Cocaine comes from the coca plant, which is mostly grown in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. The drug is manufactured in these countries in clandestine laboratories with a number of different chemicals. Once processed, it is trafficked through South and Central America to Mexico to be smuggled into the United States, or shipped to markets in other parts of the world. The Colombian cartels were historically the biggest players in the cocaine trade. But Mexico has seized a larger foothold in recent years.
What Is Cocaine?
Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant drug. It is frequently encountered as a white powder. People use it by snorting it, rubbing it on the gums, injecting it, or smoking a rock form of it known as crack cocaine.1,2
The effects of cocaine can include euphoria, increased alertness, rapid heartbeat, raised body temperature, talkativeness, restlessness, irritability, pupil dilation, and decreased appetite.1,2
On the street, cocaine may be referred to as coke, blow, snow, or powder.1,2
Where Does It Come From?
Cocaine is extracted and processed from coca plants in South America on the ridge of the Andes mountains or in lowland jungles such as those found in Colombia.1,2,4 The vast majority of cocaine production occurs in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia as those countries are the main places where the coca plant can be grown naturally and in sufficient quantities to produce mass amounts of cocaine.3,4,5,6
In 2008, Colombia and Peru produced about 450 metric tons of pure cocaine each. Bolivia produced 113 metric tons of pure cocaine.4 More recent estimates from 2014 show that Colombia is growing more coca plants than Peru and Bolivia combined. But because Colombian coca plants provide less cocaine than Peruvian or Bolivian plants, Colombian cocaine production units may need to harvest significantly more coca plants just to produce similar amounts of cocaine.4,5 Chile is also becoming known for making cocaine.6
Coca plants are grown, refined, and processed in local areas, often in protected sites such as native reserves, national parks, and areas along the border, which are off limits to aerial spraying efforts to kill the crops.4,5
Cocaine as the world knows it is actually cocaine hydrochloride. It is 1 of 14 alkaloids that naturally occur in the coca plant. Out of over 200 plant species, there are only 2 types of coca leaf that contain enough cocaine alkaloid for cocaine production. Generally, coca leaves can be harvested 3-6 times a year. But in some areas, the coca leaf can be harvested up to 8 times a year, depending on where the plant grows and the specific species.4
How Is It Produced?
Various methods are used to make cocaine.
In one method, dried coca leaves are soaked with lime water or other alkaline liquids and then extracted with kerosene in metal drums.2,5,6 Workers use sulfuric acid to extract the dissolved cocaine and form a liquid solution to which lime is added, leading to precipitation of coca paste.2
Workers then add more sulfuric acid and potassium permanganate to remove impurities, followed by lime, sodium bicarbonate, or ammonia to cause the base to separate.2,6 The base is further dissolved in a solvent like acetone and then soaked in hydrochloric acid. Finally, the cocaine paste is filtered through a cloth to separate, then dried as a solid deposit of white powder.2,3,4,6
Alternately, the base can be dissolved in a solvent, such as acetone, ether, or ethyl acetate, and heated in a bath of hot water. Methyl ethyl ketone is another solvent that workers add to the hot liquid mixture, along with hydrochloric acid, leading to cocaine hydrochloride crystallizing in the solution. Solvents are pressed out by hand, followed by a hydraulic press, then the mixture is heated in a microwave to create cocaine powder.6
It takes about 450-600 kilograms of fresh Colombian coca leaves to create 1 kilogram of cocaine base. The cocaine base can then be converted into a kilogram of cocaine hydrochloride or powdered cocaine. However, this amount differs with other species of coca leaves, since one species has higher levels of cocaine alkaloid and requires less leaves to create cocaine base.3
Crack Cocaine Process
Powdered cocaine can be further processed into crack by first mixing it into a solution of either ammonia or a combination of baking soda and water, then heating that mixture to create a substance that forms rocks for smoking.1,2,6 Alternately, an alkali substance can be mixed into a heated liquid cocaine solution that crack then settles to the bottom of as a solid. Some adulterants, or cutting agents, can be filtered out through the creation of crack cocaine.2
How Is It Distributed?
Once cocaine is processed, distribution occurs. Distribution is a complex chain that usually involves many different groups.
First, the growers of coca plants sell the leaves or coca paste to laboratories for processing. Farmers or cartels own the labs, and the cocaine base or cocaine hydrochloride then changes hands into local cocaine trafficking agents. They smuggle and sell the cocaine to a larger organization that can arrange for another organization to ship it into other countries.7
It is estimated that about 90% of U.S. cocaine comes through the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly through Texas.
Distributors circulate cocaine through South and Central America, where they then smuggle it to Mexico, or less frequently through the Caribbean. The majority ends up in the United States, though some of it is sent to Europe, Australia, Africa, or Asia.3,7 The drug is often transported from Colombia to Mexico or Central America by sea, and then into the United States via land borders. It is estimated that about 90% of U.S. cocaine comes through the U.S.-Mexico border, mostly through Texas. A smaller amount comes through California and Arizona.7
Once the cocaine is in the United States, distributors sell it to wholesale dealers. These dealers sell it to mid-level drug dealers, who in turn sell it to low-level street dealers, from whom consumers can purchase quantities of the drug.7 Street dealers often employ a number of individuals to play roles such as holders, transporters (also called mules), delivery people, counters of money or incoming drugs, people to keep a watch, backup personnel, and enforcers of debt payments.8
Along the supply chain, cocaine is cut with adulterants to reduce its purity and create a larger profit margin.1,3 Common cutting agents include amphetamines, baking sugars, caffeine, acetaminophen (Tylenol), cornstarch, flour, talcum powder, and anesthetics, including procaine.1,2,4
Who Controls the Cocaine Trade?
The major countries in the cocaine trade include those where coca plants are grown and processed, such as Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. Countries that transport cocaine across national lines, such as Mexico or Caribbean countries including Haiti, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic, are also big players.3,4,5,6,7,9
Colombian trafficking groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and ELN (National Liberation Army) guerilla groups, armed revolutionary gangs, and rural bands of guerillas purchase coca leaves or coca paste from local farmers, process the product, and negotiate transportation into other countries.5,7 Mexican drug cartels, such as the Guadalajara Cartel, often transport cocaine from South America into the United States and other countries, and are distributors rather than suppliers.3,4
Mexican cartels formerly operated as junior partners for the Colombian cartels. But crackdowns on the Caribbean route and on Colombian cartels led to Mexican cartels playing a larger role in trafficking cocaine to North America. They began to collect more of the profits from the cocaine trade.3
Mexican cartels also operate labs in Central and South America to process coca leaves into cocaine. They have expanded their cocaine distribution efforts to Africa, Asia, Australia, and Europe.3
Cocaine use in the United States declined significantly from 10.5 million people in 1982 to 5.3 million people in 2008.7 However, more recent estimates show the United States as the primary consumer, followed by Brazil, Australia, and Europe.9 Other areas, including Africa and Asia, are also consuming more cocaine.4,7,9
In 2012, the cocaine market worldwide was valued at approximately $70 billion annually.4
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2016). What is cocaine?
- European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. (2015). Cocaine and Crack Drug Profile.
- Stratfor. (2013). Mexico’s Cartels and the Economics of Cocaine.
- Stratfor. (2012). Criminal Commodities Series: Cocaine.
- Miroff, N. (2015). Colombia is Again the World’s Top Coca Producer. Here’s Why That’s a Blow to the U.S. The Washington Post.
- Drug Enforcement Administration Museum. Cannabis, Coca, & Poppy: Nature’s Addictive Plants.
- United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2009). Cocaine.
- Johnson, B.D. (2003). Patterns of Drug Distribution: Implications and Issues. Substance Use and Misuse, 38(11-13), 1789-1806.
- Central Intelligence Agency. Illicit drugs.