Crude oil siphoned from Colombia's pipelines is increasingly being processed by clandestine refineries that manufacture a low-quality fuel, known as "pategrillo," used to make cocaine.
Between January and June 2018, about 24,300 barrels of oil was diverted from 281 illegal taps in pipelines near the municipality of Tibú, in the northeastern department of Norte de Santander on the Colombia-Venezuela border, according to figures from Ecopetrol, Colombia’s leading oil company, that were published by Verdad Abierta. In 2017, about 200 illegal valves were detected.
According to Ecopetrol, only 18 attacks were registered on pipelines in Norte de Santander throughout 2019. However, sources on the ground, including a repairman who is regularly called upon to fix damaged oil infrastructure, told InSight Crime that attacks on the pipelines were constant. It is not clear whether the attacks were intended to steal oil or were meant to sabotage oil infrastructure -- a common tactic of Colombian guerrilla groups.
Some of the crude oil that is stolen through these valves is processed into what is known as “pategrillo,” a low-quality fuel that is used in cocaine production.
Crime groups siphon the crude from pipelines in Norte de Santander, after which it is refined and transported, often via a the Tibú-El Tarra-Ocaña and Tibú-Convención-Aguachica routes to cocaine labs in the Catatumbo region.
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In August 2019, authorities in Tibú seized more than two dozen 55-gallon drums of pategrillo fuel. It and other cocaine manufacturing precursor chemicals seized were valued at 1,600 million pesos ($390,000).
The rural border region of Tibú is a strategic corridor for criminal groups thanks to its ample smuggling opportunities. It is also one of Colombia's largest coca-growing areas, with plants covering 16.096 hectares in 2018.
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While using pategrillo provides crime groups processing cocaine with an alternative to gasoline, the poor quality fuel reduces the drug's purity, making it less profitable in the international market.
Hydrocarbons -- usually gasoline -- are needed to leach alkaloids from the coca leaf, before creating a paste that can be converted into a powdered form. Cocaine producers have also used kerosene and naphtha, hydrocarbons obtained from petroleum waste, to soak leaves.
Experts consulted by InSight Crime explained that “pategrillo” is similar to kerosene but with a high degree of impurities. Gasoline produces cocaine with a 90 percent purity, whereas "pategrillo" tops out at 75 percent.
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Refining pategrillo also causes damage to the environment, as the oil is often siphoned into massive pools dug into the earth, where it can easily drain into local water supplies.
Though using pategrillo to make cocaine yields an inferior product, its use is likely to expand, given that it's more cost-effective than paying for gasoline.