A big player might be about to get back into the cocaine trade — here’s how one of the world’s most valuable illegal drugs gets made

A historic peace deal between the Colombian government and left-wing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebels faltered earlier this month, when voters narrowly rejected the accord in a national vote.

The deal’s defeat is not the end, as both sides have agreed to talk further, with Colombians who opposed the deal playing a larger role.

But for the time being the peace process is in limbo, and the FARC rebels – who began to emerge from jungle redoubts and criminal activities when peace looked close – are in a precarious position.

Amnesty agreements, demobilization processes, and economic development programs that would have brought the FARC out of the criminal underworld are now on hold pending renegotiations.

The longer they are on hold, the more likely it becomes that FARC rebels will return to criminal activities to sustain themselves – the cocaine trade in particular.

If the political limbo lasts two to three weeks, many FARC rebels likely won’t revert back to the drug trade and other criminal enterprises, Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli, the senior associate for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America, said the day after the deal was voted down.

“But over time, if they don’t have the means to be able to sustain themselves and their forces they will very much regress back to extortion rackets and to being part of that trade,” she added.

The photos below, taken by the Associated Press’ Rodrigo Abd earlier this year, document the coca-paste-production process, revealing the humble beginnings of one of the world’s most lucrative illegal drugs.

Coca plants grow just two months a year amid the lush greenery of the Colombian countryside. But the cocaine those plants produce powers a multibillion-dollar industry that has spread around the world.

Google Maps

Antioquia, in red, links central Colombia to trafficking routes in Central America and the Caribbean. Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel was based out of the city of the same name, where he was killed in 1993.

Escobar’s Medellin cartel fell apart after his death in 1993, and rival cartels soon suffered the same fate. Criminal networks, paramilitaries, and rebel groups (like the FARC) soon picked up the cocaine trade.

Courtesy of Stratfor

According to Colombian authorities, the first cocaine laboratory found inside the Medellin’s urban area was uncovered in early July. In it, Colombian authorities found nearly 9 pounds of pure cocaine power that could have been converted into 26 pounds of the drug for distribution, likely in local markets, officials said.

“To have this laboratory in a residential sector carries risks for the population from the chemical ingredients and the dangers inherent to this illicit activity,” said Gen. Jorge Horacio Romero Pinzón, commander of the Colombian army’s fourth brigade, according to El Tiempo.

Despite the reputation for decadence and sophistication that cocaine has gotten, the production process is relatively simple and crude.

In this January 7, 2016, photo, a coca field owned by Edgar and his father Gonzalo stands ready for harvest in the mountain region of Antioquia, Colombia.

The family produces coca paste that is used to make cocaine at a humble home in territory controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Local farmers, sometimes families aided by neighbors, pick leaves by hand and then put them through a complex and noxious process to eventually turn those leaves into coca paste.

That paste can then be sold to traffickers, either the FARC rebels or one of the many gangs that have proliferated in the 20 years since the fearsome and powerful Medellin cartel of Pablo Escobar disintegrated in the wake of Escobar’s ignominious death in 1993.

As a part of Colombia’s deal with the FARC, the rebel group, which reportedly controls 70% of the coca crops in the country, and the government agreed to implement a joint crop-substitution program.

“Colombia laid out in the peace accords a new strategy that was going to be based on communities voluntarily eradicating coca, with the FARC actually helping to eradicate,” Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), said during a conference call the day after the vote.

A crop-substitution pilot program began in June in Briceño, in northwest Antioquia. Initially, officials were optimistic about the pilot program’s prospects, especially because that region is home to other viable crops, even though some coca-producing regions are less amenable to other legal crops.

That program, among others, is “on hold” now that the deal’s future is in doubt, Isacson added.

The whole family of Gonzalo, the farmer who spoke with the AP, lives off the production of coca paste and the idea of the eradication of their crop is a call to arms for the whole region.

“We will confront anyone who touches our plants,” Fernando Zapata, the communal president of the village, told the AP. “They want to do away with the livelihood of our families and the entire region.”

The family can get about $900 for a kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the base paste, which is the first link in a long economic chain of intermediaries. The paste is eventually turned into cocaine, and soon it’s being sold on the streets of such places as New York and Amsterdam for many thousands of dollars.

As cocaine advances along the trafficking chain, value is added.

A kilo of cocaine that reaches the US border can be worth $12,000 to $15,000, and that same kilo, once it is broken up for retail distribution in the US, can eventually sell for six-figure amounts.

When a kilo of cocaine “retails it’s worth more like $150,000 per kilo,” Tom Wainwright, author of “Narconomics” and The Economist’s former Mexico City reporter, told Business Insider earlier this year.

Wainwright added:

“And the reason for that is because the guys who do that stage in the chain are the ones who face the highest risk. They’re the ones who take this shipment of perhaps a ton of cocaine, break it down into smaller portions of just a kilo or a few hundred grams, and ship it out to hundreds of contacts throughout the country.”

Though coca cultivation dropped off in the late 2000s — largely because of efforts by Colombia (with strong US support) to clamp down on it and on FARC activities — it has seen a resurgence in recent years, with cultivation in 2014 climbing 44% over the amount recorded in 2013.

Source: Business Insider

In 2015, cultivation surged 36% to more than 235,000 acres (about 370 square miles), the most seen in the country since 2007 and enough to put it at the top of the list of the world’s coca-producing countries.

Of Colombia’s 32 departments, or states, 81% of coca cultivation was concentrated in five: Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, and Caquetá, all of which in are in southern Colombia, and in Norte de Santander, which borders Venezuela in northeast Colombia.

All those areas are affected by armed conflict (Putumayo especially) and frequently appear on the UN Office on Drug and Crime’s list of drug-production areas.

Source: UNODC

The resurgence of production has been driven by a number of factors, including hiccups in the legal economy and the appearance of reduced risk for producers.

The end to eradication by aerial fumigation, which was shut down in October because of concerns about health risks, has been shown to have played less of a role in the cultivation increase than suggested.

Additional factors behind the cultivation increase are the higher prices offered for coca leaf as well as encouragement from FARC rebels, who have told farmers they will be eligible for subsidies to switch to legal crops once a peace deal is signed.

Economic factors coupled with a struggling legal economy – and a dearth of alternatives thus far presented by the government – have contributed to Colombia’s increased coca production, which now outstrips that of the second- and third-biggest producers combined.

The Colombian government hasn’t “replaced eradication with anything,” Adam Isacson, of the Washington Office on Latin America, told Bloomberg. “They have made no move to go into these coca-growing areas and provide people with other alternatives. They took away the stick and didn’t do any carrot, and the result is a lot more coca.”

For farmers like those the AP talked to, coca production is less of a moneymaking scheme that a financial imperative.

Edgar and his family, who live in Antioquia in northwest Colombia, run a small coca-paste-production operation, a small cog the the Colombian cottage industry that produces cocaine.

For farmers in remote regions of Colombia, by the time they produce and ship legal crops like fruit to market, their costs have exceeded their profits.

“But with coca,” Jeremy McDermott, codirector of Insight Crime, told The Atlantic, “the buyer will come to your house.”

“The government does not want to resolve the huge problem we have here,” said Orlando Castilla, president of the Farmers Association in the Guaviare region of south-central Colombia. “We appear to be rich, millionaires on a national and international level, but we have nothing to live off,” he added.

Source: Reuters

Some Colombian farmers, rather than dealing directly with traffickers, trade the coca paste they produce to local stores in exchange for much-needed goods.

Coca helps give local residents “a way of sustaining their families in every sense,” in a way that the government hasn’t matched, Ferin Oviedo, a representative of the Guayabero Regional Farmers’ Association, told Reuters.

Source: Reuters

In this January 7, 2016 photo, a vat holds liquid called “nata,” which means buttermilk, at a lab in the mountain region of Antioquia, Colombia. The mixture of coca-leaf juice, gasoline, ether, and other chemicals will eventually be converted into coca paste.

The base materials for cocaine are considerably cheaper than the finished product would suggest.

“If you look at the raw ingredients in a country like Colombia, to make a kilo of pure cocaine, you need about a ton of fresh coca leaf. It then gets dried out. It weighs a bit less, but that ton of leaf to start with costs only about $400 or $500 in Colombia,” Wainwright told Business Insider. That coca leaf is then turned into coca paste, often in makeshift labs in isolated rural areas.

Source: Business Insider

In this January 7, 2016, photo, Gonzalo cooks coca paste in the kitchen of his house as his daughter-in-law Valeria looks on, in the mountain region of Antioquia, Colombia. This last step is called “fritada,” or “fry-up.” The coca paste residue is placed in water and heated until most of the water content is evaporated.

After the details of the peace deal were announced, there were doubts about commitment of some elements of the FARC to ending their involvement in the cocaine trade. Some FARC members rejected the peace process and vowed to carry on with their fight and criminal involvement.

Source: Business Insider

In this January 7, 2016, photo, while his granddaughter watches, Gonzalo pours liquid of coca-paste residue after cooking it in his kitchen in the mountain region of Antioquia, Colombia. Once the yellow paste is cooked to evaporate the chemicals and water content, it’s crushed to be packed and sold.

Before the deal was voted down, when it was widely expected to go into effect, many suspected that FARC rebels would simply demobilize and then pick up where they left off in the cocaine trade as a part of existing or new criminal groups, similar to what occurred with paramilitary groups that disarmed in the mid-2000s.

In this January 7, 2016, photo, Gonzalo cuts coca paste into pieces ready to sell while his wife observes at their home in the mountain region of Antioquia, Colombia. Gonzalo says he gets about $900 for a kilo of finished coca paste.

Colombia’s criminal band (called BACRIM, based on their Spanish initials), were also poised to fill the void left by a demobilized FARC. One of the most powerful of them is Los Urabeños, thought to be the only criminal band to maintain a truly nationwide presence in Colombia.

In this January 7, 2016, photo, coca paste ready for sale sits in the kitchen of a home in the mountain region of Antioquia, Colombia. Later, at some point along the way, the paste is made into cocaine that is eventually sold on the streets of such places as New York and Amsterdam for many thousands of dollars.

Los Urabeños, which reportedly partnered with “El Chapo” Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel in the past, have expanded to Colombia’s southwest, bringing it in conflict with both the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN), another left-wing rebel group.

Source: Business Insider

In this January 7, 2016, photo, Edgar cleans a barrel as his father Gonzalo stands next to him during the manufacture of coca paste, at a small lab in the mountain region of Antioquia, Colombia. The family manufactures coca paste as part of the cottage industry that produces cocaine for world consumption.

The Colombian government, riding high on promising talks with the FARC, recently turned its focus to groups like Los Urabeños. The group has sustained losses, including the dismantling of a trafficking network shipping cocaine to Europe. But, Insight Crime notes, the group’s top leadership has avoided capture.

Moreover, recent seizures indicate how big a task dismantling groups like Los Urabeños will be: In May, Colombia seized nearly 9 tons of cocaine hidden near the border with Panama, believed to belong to Los Urabeños.

The haul, with a reported value of $240 million, was called the biggest seizure in Colombian history, but only three people were arrested in the operation.

Source: Insight Crime, Reuters