Officials in Colombia say drug traffickers have begun moving large quantities of unrefined cocaine paste to Europe, but with little processing infrastructure and no established market for the smokeable paste, why they would do so remains unclear.
The most recent seizure of cocaine paste took place in the Atlantic port of Barranquilla, where police discovered 460 kilos of the substance wrapped in plastic and inserted into the hollow center of logs set to be shipped to Lisbon, Portugal, reported RCN.
According to El Heraldo, this is the third time in 11 months that Colombian police have found cocaine paste that was intended for export.
In January, 403 kilos were seized before they could be sent from the southern city of Nariño to Mexico by plane. And in November 2013, 171 kilos were seized in Santa Marta -- near Barranquilla -- destined for Belgium.
Anti-drug police commander Rodrigo Restrepo Londoño said that this mode of transporting the drug was more "economical," reported El Heraldo.
"It is cheaper to buy a kilo of cocaine paste in Colombia than the same kilo of cocaine hydrochloride, but abroad it generates the same earnings," he said.
He said it was likely some of the paste was being processed into cocaine in European laboratories.
InSight Crime Analysis
Colombian drug traffickers have long exploited the lucrative European cocaine market. However, by and large drugs seized en route to Europe are in the purified powder form (HCl). Restrepo's take on why this could be changing raises several questions.
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As noted by Restrepo, cocaine paste is substantially cheaper and easier to produce than powder cocaine, thus potentially lowering the financial risks involved in trafficking it. It is also possible that the unrefined product is being processed by European contacts once it has been moved overseas, as Restrepo indicated. However, this would represent a significant leap for the European cocaine trade, the advantages of which are not clear. The internationally controlled precursor chemicals necessary for cocaine production are widely available in Colombia and other parts of Latin America, and this is also where the processing expertise and experience is concentrated.
Another possibility is that traffickers are looking to create what would be a new market selling the paste to be smoked as a cheap high -- within Latin America, this form of consumption has become an important source of revenue. But again, this seems odd given that mainland Europe's crack market -- which is usually found in the same marginalized populations that would be a potential market for cocaine paste -- is relatively small; the use of cheap, highly addictive smokable cocaine has never taken off as it did in the United States.