With historic levels of cocaine seizures happening across Latin America, how can governments safely and quickly get rid of the drugs they confiscate? The Ecuadorian government has found a novel solution.
In a process called “encapsulation,” authorities pulverize bricks of cocaine hydrochloride into tiny grains using heavy machinery. Next, the powder cocaine is mixed with cement, salt, and chemical accelerants, among other materials, to form a slurry, according to Edmundo Mera, Undersecretary for Drug Control at Ecuador’s Ministry of the Interior.
The fluid mixture is poured, molded into concrete slabs, and left to dry for just a few hours before it completely hardens. In the final state, it is impossible to extract the cocaine from the solid blocks of the material.
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Through October 14, Ecuador had destroyed nearly 180 tons of drugs in total, and 61% of the drugs seized this year were destroyed through encapsulation, Mera explained in an interview with InSight Crime.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has previously provided guidelines on encapsulation as a way to dispose of drugs and hazardous material used in drug manufacturing, but Ecuador is the first country to use it to destroy cocaine on such a large scale, Martin Raithelhuber, an illicit synthetic drugs expert at UNODC, told InSight Crime
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Scaling of encapsulation operations could impact the future of drug destruction for governments across Latin America, and Ecuador is doing its part to prove how effective the process can be.
Incineration through ovens and environmental managers is a safe option that has long been used in Ecuador. But this method requires very specific machinery. “Cocaine does not burn well. It’s important to burn it in a suitable incinerator that can reach those high temperatures to get rid of the unwanted exhaust gases and substances formed,” said Raithelhuber.
Furthermore, just a few tons of seized cocaine can quickly exceed the country's incineration capacity. Authorities are forced to store cocaine for weeks or months while waiting for incineration. Encapsulation is currently used to supplement incineration but has already proven a viable process for several reasons.
First, encapsulation allows authorities to destroy 1,500 kilograms per hour, whereas incineration is limited to approximately 70 kilograms of cocaine in the same timeframe, according to Mera. A series of attempted robberies on police warehouses storing seized drugs in Quito, Guayaquil, and Tena, highlighted the insecurities that accompany not being able to destroy seized drugs rapidly.
SEE ALSO: Huge Ecuador Cocaine Seizures Signal Growing Role in Drug Trade
The ramped-up speed of destruction is crucial in Ecuador, where the law stipulates that judges must be present during drug destruction. Drastically shortening the time this process takes means authorities can get back to doing more substantial work instead of serving as a witness for drug destruction.
Second, faster destruction means potentially lower costs for Ecuador. Encapsulation can destroy cocaine ten times more quickly than incineration, according to Mera. Less money can be spent on the equipment and personnel needed for destruction as well as the security to safeguard seized drugs in warehouses, among other costs.
Third, while incineration is a rigorous process that follows strict environmental regulations, Ecuador’s encapsulation is also an environmentally sound method. “The cocaine is so well encapsulated in these concrete slabs that it cannot leak out into the environment; something you want to avoid,” said Raithelhuber.
The Ministry of the Interior has contracted environmental managers to oversee the process from mixing drugs and cement to the final disposal of the slabs and encapsulation facilities located outside populated areas, further minimizing the risks of contamination.
Encapsulation, however, is not a one-size-fits-all solution. “We want to identify good practices and share them with other countries in the region facing similar problems to see how they can use or adapt the methodology in their context," warned Raithelhuber.