The recent discovery of a cocaine laboratory in Colombia's second biggest city could indicate a growing shift in production toward urban areas, a trend that could heighten the country's security woes.
Colombian authorities raided a cocaine production laboratory in the Manrique Centro residential neighborhood in northeast Medellín that supplied drugs for local distribution, according to a July 8 army press release. The statement says that this is the first time authorities have found a laboratory of its kind in urban Medellín.
The raid resulted in the arrest of two people and seizure of four kilograms of pure cocaine that reportedly had the potential to produce about 12 kilograms of cocaine for sale in the local drug market. Chemical substances, a microwave, UV lamps, a press and other items were found at the scene.
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The army press release notes that cocaine production in residential areas puts locals at risk due to the use of chemicals and the general danger that comes with criminal activity.
Most cocaine production in Colombia takes place in rural laboratories and the drug is then smuggled into the country's cities, the press release adds.
Source: El Colombiano
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite the military's assertion, this is not the first cocaine processing laboratory that has been detected and destroyed in Medellín, but its unusually large size may reveal the beginnings of a concerning new criminal strategy.
Authorities have seized many small-scale cocaine laboratories in the city in the past, according César Sarmiento, a prosecutor for the Attorney General's Office's Organized Crime Unit in Medellín. Sarmiento told InSight Crime that a processing center was taken down a year ago in La América, a neighborhood in western Medellín, and other discoveries have been reported in the area.
The prosecutor said that another cocaine laboratory was found in the Castilla area of northwest Medellín, and in 2012, a similar center belonging to the Los Triana gang was discovered in the western neighborhood of San Javier -- areas known for violent gang activity.
A 2014 VICE documentary gained access to such a cocaine laboratory, where coca leaves were turned into pure cocaine with the help of a microwave and a number of chemical substances. That documentary reported that there were "hundreds" more such centers operating in the city to satisfy the huge local market.
Nevertheless, the seizure of a laboratory with a capacity as high as the one found in Manrique is a "very worrying" phenomenon that represents a new modality for criminal groups, according to international security consultant John Marulanda. In his opinion, Colombia's booming coca production is causing a growing displacement of cocaine production from the countryside to cities.
The shift is being encouraged by stepped up security force pressure on rural production and the logistical difficulty of moving the drug into urban areas. Many laboratories are located in isolated areas of remote departments such as Putumayo and Norte de Santander.
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Marulanda estimates that up to 14 percent of Colombian cocaine stays in the country for domestic consumption. While the amount produced in cities remains minimal for now, the consultant believes that this trend could proliferate and worsen the urban security situation in the process.
But cocaine laboratories are not the only phenomenon urban security forces are keeping an eye on. Synthetic drug production centers have also been detected in cities, including the Colombian capital Bogotá, and Sarmiento believes that there are more clandestine labs operating in Medellín.