"You´re going to learn a lot about Colombia."

Trip Start Aug 30, 2007
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Trip End Sep 11, 2007


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Saturday, September 8, 2007

I entered the jungle on two feet but would exit on three, being reduced to four during a torrential rain that turned every bit of trail into a rushing flow of water over loose terrain and endless mud.  I descended the mountain bruised, blistered, bitten and besmirched, never dreading something so simple as walking in all my life.  The beauty and mysticism of Ciudad Perdida and its surroundings were nothing short of breathtaking, but all was soon forgotten once the 20K trek over harsh terrain back to civilization with an aching knee began.  Ah, but Iīm getting ahead of myself...

Day 1

Thereīs nothing like taking a tour with a guide who has as much enthusiasm as a child awakening to a beautiful Saturday morning.  All 16 of us were thrilled to have Edwin Rey leading the way as we set out to reach Ciudad Perdida, for not only did he have 12 years experience guiding people up these mountains, but he was there in 2003 when the FARC came into the Lost City at 5:00 am disguised as paramilitaries and tied him and the other guides up before taking eight foreigners hostage for the next three months.  The abduction would result in a successful publicity stunt that made the world take notice not only of Ciudad Perdida but also of the war between the guerrillas, paramilitaries and army here in Colombia.  The tangible realities of combat in this bloodstained country only made the trip that much more exciting. 

Of course, we didnīt fear for our safety given that the government made special efforts to protect tourists in this part of Colombia since the incident with the FARC, but we couldnīt help but have the kidnappings in mind as we headed up to the very place it occured four years ago. We were five Frenchies, one Spaniard, one Aussie, three Israelies, one Swiss, two Brits, two Colombians and one gringo.  After a late start we headed up the hills from Santa Marta to the last town at the end of the dirt road, Mamey, which was about two hours from the coast and bulging with Colombian soldiers.  (While there were no paramilitaries to be seen here, the army was busy pursuing them in the area after they re-armed despite signing a treaty to demobilize.)  The road through the jungle was terrible and required us to dismount the two trucks every now and then so that the drivers could get through the mud easier.  We had some sandwiches and beers for lunch before gearing up and heading out on foot.  It was a hot and sunny day, though in the mountainous jungle the weather can change drastically in no time.
 
After an hour or so of climbing up the mountain we came upon a small farm with a cocaine laboratory.  No one was there when we passed, but Edwin grabbed some branches off one of the coca plants and described to us why this crop is so important to Colombia.  First off, there is no other plant that earns the same price in the market.  Farmers would like to grow corn and yucca, but they sell for only a fraction of what coca does.  What is more, the former will not earn you credit in the city, but latter will get you all the credit you want.  Second, the coca plant is resistant to all blights, bugs and disease, making it one of the easiest crops to grow here as it simply thrives with sun and water and will produce leaves three times per year. You can also bend any branch as much as you want and it quickly snaps back to its original shape.  Lastly, the demand in the U.S. and Europe is so high that farmers would be dumb not to supply it.  The cocaine trade puts food in the empty bellies of many people in Colombia, which is why Plan Colombia will continue to be a failure until it offers some kind of true - and equally lucrative - alternative to coca.  (And as far as the fumigation being carried out under Plan Colombia, we saw in the flesh the damage it does to legal crops like cacao.  The cocoa trees were poisoned due to the harsh chemicals responsible for erradicating coca.  One can only imagine the harm being done to the water, earth and animals as a result...)
 

The clouds rolled in and night came early as we plodded down the final descent into Camp 1.  A cold mountain stream served as our much needed shower as the heat and humidity had turned us into a sopping, noxious bunch.  Dinner was a hearty filling of rice and beans with some chicken legs and we even had a few brews (brought here by mule) purchased from a small store across the stream which made for great beer runs, especially in the dark.  To our surprise the small store in the middle of nowhere also had a large supply of locally-grown marijuana.  Some of the Europeans bought an extremely fresh ounce of buds for $5.  The 16 of us traded stories about travel and our expectations of Ciudad Perdida before we retired to our hammocks and mosquito nets.  There were no luxuries on this trip (but as weīd soon discover, plenty of narcotics and natural hallucinogens), though sleeping in a hammock at the edge of a quickly running stream isnīt exactly the worst way to drift into sleep after a long dayīs hiking...

Day 2:  Cocaine "laboratory" (numb faces and freebasing in the jungle)
 
After a breakfast of bread, eggs and coffee, Edwin unfolded a piece of paper to reveal some dried coca paste which was produced at a nearby cocaine lab we could visit for $9 each.  All of us quickly threw in our 20.000 pesos, though one of the Israelis declined the offer.  We walked a mere 10 minutes from the camp to discover an utterly ramshackle operation along the stream we bathed in the night before that was obviously arranged for tourists heading to Ciudad Perdida.  A 20 year-old campesino named Enrique greeted us and explained how he had been a coca farmer for the past five years.  He has one hectare (two acres) which he dedicates to coca production about an hour from where we were.  The reason we couldnīt actually visit his farm and lab was because it is illegal and he wants to keep it clandestine, otherwise the military will destroy it and burn his coca plants.  (There is no fine or additional punishment handed out.)


 




 
Our coca instructor explained his business and told us that with his hectare of coca he can produce three kilos of coca paste three times each year (the plant yields three harvests annually.  It takes 1000 kilos of coca leaves to produce three kilos of cocaine.  Five people can pick enough leaves in about one month.)  He began by showing us a bunch of leaves yanked from one of his plants and since we didnīt have all day to see the entire process, had gone ahead and realized some of the steps that require hours to complete so that we could actually see him create coca paste before our very eyes.  You must first mix the leaves with  20 kilos of salt and 10 kilos of chalk and mash them.  (It takes about 40 minutes per 100 kilos of leaves.)  Then you soak the leaves in 120 liters of gasoline for many hours in a large drum.  The gasoline extracts the active ingredient in the leaf.  Ten liters of water is then added to the mix along with 50 centimeters of sulfuric acid.  After soaking for many hours the gasoline rises to the top while the water and sulfuric acid settles at the bottom of the drum.  (The latter is the beginning of the paste.)  A tap is used to drain the water which contains the alkaloids needed for the cocaine.  The leaves are useless at this point.


 




 
The incipient paste is collected in another container and then combined with permanganate (one kilo:kilo of paste).  The permanganate neutralizes the gasoline, chalk and salt.  The liquid is passed through a filter (cloth) which leaves behind the residue of fuel, chalk and salt.  Below the filter in yet another recipient the refined paste is collected.  Next, caustic soda is added to the liquid paste to neutralize the sulfuric acid.  This is measured by the eye, though you must be careful not to add too much or it will ruin the concoction.  The liquid paste is then filtered once again by passing through another cloth.  What remains in the cloth is pure coca paste which then needs to be dried in the sun. 











 
There is one final ingredient needed to finish the process and produce cocaine - acetone.  Because acetone is highly explosive and a good ingredient for making bombs it is highly sought after by the guerrillas here.  So the paramilitaries have a monopoly on acetone and control its distribution, making them the only ones capable of finishing the production of white gold.  The acetone is necessary for neutralizing the caustic soda which allows the cocaine to be snorted without causing nasty nosebleeds.  But the paste is still pure cocaine that can be used in other ways - and of course the anxious trekkers wanted to sample the product despite witnessing such a crude process and the extremely harsh chemicals used to make one of the worldīs most popular narcotics.  The fact that an illiterate peasant was the creator of this glamorous drug didnīt prevent them from wanting a taste either.  
Some rolled joints of coca paste with tobacco while others smeared some paste on their teeth.  I tried the latter and can say that I didnīt have any sensation in my mouth for the next couple of hours.  Those who freebased were the first to reach Camp 2, many claiming to have intense energy and not even feel winded after the four hour hike uphill.
 
As the reader can see, the cocaine laboratories hidden here in the Colombian jungle are far from the sophisticated interpretations seen in movies such as Clear and Present Danger and Blow.  Rudimentary is an understatement when describing the factories where rush is elaborated.  While it was truly a shock to see uneducated peasants with no knowledge whatsoever in chemistry producing this drug with extremely dangerous ingredients, it reminded me of the heaps and droves of bumpkins who pepper the Heartland and produce a species of crystal meth in the United States.  It may be a nasty drug, but the meth business is booming.  It's funny how the most noxious and dangerous of enterprises take on a less menacing aspect once talk of astronomical profits ensues... 

The poor of Colombia produce cocaine to stay the pangs of hunger - some bettering their lot significantly in the processm, though often at great risk to their existence - ignoring the fear inspired by whichever band doesn't control their growing region while feeding the northern demand.  Those in L'America who produce crystal meth do so because they too see economic opportunity as the desire for chemical consolation - especially those drugs which enhance productivity and disguise fear - continues to blanket their nation which finds itself beseiged by a gallaxy of specters whose malicious hands supposedly aim to extinguish the planet.  God sanctions Srs. Bush and Uribe, along with their soldiers, though of course the hellish ramifications of fighting evil have no connection to the Plan To Save the Day.  In other words, the ends justify the means, which is why coca demand and production will remain high, just as the demand and production for the poppy will too (see Afghanistan). 

It's a pastime of many politicos to declare war against drugs, but none admit to the wars nurtured and financed by them.  Perhaps this is because drugs help make possible the wars we so desperately need to fight (while doing away with many less-desireables and others who are mere pawns in the profit-making apparatus of which the drug trade is a major contributor).  Until education is given a chance nothing will break up the marriage of war and drugs.  
 
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