who could not afford the higher order product, cocaine.
  3. The byproducts of this migrated production has been ravaging the poor of Argentina and Uruguay for five years.

The news value of this note is occasioned more by the intersection of the:

  1. Vacuum of coverage these events had heretofore merited in our high street press (especially the US press).
  2. Sudden surge of coverage by mirroring a single article in the New York Times on Paco (PAsta de COcaina), the paste base cocaine (PBC) at the low end of the addict hierarchy.
  3. Continued failure to monitor those whom I have come to call the committed collectors who have long been covering the shift in production and the effects of Paco for any who cared to look.

Barrionuevo's piece in the 23 February Times ricocheted around the web, carried by the phrase "Devouring Lives," offering readers their introduction to Paco and now aging changes wrought in the cocaine supply chain. (A quick search of the Times indicates that Barrionuevo had not previously written on issues of the drug trade under its masthead.):

[Mothers of addicted youths] have become the only bulwark [against] the irrepressible spread of paco, a highly addictive, smokable cocaine residue that has destroyed thousands of lives in Argentina and caused a cycle of drug-induced street violence never seen before in this country.

The scourge underscores a significant shift in both Argentina and its larger neighbor, Brazil, which in just a few years have become sizable cocaine consumers. Brazil now ranks as the second largest consumer of cocaine in the world after the United States, the State Department says.

The surge in drug use [in the Southern Cone has seen the region] become the dumping ground for cheaper, lower-quality cocaine. In the five years since residents first began noticing the crude yellowish crystals being smoked [in the Buenos Aires neighborhood of Ciudad Oculta], paco has become the dominant drug that dealers are peddling.

Al Jazeera's Teresa Bo had beaten the Times two weeks earlier with a video of paco consumption while the BBC had covered the topic in August 2007, noting that paco consumption rates were rising at an estimated at 200% to 500% per annum. Inter Press Service (IPS) had done a good piece much earlier, in September 2006, but the best coverage was largely "off scope."

In Value from the fringe: "committed" collectors and investigators, I spoke of the value of a good time sequence, a properly described set of events as a means of pattern detection:

As a good sequence requires significant research to make it viable, or for that matter any effort or cause not tracked by the shifting "lens of the news" of the major trade and popular press, I have learned to look to the "committed," i.e., those who have a passion to search out and document what would be obscure or tedious work for the rest of us.

Based in Amsterdam, the Transnational Institute (TNI) is one of those committed collectors, "an international network of activist-scholars committed to critical analyses of the global problems of today and tomorrow" in alternative development approaches (read at odds with the IMF/World Bank), drugs, environment, water and militarism.

TNI had two excellent pieces. The first, Paco Under Scrutiny: The cocaine base paste market in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil, drew upon three works:

The second was Coca yes, cocaine, no?, also in 2006. An earlier Corruption, Drug Trafficking and the Armed Forces, speaks to the infrastructure corruption that plagues so much of the Americas. (Their Losing Ground: Drug Control and War in Afghanistan will not make US readers any happier with our performance in Afghanistan.)

Paco Under Scrutiny (2006) taught that the definition of 'base paste' or paco had changed over a decade:

The first refers to the substance that results from mixing and heating cocaine hydrochloride with sodium bicarbonate, which is then smoked. In other countries, this mixture is called 'crack', and its use is widespread.

The second refers to the paste extracted from the maceration of coca leaves, which only through subsequent processing with chemical substances can be converted into cocaine hydrochloride; this is also known as 'base cocaine', and it can be smoked, but not injected or inhaled, as it is not soluble.

Finally, PBC is defined as the residue from the manufacturing of cocaine hydrochloride. This final stage of processing may leave a residue that is sold as paco. [Interviews] mentioned a change that may have occurred in recent years. [About] 10 years ago cocaine hydrochloride mixed with bicarbonate - crack - was consumed, but now almost everyone says that PBC is the residue from the preparation of cocaine hydrochloride, or paco...

Even with this agreement "about the harm done by the substance and its inferior quality in comparison to cocaine hydrochloride," there are variants of PBC:

First, there is [the] cocaine base paste (PBC), also known as cocaine sulphate [that] is the first consumable extract or by-product of the process of manufacturing and refining cocaine hydrochloride. PBC is therefore a substance produced in a primary phase of extraction and refining of coca leaves, a process that eventually ends with the production of cocaine hydrochloride.

Dry PBC - known in Colombia as bazuco, in Bolivia as pitillo, in Peru as kete, in Ecuador as baserolo, and in Chile as mono - contains 50 to 85 percent cocaine sulphate, along with other alkaloids and methanol, benzoic acid and kerosene. PBC is smoked by mixing it with tobacco. Consumption of [this] PBC appeared in Colombia and Peru in the 1970s, later spreading to Bolivia, Ecuador and Chile.

Second, washed 'base paste' or 'cocaine base' is the result of the next step in the cocaine refining process, with the addition of potassium permanganate and acid, which cleanses the base paste of kerosene and other impurities... [Third, a still more inferior product is the residue of the washed 'base paste' which can be smoked as paco.]

TNI readers learned the cause and effect between a transforming cocaine trafficking in Argentina, Uruguay and southern Brazil and the startling increase in paco consumption:

"PBC doesn't arrive because of poverty ... it comes because there are laboratories, because there wouldn't be base paste if there weren't laboratories. So what actually arrived was the laboratory. Once the laboratory arrived, it found a market for the residue from the processing. ... In other words, if there weren't laboratories here, there wouldn't be paco. ... The laboratory doesn't come to sell paco; it comes to refine cocaine."

[There] appears to have been a geographic rearrangement of the cultivation-production-export circuit, which may have had a decisive impact on the presence of PBC in the [Southern Cone]. If cocaine is being produced in Argentina or Uruguay, it is possible that there is much more PBC, and in any case much more of the residue from its preparation, which is what some interviewees - both users and experts - identify as paco (in Argentina). Paco may be a smaller business than the large-scale cocaine trade, and in Argentina its sale usually occurs near areas where laboratories are located...

TNI readers learned the changes occurring in the cocaine supply chain from Andean states to the Plata:

PBC use began in coca-producing countries like Colombia, Peru and Bolivia more than two decades before it appeared in Argentina and Uruguay. The appearance of PBC in these two countries is apparently linked to a general transformation in the production, trade and trafficking of cocaine hydrochloride.

While cocaine hydrochloride, mainly from Bolivia, used to enter Argentina across the northwestern border to reach the Atlantic seaports, where it was shipped out, what now comes across the border is cocaine base, which is then processed into cocaine hydrochloride in clandestine laboratories in Argentina. The availability and lower price of chemical precursors necessary for producing cocaine hydrochloride in Argentina are favourable to this option. This could explain both why the number of cocaine laboratories found in Argentina has increased in the past three years, and how this has helped turn Argentina from a cocaine transit country to a place where the last stage of manufacturing occurs...

In Argentina in recent years, there have been raids on dozens of laboratories where [sniffed or injected] cocaine hydrochloride was apparently manufactured. Argentina and Brazil have a chemical industry capable of producing the inputs necessary for manufacturing drugs. During the first half of 2006 alone, Argentine authorities seized as much cocaine as they had confiscated in the entire previous year. For agencies responsible for controlling the problem, this is an indication that the trafficking organisations' modus operandi is no longer exclusive to the Andean and Amazon region, where manufacturing of the final product traditionally was done...

The important changes that have taken place in Latin America in the manufacturing of cocaine hydrochloride may be related to the implementation of the 1988 U.N. convention on control of chemical precursors. Control of precursors in cocaine-producing countries may have spurred a shift of this final phase of production to countries such as Argentina and, later, Uruguay, which offer better conditions for chemical processing and export by air and sea.

PBC thus appeared in Argentina and Uruguay, and a base paste consumer market emerged. PBC mainly enters Uruguay by land from Argentina and, to a lesser extent, Brazil. According to data from some informants in Uruguay, the most plausible route is probably the following: the PBC leaves Bolivia, is processed and divided up in northern Argentina or provinces near Buenos Aires, and from Buenos Aires the packets are distributed to Uruguay. The paste is transported from Argentina to Uruguay by 'mules' [transporting] batches of 60 to 100 capsules in the stomach (ingested) or 300 attached to their bodies... Subsequent police operations, however, have found large laboratories, leading to the assumption that there is parallel transportation of larger quantities of PBC for processing.

Paco Under Scrutiny and its kin have much more to offer. Recommended.

The admonition of this note is to pay attention to the committed collectors in your region of interest as they will very likely yield a Reuters-like continuum of contextual and actionable information that will measurably lead the high street press reporting.

Cheap Cocaine Floods Argentina, Devouring Lives
New York Times
February 23, 2008

HIV and AIDS in Latin America
by Graham Pembrey
Last updated February 18, 2008

Argentina's new drug epidemic - 13 Feb 08
Argentina's Deadly Drug
Teresa Bo
AlJazeera English
Added YouTube: February 13, 2008

Drugs scourge takes hold in Argentina
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News, Buenos Aires
Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 August 2007, 11:20 GMT 12:20 UK

Losing Ground: Drug Control and War in Afghanistan
By Martin Jelsma, Tom Kramer, Cristian Rivier
Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers Nr. 15
Transnational Institute
ISBN ISSN 1871-3408
December 2006

Argentine Slums Mired in New Drug Problem
Kelly Hearn
The World & I Online
November 2006

'Paco' Under Scrutiny
The cocaine base paste market in the Southern Cone
BY Equipo Intercambios, Giorgina Garibotto et al., Tom Blickman
Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers Nr. 14
Transnational Institute
ISBN ISSN 1871-3408
October 2006

PDF: Paco Under Scrutiny: The cocaine base paste market in Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil

'Pasta Base' Destructive but Not Invincible
Marcela Valente
Inter Press Service
12 September 2006

Coca yes, cocaine, no?
Legal options for the coca leaf
BY Pien Metaal, Martin Jelsma, Mario Argandoña, Ricardo Soberón, Anthony Henman, Ximena Echeverría
TRANSLATION BY Amira Armenta, Barbara Fraser
Drugs & Conflict Debate Papers Nr. 13
Transnational Institute
ISBN ISSN 1871-3408
20 pp.
May 2006

Sunday Mirror
Mar 19, 2006

Argentina uncovers drug runways
By Daniel Schweimler
BBC News
Last Updated: Sunday, 19 February 2006, 23:26 GMT

Corruption, Drug Trafficking and the Armed Forces
An Approximation for Latin America
Ricardo Soberón Garrido
Crime in Uniform: Corruption and Impunity in Latin America
TNI/Acción Andina/Cedib, December 1997

Gordon Housworth

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