Cocaine — Production issues (EU Drug Markets Report)

Production issues

Although the cultivation of coca and the production of cocaine occur almost exclusively in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru, there is considerable uncertainty about the amounts of both produced, not least because in countries such as Bolivia a large proportion of the coca grown is consumed as leaves, tea or other coca products. There are two sources of estimates of coca cultivation and cocaine production within these countries, the UNODC and the US Office of Drug Control Policy, and there are some significant differences between these. These will be reviewed and, where possible, some general conclusions on recent trends drawn. 

Recent trends in coca cultivation and cocaine production

In the period 2010–14, the South American cocaine supply chains witnessed some change, particularly with respect to (a) the estimated areas under coca bush cultivation and (b) the organisation and governance of the illegal business and the constellation of actors involved in it.

The available data suggest that in 2014, after several years of decline, the surface area under coca cultivation in the Andes increased again slightly to between 132 000 and 190 000 ha. This rise was mostly due to a significant increase in the coca acreage in Colombia, with the country regaining its rank as the world’s largest illicit producer of coca, ahead of Peru (Table 5.2).

Fewer data are available on cocaine production, but what data there are suggest that, as with coca cultivation, cocaine production has probably started to increase again following a period of decline (Table 5.3). However, the data are both incomplete and show considerable differences between the UNODC and US government sources. The estimates use different methodologies and both are associated with considerable uncertainties (19); and it is very difficult to reconcile the estimate of global cocaine production of about 700 tonnes annually with total seizures (687 tonnes in 2013) (UNODC, 2015a). This makes it very difficult to assess trends in cocaine hydrochloride production in the Andes. 

Figure 5.1: 

The cocaine production process 

Note: This illustration is intended to provide an indicative schematic overview of selected stages of a production process. It must be noted that alternative methods, chemicals and procedures may be used.

Source: EMCDDA. 

Table 5.2:

Estimates of area under coca bush cultivation in hectares, 2010–14 

Table 5.3: 

Comparison of potential cocaine hydrochloride production estimates, in tonnes, 2010–14 

Cocaine precursors

Potassium permanganate is an essential chemical in the illicit manufacture of cocaine. It is mostly used to turn coca paste into cocaine base, a process that seems to be carried out mainly in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru but probably also in neighbouring countries on a more limited scale. Potassium permanganate is listed in Table I of the United Nations Convention against Illicit Traffic in Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances, 1988 (20).

Efforts to control trafficking in potassium permanganate are complicated by the fact that it is a chemical used extensively by industries throughout the world, for instance in drinking water treatment, and the INCB received reports of 1 630 shipments totalling 27 500 tonnes in the 2013–14 reporting period, of which imports to the three main coca-producing countries accounted for less than 1 %. The INCB estimates that at least 180 tonnes of potassium permanganate is required annually for illicit cocaine manufacture.

Global seizures of illicit potassium permanganate, which have in the past been dominated by seizures in Colombia, fell markedly in 2008 and have generally remained at a lower level since then. This is probably because of an increase in the manufacturing of potassium permanganate in clandestine laboratories in the cocaine-producing countries, especially Colombia, from ‘pre-precursors’ such as potassium manganate (INCB, 2015a). However, in recent years seizures have also been reported by a wider range of countries; in 2013, a total of 58 tonnes was seized in 17 different countries, 80 % of which was in South America. Countries elsewhere reporting total seizures or stopped shipments of over 1 tonne included Spain (5.9 tonnes). This large quantity was unusual and was made up of 19 stopped shipments and a single small seizure, and it represented 99 % of the total for Europe in 2013. The other European country reporting significant quantities seized in that year was the Netherlands (one seizure of 80 kg), while Poland, Germany, Austria and Slovenia reported a combined total of 7.8 kg (INCB, 2015a, and European Commission, DG TAXUD (Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union, unpublished data).

A number of other substances, such as acids and solvents, are used in the production of cocaine, and seizures of these are also reported to the INCB. There is evidence of a general decrease in quantities being seized over the last decade. It has been suggested that this is partly because there is more recycling of these substances and also because developments in processes are reducing solvent requirements (INCB, 2015a). 

Cocaine laboratories

As indicated above, it appears that most cocaine manufacture takes place in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, as together these countries are responsible for the majority of the dismantled cocaine laboratories reported to the UNODC. However, there is evidence that some cocaine hydrochloride is refined elsewhere in South America, further along the trafficking routes, and also in Europe.

Cocaine traffickers make use of sophisticated concealment methods, including incorporating cocaine in various materials, in order to smuggle it into the EU undetected. Cocaine can be incorporated into a wide range of materials, including beeswax, fertilisers, coffee, cocoa, plastic, clothing, liquids, foods, fuels and paper. In some cases, this enables drug shipments to remain undetected even by common drug tests. Cocaine is recovered using a secondary extraction process; however, little information is available about the use of this process in the EU. This lack of intelligence gives rise to concerns that such methods are being used successfully by cocaine traffickers to smuggle large amounts of cocaine into the EU undetected. Secondary extraction laboratories have been identified in recent years in Spain, the Netherlands, Portugal and Poland (Figure 5.2).

Efforts have been undertaken at European level to improve the data collection on secondary extraction facilities such as those described above. Under the auspices of the European Multidisciplinary Platform Against Criminal Threats (EMPACT) cocaine priority, Europol and the EMCDDA have developed a reporting tool for the Member States, the European reporting instrument on cocaine secondary extraction sites (ERICES). As a result, since 2015, Member States have been able to report data on this particular smuggling modus operandi to Europol in a systematic way that will allow a more comprehensive analysis in the years to come and improve our understanding of cocaine trafficking routes and methods. 

Figure 5.2

A cocaine secondary extraction site dismantled in Portugal, September 2015 

Photos © UNCTE-Polícia Judiciária, Portugal 

Environmental effects of cocaine production

Two categories of environmental harms derive from cocaine production: those due to the agricultural production of the coca plant and those caused by the chemical extraction of the cocaine alkaloid from coca leaves. The coca plant is often cultivated as a single crop over large patches of land, which need to be prepared for cultivation. The first harm caused here is deforestation, which is the most researched, at least in the Colombian case. Removing the vegetation from a patch of land in order to cultivate a single plant obviously harms biodiversity, which is often very rich in the tropical forest areas where much coca is cultivated in South America. It has been estimated that about 290 000 ha of forest, including primary forest, was lost as a direct consequence of the clearing of land ahead of coca cultivation in Colombia alone between 2001 and 2013. Since 2008, deforestation for coca cultivation is reported to be increasing in Colombia even though coca cultivation itself has tended to decrease (UNODC 2013d, 2015d).

The slash-and-burn practice that often follows the clearing of land so that crops benefit from the nutrients contained in the ashes removes all protective vegetal cover from the soil, which then becomes much more vulnerable to erosion. Erosion is another harm caused by coca production. It occurs as a result of the action of the wind and, especially, the rain and leads to soil depletion. This is particularly pronounced in areas with heavy rainfalls, such as tropical forest ecosystems, and is especially severe when the affected land is on slopes, which is the case for much coca cultivation in South America (Chouvy, 2003; UNODC, 2015d).

Soil depletion due to erosion, as well as the drive to maximise yields, even on non-depleted soils, of what are essentially cash crops, often leads to use of chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides in order to increase production. In the context of drug production, where no counselling from agriculturalists is available to farmers, this is likely to be done with little regard to dosage, further polluting already degraded soils and spreading to rivers and underground water deposits. An estimated 81 000 tonnes of often toxic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides was used for coca cultivation in Colombia in 2005 according to the UNODC (Chouvy, 2003; UNODC, 2006b, 2015d). In addition, aerial spraying of herbicides to eradicate coca plantations may also pose a threat to the environment.

Many of the chemicals used to process coca leaves into cocaine hydrochloride, including potassium permanganate and solvents such as acetone, toluene, kerosene, acids, to mention only a few, are toxic. The waste product resulting from cocaine production if these chemicals are used is often simply dumped on the ground or in streams and rivers in the areas where drug laboratories are located, which are often host to fragile ecosystems and human populations. Although scientific evidence as to the exact impact of this process on the environment is lacking, each year it is probable that millions of tonnes of hazardous waste resulting from cocaine production is released into the environment (UNODC, 2006b, 2015d).

Short title: 
Production issues

(19) For example, the US Department of State ‘International Control Strategy Report, 2014’ states that: ‘The U.S. government estimates for coca leaf, cocaine, marijuana, opium, and heroin production are potential estimates; that is, it is assumed that all of the coca, marijuana, and poppy grown is harvested and processed into illicit drugs. This is a reasonable assump- tion for coca leaf in Colombia. In Bolivia and Peru, however, the US government potential cocaine production estimates are overestimated to some unknown extent since significant amounts of coca leaf are locally chewed and used in products such as coca tea.’ 

(20) The corresponding EU legislation is set out in Council Regulation (EEC) no 3677/90 (as later amended), which governs trade between the EU and third countries.