The cocaine trade is one of the world’s biggest illicit economies. Since it was outlawed in the mid-twentieth century, this white hydrochloride salt has become the crown commodity of global organized crime.
Illegality has supercharged the drug's profitability, wrapping cocaine’s supply lines in corruption and violence. From producer countries like Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia to consumer markets around the world, the drug crystallizes both power and peril.
This wasn’t always the case. Before prohibition, cocaine was a legal product. It facilitated medical procedures. It generated tax income. Its botanical parent was introduced as a crop around the world.
So how did this grainy agricultural extract become the foundation of criminal empires? To unravel this complex past, InSight Crime spoke to three cross-disciplinary specialists: a security expert, a coca botanist, and a drug historian.
Coca: From Leaf to Wine
The basis of cocaine is the subtropical Latin American shrub Erythroxylum. It is a global plant, with over 200 wild species having been found in Central and South America, as well as 80 or so in Africa, Madagascar, Southeast Asia, and Australia, said Dawson White, a botanist studying the plant’s diversity and evolution.
The leaves of each of these contains minute quantities of cocaine, from roughly 0.5 to 1.8 percent. Yet the vast majority are not cultivated or cropped. "Only the few that are exclusively in the Americas can properly be called coca plants," White told InSight Crime.
Archeological evidence shows coca has been cultivated in the Americas for millennia, making it one of the continent’s oldest crops. The dried leaf had been consumed in different ways for a variety of religious and social purposes.
There is "a rich and really forgotten history that coca has in Indigenous South American and Central American cultures,” White said.
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Much better known is the history of the wider Western world's interactions with coca. In the centuries after the Spanish conquest of Latin America, interest in certain local plants, including coca, rapidly grew, sparking various commercial experiments.
French chemist Angelo Mariani created one of the most successful of these. In 1863, he marketed a Bordeaux wine with coca he called Vin Mariani. The quantity of cocaine in Vin Mariani was small but mixed with alcohol it made for a highly pleasurable drink, author Steven Karch writes in “A Brief History of Cocaine.”
Mariani sent free cases to celebrities, include Pope Leo XIII, whose endorsement Mariani used in his advertisements. Other famous contemporary drinkers of Vin Mariani included some of the world’s most powerful figures, Like Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom, American Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and William McKinley, and Tsar Nicholas II of Russia.
The drink was so popular that Mariani became the largest buyer of Andean cocaine between 1863 and 1885, wrote historian Paul Gootenberg in “Andean Cocaine.” Mariani’s death in 1914 marked the end of Vin Mariani, but others would follow in his footsteps.
In the United States, biochemist John Pemberton created a similar version in 1885, adding African kola nut, a natural source of caffeine. A year later, as laws governing the sale of alcohol in Pemberton's home state of Georgia began to change, he adapted by replacing wine with syrup: Coca-Cola was born.
By 1900, Coca-Cola already was one of the most in-demand commodities ever, Gootenberg stated in “Between Coca and Cocaine.” While Coca-Cola was decocainized after 1903, a coca-leaf extract known as “Merchandise No. 5” remained part of the recipe for flavoring.
Coca to Cocaine
In the decade preceding Vin Mariani, a young German Ph.D. student, Albert Niemann, was experimenting with coca leaves. He was part of a wave of European chemists attempting to extract the main psychoactive ingredient in various plant products – caffeine from coffee, nicotine from tobacco, morphine from opium.
In 1859, he successfully freed cocaine from coca leaf, setting the stage for a medical revolution. Within two decades, its use as an anesthetic was booming, according to Steven Karch. One early adopter was Sigmund Freud, the renowned founder of psychoanalysis and a prolific cocaine user.
“In my last severe depression I took coca again, and a small dose lifted me to the heights in a wonderful fashion. I am just now busy collecting the literature for a song of praise to this magical substance,” Freud wrote in June 1884, while working on the draft of his work “On Coca.”
Pharmaceutical companies like Germany-based Merck were keen on promoting cocaine and encouraged Freud, among others, Karch wrote. Coca cultivation rose and a commodities market was born. But there was a problem for its worldwide export: coca leaves didn’t travel well and would often rot before reaching European laboratories.
So a Peruvian chemist invented a processing method to create an intermediate, more transportable product: cocaine base. This crumbly sulfate “cake” had a greater shelf life and greatly reduced transport costs by concentrating some 100 kilograms of dried leaves into roughly 1 kilogram of cocaine base.
The new processing method was a dramatic success, and the cocaine market grew exponentially. Merck increased production from a kilo of cocaine around 1884, to more than 500 kilograms in 1890 and to over 2,400 kilograms in 1902, a quarter of the world production at the time.
By then, several European colonial powers had recognized the profitability of cocaine and, as they did with countless other local plants, began sending coca seedlings to their African and Asian colonies. There, alongside cash crops like tea, they swiftly set up experimental coca plantations.
“People underestimate the versatility of the coca plant. They think it only grows in some sacred valley somewhere, but ecologically it would grow basically anywhere where something like tea grows," Paul Gootenberg, a professor of Latin American history at Stony Brook University and a well-known cocaine historian, told InSight Crime.
Coca was going global, courtesy of three major colonial powers: the British, the Dutch, and the Japanese.
Britain’s Early Cocaine Habit
British interest in cocaine began in the 1880s, with a research program established at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, west London. Seeds were grown and shipped to Africa and the Caribbean, taking root in Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Jamaica.
It was far from a monopoly though. France and Germany – among others – sowed coca in Tanzania, Togo, and Cameroon, as well as Guadeloupe, Martinique, Trinidad, and the Dominican Republic.
British coca did better in South Asia, particularly in India and Sri Lanka, then known as Ceylon. The latter saw the introduction of coca in 1870, which was scaled up in the 1880s. Annual harvests peaked at around 24 tons of coca leaves from 1906 to 1911, enough to make roughly 150-200 kilograms of medical cocaine. To this day, coca plants can be found in home gardens in Sri Lanka.
“But at a certain moment [the British] decide not to invest in coca as a colonial crop…possibly because the market was really saturated,” said Gootenberg.
Who was saturating this growing market? The Dutch.
The Dutch Cocaine Factory
It was the Netherlands that took coca cultivation to a next level. By the early 1900s, agriculturists working at the government’s botanical research station in Indonesia, then known as the Dutch East Indies, systematically selected the best seeds for breeding and set up highly efficient coca plantations.
As a result, the Dutch would dominate the global cocaine industry from about 1905 until the 1920s, establishing over 120 coca plantations. Other major producers found it difficult to keep up. Peru's labour-intensive, peasant-based cropping was crippled by Dutch agro-expertise and technology, which by the 1920s was harvesting 1,650 tons of coca leaf, according to Gootenberg.
These exports mostly travelled back to Amsterdam for refining in the “Dutch Cocaine Factory” (Nederlandsche Cocaïne Fabriek – NCF.) By 1910, the NCF was allegedly the world’s largest cocaine producer, churning out over 1.5 tons of product per year, wrote Karch. Supply only increased as private companies entered the market.
World War I boosted demand for the drug. The British and German militaries liberally supplied troops with cocaine in the trenches even as global shipping lanes were severed. The Netherlands’ neutral status and its Amsterdam factory meant it immediately gained a monopoly, selling to both sides and increasing annual production from 20 to 30 tons, wrote Robert Stephens in “The Oxford Handbook of Global Drug History.”
Yet, by 1930, the Dutch drug monopoly was waning. The League of Nations, a forerunner to the United Nations, had turned against coca and cocaine after the war while in parallel Japan’s cocaine trade was in ascendance. The Netherlands’ coca cultivation would collapse for good during the Second World War, after Japan’s invasion of Indonesia.
Japan’s Cocaine Generals
Initially, Japan sourced its coca from different places. Some processors began purchasing coca from Java and Peru. Then in 1917, a Japanese pharmacy company, Hoshi Pharmaceuticals, bought a large 225 square-mile plot in Peru’s Upper Huallaga Valley. They cultivated various tropical plants, including coca, which they brought back to Japan.
“They started planting coca in Taiwan and a bit in Okinawa, creating their own self-sufficient cocaine industry" in the 1930s, said Gootenberg.
Soon, Japanese pharmaceutical companies accounted for almost a quarter of global production at the time, while systematically underreporting coca yields and cocaine output, according to Karch. Japan’s armed forces – along with certain approved smugglers – moved tons of surplus to Asia’s recreational consumers, generating fat profits that financed the expansionist war effort.
While the scale of Japan’s crimes meant drug trafficking was not a major priority after the Second World War, the Allies’ War Crimes Tribunal did indict two government officials and one general heavily involved in the drug trade. As Karch puts it, they had the “rare and dubious honor of being the first drug dealers ever tried and found guilty of crimes against humanity.”
They were not the last leaders to be so accused. Top military leaders were accused of cocaine trafficking in Chile in the 1970s, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Panama in the 1980s, and Suriname in the 1990s. Today, the same is true of Venezuela, where the so-called Cartel of the Suns (Cartel de los Soles) is allegedly run by military officers who regulate the country’s cocaine trade.
Post-World War II: Enter the Drug War
Initially, the US-led war on cocaine was spectacularly successful. American troops burnt Japanese coca plantations across Southeast Asia and, with global medical use decreasing since the 1920s, prepared to push through a global ban.
As neither Indonesian nor Taiwanese coca farmers had started to consume coca during the decades of cultivation, there were few obstacles to complete eradication, according to Gootenberg. Several nations had also made the drug or drug imports illegal, encouraging coca growers and cocaine makers to disinvest.
By 1950, the United Nations put the medical need for cocaine below two tons, Gootenberg wrote in "Andean Cocaine." In 1961, the prohibition of cocaine and other drugs was further consolidated in the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs.
Image Part of 1961 UN convention prohibiting production, manufacturing, trafficking and possession of a variety of drugs including cocaine.
With the signing of this convention, cocaine became an illicit drug. It entered a new phase as an illegal commodity that would make Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia the holy trinity of cocaine. Bloodshed would follow.