US & Colombian Officials Closely Monitor Chemicals

US & Colombian Officials Closely Monitor Chemicals
Posted by FoM on October 29, 2000 at 18:09:54 PT
By John Otis, Special To The Chronicle 
Source: Houston Chronicle
Industries depend on purple crystals of potassium permanganate to treat drinking water, bleach crocodile skins and carry out hundreds of cleanup jobs. Yet those who covet the chemical most are Colombian drug lords. In the cocaine-making process, potassium permanganate is virtually irreplaceable, because it is the safest and most effective agent for removing impurities from the drug. "One kilogram of potassium permanganate is enough to make 10 kilos of cocaine," said Gabriel Merchan, director of the Colombian government's National Narcotics Office. "Without the chemicals, you can't make the drugs." 
Many analysts say that so-called precursor chemicals, used to make cocaine and heroin, are the overlooked enemy in the war against narcotics. Now, in a campaign to cut off the supply to drug traffickers, U.S. and Colombian officials are closely monitoring the chemicals' sales and exports. The Colombian police have set up a special precursor control unit and are taking part in a worldwide crackdown called Operation Purple, which began last year to target clandestine shipments of potassium permanganate. Last month, Colombian police in the Pacific port city of Buenaventura impounded 28 metric tons of potassium permanganate in their largest-ever seizure of the chemical. Hidden in cans labeled as ink for photocopiers, the substance had arrived on a ship from Mexico. In Colombia, U.S.-sponsored counternarcotics efforts have long focused on breaking up drug cartels and eradicating fields of opium poppies and coca plants, which produce the raw materials for heroin and cocaine. Yet nearly all of the chemicals used to make these drugs are manufactured in the United States, Europe and Asia, experts say. Nearly half of the acetic anhydride imported by Colombia comes from the United States, for example. Experts say that it is nearly impossible to produce high-grade heroin without the cleansing agent. China, in turn, provides 64 percent of Colombia's potassium permanganate. "Drug-producing nations are always understood to be the ones that produce the plants, not the ones that make the chemicals," said Fernando Cepeda, a former Colombian interior minister and a drug-policy analyst. "But potassium permanganate is as dangerous and as important as coca leaves, and you hardly hear anything about it." Controlling the flow of precursor chemicals into Colombia, however, has turned out to be as frustrating as efforts to stop the outflow of cocaine and heroin. For one thing, all of the compounds have legitimate commercial uses. As a result, they can be legally imported, then resold on the sly to drug traffickers for huge profits. Tons of precursor chemicals also enter Colombia as contraband from neighboring Venezuela, Brazil and Ecuador. Colombian narcotics dealers are so concerned about maintaining their supplies that they have staked out highways and commandeered tractor-trailers hauling potassium permanganate. They also have set up mini-cartels dedicated to smuggling precursor chemicals, Merchan said. The need for greater controls on the chemicals was acknowledged in a 1988 United Nations treaty on drug trafficking that was signed by 150 countries. Under the treaty, chemical manufacturers are supposed to notify Colombia and other drug-producing nations of any suspicious shipments. Experts say, however, that the system doesn't always work. "Everyone promises to strengthen the exportation laws on chemicals," said a Bogota-based official with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. "But the problem is still the amount of chemicals that these companies authorize to come down here. There has got to be more control." The Colombian government has placed restrictions on the importation, distribution and sale of 23 precursor chemicals. Local companies dealing with large amounts of the agents must obtain government permits, and their inventories are subject to spot checks by the police. During a recent visit to a Bogota paint factory, police inspected tanks of methanol and toluene, which are on the list of restricted chemicals. Later, they discovered 80 unregistered drums of paint thinner, which can be used to make cocaine, in a factory warehouse. Although the extra supply of paint thinner may have been the result of a factory administrative error, agents said that overstocking is a favorite way to divert precursor chemicals to drug dealers. Even when their supplies of chemicals are cut off, cocaine and heroin producers quickly adapt, experts say. Following crackdowns on the sales of ether and acetone, solvents that can be used to make cocaine, drug makers switched to methyl ethyl ketone, or MEK, which was easier to find. MEK was later added to the list of restricted chemicals. Drug makers also recycle solvents and replace expensive and hard-to-find chemicals with widely available substitutes. Twenty-two common substances ranging from lime to baking soda can be used to make illegal drugs. "They either acquire the chemicals, find a substitute, or they make their own," said Claudia Prado, a chemist at Colombia's National Narcotics Office. In the early days of the cocaine industry, narco-traffickers made up for shortages of the chemical urea by buying barrels of animal and human urine, which contains the chemical, from local farmers, Prado said. They also began using gasoline, kerosine, motor oil and powdered cement in their drug laboratories. In the early 1990s, Merchan said, the demand for cement in the remote drug-producing state of Caqueta rivaled that in Bogota, a city of 7 million people. The government responded by trying to restrict the movement of bulk quantities of cement and gasoline in five southern states where the drug trade is centered, but it proved virtually impossible. Earlier this year, Colombian police stumbled upon two underground potassium permanganate laboratories. The discovery was especially alarming, because it had been thought that illegal drug makers could not produce their own supplies of the chemical. Authorities had hoped that crackdowns on potassium permanganate imports would seriously disrupt the cocaine trade. "It's always changing," the DEA agent said. "You nail them on something, and then they come up with some other way to beat you." Another reason for concern is the toxic content of these chemicals. Between 1984 and 1998, cocaine and heroin makers dumped 900,000 tons of gasoline, sulfuric acid, methanol and other precursor chemicals into Colombian rivers and onto farmland, causing "enormous ecological damage," said Camilo Gomez, a close aide to President Andres Pastrana. One of the biggest headaches for Colombian authorities is figuring out how to safely dispose of huge quantities of confiscated precursor chemicals. Last year, agents seized 711 tons of the substances. Fearing that these agents could either explode or be stolen from police warehouses, authorities used to burn many of the chemicals on the spot. But that created poisonous vapors. The government is now building special incinerators as well as a plant to neutralize acids. "The destruction of these chemicals wasn't always very hygienic," Prado said. "We used to just make a big fire." Complete Title: U.S., Colombian Officials Closely Monitor Chemicals Necessary To Make Cocaine Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)Author: John OtisPublished: October 28, 2000Copyright: 2000 Houston ChronicleAddress: Viewpoints Editor, P.O. Box 4260 Houston, Texas 77210-4260 Fax: (713) 220-3575 Contact: viewpoints chron.comWebsite: Forum: Articles - Colombia:
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Comment #2 posted by Dan Hillman on October 30, 2000 at 12:33:58 PT
This article is 100% bullshit.
Cocaine can be made from coca leaves using gasoline, baking soda and driveway-cleaner acid. (I can't even think of what potassium permanganate would be used for!) Cocaine producers might even need to resort to these basic chemicals just named *if* they weren't able to bribe their way into any amount of any kind of chemical they wanted, delivered promptly to their doorstep in 55-gallon drums.
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Comment #1 posted by Rainbow on October 30, 2000 at 06:42:06 PT
And I wonder which pharceutical or bib chemical company is supplying the chemical.I think there was a push several years ago to stop the flow of essential chemicals but I guess they were as successful as McCzar.There's big money in chemicals :-)Rainbow
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