A worker with coca paste after drying it on a stove top at a small farm in Guayabero, in Colombia's Guaviare province. Photo REUTERS/John Vizcaino
Unrefined coca base is increasingly being smuggled out of Colombia, rather than refined powder cocaine, the country's top counter-drug official said in May. That change hints has a broader shift in the cocaine trade being driven by Mexican criminal groups.
Mexican criminal groups are taking a new approach to the cocaine trade, shipping it out of Colombia in an unrefined form called coca base and processing it in Mexico, according to Colombia's anti-narcotics chief.
Since drug users in the US, cocaine's largest market, want powder cocaine, the shift can only mean that Mexican criminal groups are now refining the drug in Mexico in their own labs, Gen. Luis Ramirez said in May.Coca base is cheaper but just as risky to smuggle, Ramirez told the press near the Pacific coast city of Tumaco, a major cocaine production and transshipment point in southwest Colombia.
"If the risk of transporting a kilo of coca base is the same risk of transporting a kilo of cocaine hydrochloride, why is the coca base being transported to another country?" Ramirez said.
Colombia soldiers troops cocaine lab:
Colombian soldiers search a laboratory designed to process coca base near Puerto Boyaca in northwest Colombia, February 13, 2009. Photo: REUTERS/Albeiro Lopera
Ramirez attributed the change to Colombian counter-narcotics efforts. Bogota began to restrict access to precursor chemicals needed to produce those drugs four years ago, introducing controls on their import and sale.
That legal change may mean precursors are now easier to obtain in Mexico, according to James Bosworth, founder of risk-assessment firm Hxagon and an expert on the region.
The 'chemistry' of drug production:
Colombia is the world's largest producer of cocaine, outstripping the combined production in Peru and Bolivia, the next two biggest producers.
Colombia has also seen a major increase in cultivation of coca, the drug's base ingredient, rising 11% year-over-year in 2017 to " an all-time high," according to the UN.
Mexican criminal groups operating in Colombia is not new. They've had a presence in there and worked with Colombian criminal groups, since Mexican organizations began to take on a larger role in cocaine trafficking in the late 1990s, following the demise of the Medellin and Cali cartels.
Mexico - Sinaloa state meth drug lab:
Mexican authorities examine materials found in a suspected drug lab in Sinaloa state; Mexican Naval Secretariat
Mexico's Pacific coast ports are major entry points for precursors from China, and fighting among criminal groups for control of those cities has increased violence there in recent years.
And with an increase in seizures of shipments between Colombia and Mexico, Mexican groups may believe it makes more sense to smuggle coca base, Bosworth wrote last month.
Moreover, "Mexican criminal groups have increased their involvement in 'chemistry' in the past decade," Bosworth told Business Insider in an email.
"They became major meth suppliers as the US cracked down on domestic production. They are increasing their role in fentanyl manufacturing. Processing cocaine is certainly no more difficult than either of those two synthetic drugs."
Mexico's first lab producing fentanyl was discovered in Sinaloa state — home turf of the eponymous cartel — earlier this year.
The cocaine supply chain / Colombia cocaine production:
A Colombian farmer sprinkles cement over mulched coca leaves to prepare to make coca paste at a small makeshift lab in northwest Colombia, January 7, 2016. / AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
The change described by Ramirez wasn't a shock to Mike Vigil, former director of international operations for the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
"They can refine it in Mexico or sell it here in the States as cocaine base," Vigil told Business Insider, comparing coca base to crack cocaine. "The chemicals are becoming harder and harder to get into [Colombia] ... the Mexican cartels are still getting tons of precursor chemicals."
Converting coca base to refined cocaine yields similar amounts, "so there's no less bulk" if smugglers ship powder cocaine rather than coca base, Vigil said.
"It'll affect their profit margins because they're not going to have to pay for conversion in terms of added labor and adding the precursor chemicals," Vigil added.
Some Mexican "emissaries that are going to Colombia are actually buying the cocaine from the campesinos," Vigil said, referring to farmers who produce coca that is sold to criminal groups for processing and smuggling.
But those Mexican groups "still buy a lot of it from the cartels in Colombia," he added.
Colombian police officials examine confiscated packs of cocaine at a police base in northwest Colombia, February 24, 2015. Photo:REUTERS/ John Vizcaino
Mexican criminal groups have been seeking more influence over the cocaine supply chain, Bosworth wrote in May, and taking more control of the refining process by shifting it to Mexico "would be one way to significantly lower their downstream costs and increase their profit margins."
Colombia's attorney general, Nestor Humberto Martinez, said in early 2018 that Mexican criminal groups "have already started acquiring coca plantations in Colombia" and that authorities have "captured agronomists and engineers from [Mexico] who are improving the productivity of the plant in laboratories."
Colombian officials said in 2018 that members of Mexican criminal groups, the Sinaloa cartel chief among them, were present in 10 of the country's 32 departments.
Those Mexican groups had reportedly deployed more members to stabilize partnerships and ensure cocaine quotas were met amid turmoil caused by the 2016 demobilization of the FARC rebel group, which was heavily involved in drug trafficking, and infighting in another major criminal group, Los Urabeños, also known as the Gulf clan.
Monopolizing the cocaine trade / cocaine plus Mexican drugs:
A Mexican marine with packs of cocaine at a naval base in Manzanillo, in the Pacific coast state of Colima.
Bosworth said Mexican groups' maneuvers didn't indicate a wholesale takeover in Colombia.
"Mexican criminal groups have long had a presence in Colombia for business purposes, but I wouldn't define it as any sort of 'control,'" Bosworth told Business Insider. "Colombian criminal groups are numerous, large and organized. It makes sense for the [Mexican and Colombian] groups to be allies."
But when it comes to cocaine, Vigil said, Mexican criminal groups are likely to continue to expand their influence.
"One thing about the Mexicans is that through time they're taking more and more control of the cocaine trade, more so than the Colombian organizations," he said.
Vigil pointed specifically to Sinaloa cartel — which he said has "huge tentacles in Colombia," including expansive money-laundering operations — and the CJNG, Jalisco New Generation cartel, considered to be Mexico's only other major criminal group.
"I think those two cartels [have the] capability of eventually monopolizing the cocaine trade," Vigil said.