I have been invited to write about the production, logistics, and transportation of cocaine, particularly the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime has just estimated that the drug is at its highest level of production since records began.
“The smuggler is a person who … would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.” Adam Smith, celebrated economist
I am not an academic, nor a formal researcher. However, for four decades, I enthusiastically studied the methods and routes used to move cocaine from the source to the market.
I also briefly delved into a first-person study of jails on three continents. Cocaine was readily available in all of them. If they can’t keep it out of prisons, what chance is there to eliminate it in a free society?
Given my past “experience”, I thought it would be fun for me to take you through the imaginary journey of cocaine smuggling across the world; I’ll pack us in along with this pricey treasure.
Before we start, I want to make it clear: I’m not snitching on anyone. These are methods known by drug enforcement agencies; if customs had a week to examine every arriving container, they would find most of it. If they were this thorough and meticulous, cocaine’s international trade would collapse, and the world would return to the Middle Ages. However, I believe that even then, ingenious and determined smugglers would deliver cocaine by sailing boat, fishing boat, makeshift submarines and a hundred other methods, and for higher rewards.
Our journey starts in the Southern Hemisphere.
Durban, South Africa
A tonne of “material” arrives by fishing boat, after a brief encounter with the mother ship thirty miles out at sea. We ordered this shipment from Santa Marta, Colombia, while out there on a Caribbean holiday. Our coke, however, could have been prepared and shipped from anywhere: Alta Mira in southern Mexico, down to Punta del Este in Argentina. Even Puerto Villeta in landlocked Paraguay ships directly into Europe.
For this trip, we chose to hire three technicians, recommended by our supplier, to camouflage our shipment in Durban. Authorities in Europe only search around 10% of the containers coming from South American and Caribbean ports. From South Africa, only 2%. Before even starting our journey, we have just improved our chances of success by 500%.
We first dilute 500 kilos in distilled water and alcohol, decanting it into bottles of red and white wine. The rear of the container holds seven hundred cases of bottled wine. One in six is liquid cocaine.
For point-of-sale marketing, we’ve produced half a pallet of non-descript posters, on card impregnated with product, another 50 kilos.
Stacked on top of these are 480 promotional carafes, boxed in dozens. The triangular carafes have deep transparent glass bases. Filled with cocaine, heated to 186 degrees, we injected the clear liquid into the hollow bases. Once the transparent coke solidifies, it’s now sealed. 120 kilos there.
There are ten modern recycled plastic pallets – we want to save the planet, of course! Each of them have been enriched with seven kilos of cocaine. Another 70 kilos. As the recycling adage goes, “every little helps”.
In front of this entire shipment is a 24,000 litre flexitank (a flexible PVC container used to transport liquids like detergent or oil inside shipping containers). If we were feeling greedy, we could shove 20 tonnes in there disguised as premium South African olive oil.
Instead, we drop in only 100 litres of saturated liquid cocaine, creating a fine layer that sits right at the bottom under the oil. If border forces search the bottom with metal probes, friction with the oil will remove the water-based coke as the probe is removed. 80 more kilos.
We protect our flexitank’s giant waterbed from chafing with a rubber sheeting mixed in with another generous 180 kilos.
Job done! Dogs won’t smell it, swabs won’t show it, and x-rays won’t flag it.
Unknown to us, in Durban docks, while awaiting loading, a suspicious looking customs officer comes towards our container. Before opening it, he looks around to make sure he’s unobserved. From under his coat, he produces a canvas bag holding 20 bricks of Charlie. He promptly throws this into the container. Closing the doors, he clamps on an official seal, verifying no-one has tampered with the container. In Antwerp, the process will be reversed.
Our long-term preparation have prepared for this moment. This is the fourth container we’ve shipped in the last eighteen months from Durban to Antwerp, packaged similarly yet without any coke. Thanks to this, the shipment is tagged low risk by South African customs. Our latest, enhanced container, is now ready to sail through customs with no difficulties.
The main reason why we would go through all this trouble is basic: money.
In Colombia, the cost per kilo of cocaine is roughly $1,200, then $6,000 a kilo for delivery to the fishing boat in South Africa. Our initial investment was 7.2 million dollars for the tonne of coke, plus $150,000 in wine, oil and transportation costs. An additional $150,000 well spent for technicians to convert the coke in Durban; double that cost in Europe to reverse the process. In Antwerp, the wholesale value for the tonne is $23 million, although we shipped a tonne, we will lose approximately 6% in processing the liquid and impregnated back into powder. Leaving us a net profit roughly $13.5 million per shipping container.
How was this all funded? For the last year and a half, while we were busy building our squeaky-clean shipping record, we have sent 3 couriers every two months by plane into Sydney. Each carrying three kilos of South African duty-free olive oil and wine. We have a man in the duty-free shop who gets them sealed bags with appropriate receipts. Each courier nets us half a million dollars per trip.
It’s easy to grow quickly in this business. For instance, we could have taken up our suppliers’ offer to pay just 500 kilos up-front, getting 300 more on credit by allowing them to put two hundred ‘on’. This is a common request from suppliers: in return for sharing part of a shipment, smugglers are given a line of credit to ensure they can carry out operations. In this case, we could get credit on 300 kilos, and profit off the sale of 200 kilos. This would halve our risk, but also cost us a third of our net profit.
With over eight million shipping containers processed per year in Antwerp alone, it is obvious that this infinitely replicable trafficking method would enable for thousands of tonnes to enter Europe. Prohibition is clearly not working: it’s easier than ever to smuggle in and profit off this drug in the West; while countries in the Americas bear the brunt of the violent consequences of the drug war, which kills thousands across the continent (including 26,000 in Mexico just last year, according to government sources).
Not only is prohibition destroying countries in the South, eradication programmes are neither effective nor properly supported in coca cultivating regions. Traffickers pay better than the government. And they can ramp up production whenever it’s needed.