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BOGOTÁ - DRUG traffickers have created a new strain of coca plant that
yields up to four times more cocaine than existing plants and promises to
revolutionise Colombia?s drugs industry, August 2004 by Jeremy McDermott .
The new variety of coca, the raw material for cocaine, was found in an
anti-drug operation on the Caribbean coast, on the mountainsides of the
Sierra Nevada, long known as a drug-growing region.
Samples of the plant were sent for laboratory analysis and experts then
pronounced drugs traffickers had developed a new breed.
"This is a very tall plant," said Colonel Diego Leon Caicedo of the
anti-narcotics police. "It has a lot more leaves and a lighter colour than
A toxicologist, Camilo Uribe, who studied the coca, said: "The quality and
percentage of hydrochloride from each leaf is much better, between 97 and 98
per cent. A normal plant does not get more than 25 per cent, meaning that
more drugs and of a higher purity can be extracted."
Experts estimate that the drugs traffickers spent ?60 million to develop the
new plant, using strains from Peru and crossbreeding them with potent
Colombian varieties, as well as engaging in genetic engineering.
The resulting plant has also been bred to resist the gliphosate chemicals
developed in the US that are sprayed on drugs crops across Colombia.
While traditional coca plants are dark green and grow to some 5ft, the new
strain grows to more than 12ft.
"What we found were not bushes but trees," Col Caicedo said.
Such an investment by drugs traffickers is small compared to the earnings
from what is the most lucrative business on earth. Traffickers can produce a
kilogram of cocaine for less than ?1,500. That kilogram will sell in Miami
for ?14,000, in London for ?34,000 and in Tokyo would bring ?50,000.
The discovery threatens to undermine the successes the US-funded crop
eradication programme has enjoyed.
Over the last two years, thanks to an unprecedented aerial eradication
campaign, Colombian authorities have sprayed hundreds of thousands of
hectares of drug crops, reducing narcotics cultivation by more than a third.
Two years ago Colombia produced an estimated 800 tonnes of cocaine a year.
That figure is believed to have dropped below 600 tonnes.
On Monday, Mexican authorities signalled a major blow for the
drugs-smuggling gangs when they announced the arrest of the man thought to
be a leader of a crime organisation responsible for nearly half the cocaine
and marijuana entering the United States.
The US had offered a $2 million (?1.1 million) reward for Gilberto Higuera
However, such success could be immediately wiped out if the potent new coca
strain spreads across Colombia.
In the southern province of Putumayo, once the coca capital of Colombia,
drug farmers have changed the way they sow crops in the face of repeated
"We know the spray planes need a target area of three hectares," said
Sebastian Umaya, standing in the middle of a tiny field of coca. "Now we
just have smaller fields, but with more intensive farming of the coca
Should the new strain be introduced, these smaller fields could yield up to
four times more drugs and be immune to aerial eradication, meaning
anti-narcotic police would have to eradicate them manually, an impossible
task in the southern jungle provinces controlled by Marxist rebels.
The introduction of the new coca strain could undermine the efforts of the
Oxford-educated president Alvaro Uribe to win the 40-year civil conflict.
By destroying drugs crops, the president was hoping to weaken the warring
factions, both Marxist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, who between
them earn more than ?500 million a year from drugs.
The US, the primary destination for Colombian drugs, finances the war effort
with ?400 million a year and has hailed reduction in drug crops as evidence
that its war on drugs is finally bearing fruit.
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