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COCA CULTIVATION AND COCAINE PROCESSING:
DRUG ENFORCEMENT ADMINISTRATION
STRATEGIC INTELLIGENCE SECTION
Two of the lesser understood aspects of the illicit cocaine traffic are the
cultivation of the coca plant and the conversion of the coca leaf into
cocaine hydrochloride (HCl). While the coca plant can be found throughout
most of Latin America, varieties containing the cocaine alkaloid (the basis
for cocaine HCl) are cultivated and converted primarily in Peru, Bolivia and
There are two different species and several different varieties of coca
plants which contain the cocaine alkaloid and these varieties prosper under
quite different climatic conditions. At the same time, the methods used to
cultivate and harvest coca leaf differ depending on climate,tradition,and
other factors. The conversion of coca leaf into coca paste, cocaine base, and
cocaine hydrochloride is also a varied process with many steps involved and
many chemicals necessary.
THE COCA PLANT
It has been estimated that there are over 200 Erythroxylum species growing in
the Western Hemisphere. Only 17 species can be utilized to produce cocaine.
Fifteen of the 17 species contain relatively low levels of cocaine alkaloid
and subsequently are not cultivated. In South America two species and two
varieties within each of these species are cultivated. They are:
--E. coca Species
--E. novogranatense Species
These varieties are traditionally cultivated in the following areas:
E. coca var. coca
E. coca var. coca
E. novogranatense var. truxillense
E. coca var. ipadu
E. novogranatense var. novogranatense
E. coca var. ipadu
E. novogranatense var. truxillense
The most widely grown variety of coca is E. coca var. coca which is
cultivated on the eastern slope of the Andes from Bolivia in the south to as
far north as central Ecuador. This area of the Andes has a tropical climate
and experiences high amounts of rainfall. Coca in this region is usually
grown between 1,650 and 4,950 feet in elevation.
E. novogranatense var. novogranatense thrives in the drier regions of
Colombia and, to a lesser extent, Venezuela. It is also grown at lower
elevations where the climate is generally hotter. The main variety of
E.novogranatense, var. truxillense, is grown up to an elevation of 4,950
feet. The last variety, E. coca var. ipadu, is found in southern Colombia,
northeastern Peru, and western Brazil in the Amazon basin. E. coca var. ipadu
is primarily cultivated by Indians for their own consumption and is not as
high in cocaine alkaloids as the other three.
It is not an easy task, even for an expert, to readily distinguish between
the different varieties of coca plants. One of the ways to identify the
variety is to look at the leaves. Both varieties of E. coca (E. coca var.
coca and E. coca var. ipadu) have broadly elliptic leaves. The leaf of var.
ipadu has a rounded apex, whereas the apex of var. coca is more pointed. The
leaf of var. coca is large, thick and dark green in color.
The leaf of E. novogranatense var. novogranatense is pale green with a
rounded apex and is somewhat narrower and thinner than the leaf of var. ipadu
and var.coca. E. novogranatense var. truxillense is very similar to var.
novogranatense except that it does not possess the lines parallel to the
central vein of the leaf that are characteristic to so many varieties of coca
The cocaine alkaloid content of the E. coca and the E. novogranatense species
also serves to distinguish between these species and the many other species
of wild coca that grow in Latin America. These other species contain much
lower levels of cocaine alkaloid. The usual cocaine alkaloid content of a
sample of coca leaf material is between 0.1 and 0.8 percent. The cocaine
alkaloid content can go much higher, however, as was shown in one sample of
coca leaf from the Chapare region in Bolivia that measured 1.2 percent. Coca
grown on the upper slopes of the Andes also contain more cocaine alkaloids
than coca grown in low-lying areas. It is therefore believed that the best
quality coca is grown at higher altitudes.
While methods of cultivating the coca plant are similar in many ways
throughout Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, there are differences in techniques
because of terrain, tradition, and other factors.
Some coca plantations have been in existence for years. In other areas,
however, such as Peru's Upper Huauaga Valley, new plantations are being
established daily. A typical farmer who is preparing a field for coca will
usually pick an area that slopes slightly so that water will not drown his
plants. He will then begin clearing his field, normally by cutting trees and
stumps and setting fire to the debris, a clearing method known as slash and
bum. The felled trees are left in the field and the coca is simply planted
around them. The farmer has no motivation to move the logs since there is no
market for the timber. Logs are absent from the older fields because of rot
or because the farmer gradually cleared his field.
Once the field is cleared for cultivation, the farmer can ready his crop for
planting. The first step in cultivation generally begins with the seed. Seeds
are usually gathered from December through March from plants ranging from two
to three years in age. They are often poured into water at the onset to
identify bad seeds, which will usually float to the top and are discarded.
The good seeds are planted in small plots that are kept shaded from the sun.
Seeds are sown about two inches apart at a depth of approximately one half
inch in humus enriched soil. These seedbeds are kept well watered and weeded
frequently and the seeds will usually germinate within 20 to 30 days.
Sometimes the seeds are presoaked in water to hasten germination which will
then occur in about ten days.
Seedlings usually reach transplanting size in about two months. At this age
they are about 12 inches tall. While the measurements vary, seedlings
generally are planted in holes about a foot deep and about one and-one-half
feet from each other within rows about three feet apart.
Another popular method of establishing new fields of E. ipadu involves taking
a cutting from an established coca bush and planting it in the ground. This
method (cloning) is getting more popular as it gives the farmer a head start.
There are two methods of planting a cutting. One involves sticking several
branches a couple of feet long into the ground. The other method is to cut
three or four inch cuttings from a branch, each one with protruding smaller
branches. The cutting is soaked in water a day or so and then planted in
loose, fertile soil. It is reported that coca leaf can be harvested from
these plants within six months and seeds develop on these plants after one
year but the seeds lack embryos and are not viable.
A coca plant cultivated from seed will generally reach full maturity and its
leaves harvested between 12 and 24 months after being transplanted. Even
though coca growing in the wild has been known to reach heights of up to 30
feet, that which is cultivated is almost always pruned back to facilitate
harvesting the coca leaf. Cultivated fields are usually kept at a height of
three to six feet. All picking of coca leaf is done by hand. Harvesters have
to be very quick in their work yet careful not to damage the leaf buds on the
bush while stripping off the leaves. Leaves are said to be ready for harvest
when they take on a yellowish tint and have a tendency to crack when bent.
Coca leaf can be harvested between two and six times per year depending on
climatic conditions. Coca growing at lower altitudes will usually be
harvested more often than coca growing at higher altitudes. The most abundant
harvest, sometimes accounting for about half of the total yearly harvest,
takes place after the rains in March. Subsequent harvests take place in
June/July and November, the normal dry season in South America. Some
harvesting, however, takes place all year round.
When the leaves are harvested, they are put in sacks and taken to a closed
room and spread out on the floor. The next day, the leaves are taken to a
flat area, where they are spread in thin layers on a tarpaulin in direct
sunlight and left to dry. If there is a lot of sunshine and minimal cloud
cover, the drying phase can be completed in six hours. During inclement
weather, it takes much longer because at the first sign of rain the leaves
are gathered up and taken into shelter. If a load of coca leaves is caught by
a rainstorm during drying, it could ruin the whole load. This is because the
leaves will ferment if the moisture goes over 14 percent. This tends to cause
a breakdown of the cocaine alkaloids.
After the drying phase is completed, the coca leaves are swept into large
piles and left for about three days before being taken to market and/or
processing facilities. The weight of packaged leaves varies from the 100
pound "carga" in the Bolivian Chapare, to the 25 pound "arroba" in Peru's
Upper Huallaga Valley. In Colombia, coca leaves are not usually sold;
however, when dried coca leaves are sold, it is usually in packages of 25
Peru, the world's largest source of coca, has both licit and illicit
cultivation. Licit coca is cultivation by farmers registered with the
National Coca Monopoly (ENACO). ENACO buys and sells it to retailers either
for resale domestically, for chewing or for herbal tea, or for export to
produce soft drink flavoring or pharmaceuticals. The 18,000 hectares that
have been registered for licit coca cultivation are centered in the
department of Cuzco.
Illicit coca cultivation occurs primarily in the Upper Huallaga Valley region
of northern Peru including the departments of San Martin, Huanuco, and
Ucayali. Other areas under cultivation include the valleys of La Convencion
and Lares in the department of Cuzco, and the provinces of Huanta and La Mar
along the Rio Apurimac in the department of Ayachucho. There are also smaller
growing areas located in the departments of Puno and Pasco.
The Upper Huallaga Valley is a tropical area with a mild climate that
receives an average of 12.44 feet of rain during the year. June through
September is the dry season when the region gets very little rainfall. The
mean annual temperature is 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Coca is usually grown here
between 1,980 to 2,640 feet above sea level but is sometimes planted up to
6,270 feet in altitude. The soil in the Upper Huallaga Valley is well drained
and rich in iron, an important element for all plant life.
The area surrounding Cuzco has an average rainfall of between 1.32 and 5.94
feet annually which usually falls between the months of October and April.
The average temperatures in this region are greater than 53 degrees
Fahrenheit. Coca is generally grown between 2,409 and 4,257 feet above sea
level. The soil is especially poor in iron content.
A semi-tropical climate with warm days and abundant rain fall, between 6.6
and 7.26 feet per annum, characterizes the Ayacucho area. Coca is usually
grown on steep slopes which require terracing at an elevation of between
1,650 and 4,290 feet. Soils in this area are red and high in iron.
Bolivia is the world's second largest source of coca leaf. There is both
licit and illicit coca cultivation occurring in this country as well. In
mid-1988, a law became effective that made coca cultivation illegal in most
of the country. The law also established legal, transitional, and illegal
zones of cultivation and declared that 12,000 hectares of coca would be the
amount grown to meet the traditional demand for coca.
There are roughly three main growing areas in Bolivia. The three areas are
the Yungas de La Paz, the Chapare, and the Apolo. Coca cultivation in the
Yungas de La Paz is located between the cities of Guanay and Inquisivi,
northeast of La Paz on the eastern slope of the Andes. Cultivation in the
Chapare occurs in the provinces of Carrasco, Chapare, and Arani in the
department of Cochabamba, east of La Paz. The small area of Apolo is in the
La Paz department north of the city of La Paz.
Nearly all the licit coca is grown in the traditional growing areas of the
Yungas. The overwhelming amount of illicit coca is grown in the Chapare where
it is estimated that about 75 percent of the country's coca crop is
cultivated. The amount of coca grown in the Apolo is much less than in either
of the two other areas.
Parts of the Yungas have been cultivated for hundreds of years. Coca is
planted at between 4,800 and 6,000 feet in altitude on terraced fields,
generally on steep slopes. Some of these fields have a slope of more than 45
degrees. The Yungas is characterized by a five-month rainy season that runs
from December to April receiving about 4 feet of rainfall per year, followed
by seven dry months. The soil content is poor, and this area has suffered
severe erosion problems.
In the Chapare, the weather is continually wet and warm, with an annual
rainfall averaging around 13 feet. The growing areas in this region are
broad, low plains containing some hills. Coca is cultivated at between 660
and 1,650 feet above sea level where the temperature averages around 57
degrees Fahrenheit. The soil is clay based, rich alluvial (sediment deposited
by flowing water).
The Apolo, located in La Paz department, is also a noteworthy coca-growing
region of Bolivia. Coca in the Apolo region is often interplanted with
coffee, a major crop in the area. Soil in the Apolo is not suited very well
to coca; the longevity of a coca bush there is only from five to eight years.
Coca plants in the Apolo are therefore constantly replaced.
Colombia ranks third in worldwide coca leaf production with all cultivation
being illicit. There is widespread cultivation in the eastern plains region
of the Llanos which encompasses about one-half of Colombia. The heaviest
areas of cultivation are located in the departments of Putumayo, Caqueta,
Guaviare, and Vaupes. There is substantial expansion of the coca crop in the
Bolivar department in the north-central area of Colombia as well as areas of
cultivation in the south and southwest part of the country.
In the southern coca-growing region, the temperature averages between 49.5
and 52 degrees Fahrenheit and there is light rainfall. Coca is normally grown
between 3,300 arid 6,600 feet above sea level. The soil in this region is
iron rich; however, there is some erosion.
The conversion of coca leaves to coca paste, cocaine base, and cocaine
hydrochloride occurs primarily in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. Peru and
Bolivia are the primary locations for the conversion of leaf to coca paste
and cocaine base, while Colombia is the primary location for the final
conversion to cocaine hydrochloride. It is believed that both Peruvian and
Bolivian traffickers have begun increasing their production of HCI in the
last few years.
There are a number of chemicals and solvents which play vital roles in the
processing of coca leaves to paste, base and HCI. Many of these chemicals are
quite common; all are theoretically substitutable and all have legitimate
uses making them difficult to control.
Coca processing can be broken down into three stages. The first is the
conversion of the coca leaf into coca paste; this is almost always done very
close to the coca fields to cut down on the transport of the coca leaves. The
second phase is the conversion of coca paste into cocaine base. This step is
usually omitted in Colombia and the process is taken straight through from
paste to cocaine HCI. The final stage is conversion of base to HCI.
Coca Leaves to Coca Paste
The conversion of coca leaf into coca paste is accomplished in a coca paste
pit, or "pozo. " A typical coca paste pit is a very crude structure located
near the harvesting site and consists of only a very few items. Some paste
pits have even been reported in peasants' houses. The paste pit is usually a
hole in the ground, lined with thick, heavy plastic, or may even be a
55-gallon drum with the top cut out. Paste pits are often located near
streams so that the processors will have a constant supply of fresh water,
which is used in the first stage of processing. The process of converting
leaves to paste usually takes a few days. Often, however, the leaves will be
"worked" or "stomped" for only a few hours rendering less paste than if
"worked" for several days. It is apparently sometimes more desirable to move
the paste out than to get more paste per kilogram of coca leaf. Depending on
the size of the pit and the amount of leaf, the whole process will require
the energy of two to five workers.
The following recipe for coca paste is but one of many. Recipes will differ
depending on where the laboratory is located. Some will opt not to use water
in the first step and amounts and mixing times vary widely. However, this
remains a good benchmark formula.
The coca leaves are put in an above-ground container or in a plastic lined
pit. An alkaline material (sodium carbonate) and water are added to the
leaves. Here the alkaline material enables the cocaine alkaloid present in
the leaf to be extracted into kerosene.
A water immiscible solvent (kerosene) is added to water, solution, and
leaves. The mixture is then agitated. Usually this is accomplished by having
several people stomp on the leaves. The solvent acts to extract water
insoluble cocaine alkaloids from the alkaline solution.
Cocaine alkaloids and kerosene separate from water and leaves. The water and
leaves are then drained off.
Cocaine alkaloids are extracted from the kerosene into a dilute acid
solution. Alkaline material (sodium carbonate) is added to the remaining
solution which causes a precipitate to form . The acid and the water are
drained off and the precipitate is filtered and dried to produce coca paste,
a chunky, off-white to light brown, putty-like
Coca Paste to Cocaine Base
The processing of coca paste into cocaine base is more complicated than paste
production, requiring more sophisticated equipment and added skills. Cocaine
base can be processed at the paste facility, but base laboratories may be
located away from the cultivation zones. Usually the base laboratories are
located near rivers or have a clandestine airstrip located in the vicinity to
facilitate both the movement of coca paste into the base laboratory, but also
the movement of cocaine base to cocaine HCl laboratories.
As with the paste recipes, the base recipes have many versions. This one is
one of the more common and a continuation of the paste recipe.
The coca paste is added to sulfuric acid or hydrochloric acid and water. The
paste is dissolved into the acid solution.
Potassium permanganate is combined with water. This mixture is added to the
coca paste and acid solution. Potassium permanganate is used in this step to
extract other alkaloids and material that is undesired in the final product.
In particular, potassium permanganate is used to break down the alkaloid
ciscinnamoylcocaine found in large concentrations in E. novogranatense
varieties. If the coca paste has a high concentration of this alkaloid and
potassium permanganate is not used, then crystallization of cocaine HCl will
be very difficult.
This mixture is allowed to stand for about six hours.
The solution is filtered and the precipitate is discarded. Ammonia water is
added to the filtered solution and another precipitate is formed.
The liquid is drained from the solution and the remaining precipitate is
usually dried with heating lamps. The resulting powder is cocaine base.
It is common in Colombia to skip the base stage of cocaine processing and go
right from coca paste to cocaine HCl. This can be accomplished by eliminating
the last part of step number four in coca paste processing and skipping to
step number two of the cocaine base phase where the coca paste is added to
the potassium permanganate solution.
Cocaine Base to Cocaine Hydrochloride (HCl)
The final stage of cocaine processing requires even more skill and equipment,
and is much more dangerous than the previously mentioned steps. Unlike paste
and base processing, cocaine HCl processing calls for expensive chemicals
that are harder to find and often not manufactured in the processing country.
The HCl laboratory usually consists of several buildings including
dormitories, eating facilities, an office, storage facilities, and the
laboratory itself. Also usually found at HCl laboratories are communications
operations, generators, filtering and drying equipment, and, more recently,
chemical recycling facilities. The HCl laboratory will sometimes have direct
access to an airstrip.
The following recipe is a continuation of the above two. At this point the
methods of processing vary only slightly.
Acetone or ether is added to dissolve the cocaine base and the solution is
filtered to remove undesired material.
Hydrochloric acid diluted in acetone or ether is added to the cocaine
solution. The addition of the hydrochloric acid causes the cocaine to
precipitate (crystallize) out of the solution as cocaine hydrochloride.
The remaining acetone/ether solvent can be discarded or reused.
Cocaine HCl is dried under heat lamps, laid out to dry with the aid of fans,
or dried in microwave ovens.
NATURAL ENEMIES AND ERADICATION EFFORTS
Although the coca bush is a very strong plant and will live for many years
and produce many harvests of leaf, it will do better if taken care of,
fertilized, and treated with herbicides and insecticides.
Occasionally, a coca field will become infested with one of the plant's
natural enemies. The main pests and the effect that they are known to have on
the plant are discussed below.
The larvae of the moth Eloria Noyesi presents the most serious threat to the
coca plant. This moth lives through out the coca-growing region of South
America and seems to feed almost exclusively on E. coca. It has also been
recorded feeding on E. novogranatense in Colombia and northern Peru. The
larva will develop in about a month and will eat up to 50 leaves in its
lifetime. The larva will also eat the shoots of the bush that grow out after
harvest. If Eloria attacks a plant repeatedly, even a strong plant will die.
The moth is usually only abundant from December to April. Coca growers are
using insecticides to eradicate Eloria.
The larvae of Eucleodora Coca, a fly, seems to cause harm only to Trujillo
coca. (There have been major infestations of this insect in the past usually
occuring from April to August.) The larvae spend their entire lives on the
plant, feeding on the leaves and shoots . As with the Eloria, Eucleodora is
being controlled with insecticides.
Very little is known about the effect of the leaf-cutting ant, Acromyrmex, on
coca. Growers in the Upper Huallaga Valley report that serious damage in the
past has been done to their coca cultivation. The damage is often controlled
with the use of insecticides and flooding. The beetle, Aegoidus Pacificus,
also poses a threat to Trujillo coca. The adult beetle lays her eggs in the
bark of the coca plant, and the larva later burrows into the stem of the
plant. This usually results in an infestation of pathogenic fungi which is
ultimately responsible for the death of the coca plant. As with the other
pests, the beetle can also be controlled with insecticides.
Most of the other insects which attack coca only do so when there are
shortages of their normal food supply. Some scientists believe that cocaine
and other alkaloids may present some natural defense against most pests.
Nevertheless, sometimes insects such as spider mites, grasshoppers,
leafhoppers, and beetles find it necessary to eat coca.
The coca plant is also susceptible to numerous species of pathogenic fungi.
Fungi seem to present the greatest threat to a plant during the wet season.
The most serious threat seems to come from a fungus called "witches broom ."
The exact effect of this fungus on the coca plant is not clear because of the
limited amount of study which has been done on this fungus infesting coca
Natural enemies hold hope for control of the coca plant in the future. At
present, however, the most successful methods in controlling the growth of
coca are herbicides and manual eradication.
As of early 1990, all eradication of the coca plant in Bolivia and Colombia
was being done manually. The usual method has been for a team of eradication
workers to go into a field and pull up the bushes plant by plant. In Peru,
manual eradication of coca is often suspended because of security reasons.
Prior to that time, a number of gasoline-powered cutters had been supplied to
the workers making it easier and much quicker to cut the coca. The problem
with this method is that sometimes the coca bush will sprout from the stump
within 12 to 18 months. As such, the cutting must be made very close to the
ground to insure that the plant does not sprout again.
A number of herbicides have been tested for use in eradicating the coca plant
including hexazinone and tebuthiuron (spike) . Application of both has been
deemed successful in killing the plant as long as they are applied in the
correct manner and amount. Within ten to twenty days after application of
hexazinone or tebuthiuron the coca bush sheds all its leaves and usually
within 60 to 90 days the coca plant will be completely dead.
The United States is working with some South American governments to develop
an herbicidal eradication program; Bolivia, however, has prohibited the use
of herbicides for this purpose.
[NOTE: the report from which this text was input contained accompanying
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