A string of seizures across Latin America have revealed how “tusi,” a pink synthetic drug powder, is expanding into new countries and increasing its share of the region’s flourishing synthetic drug markets.
In June, tusi consumption was reportedly booming in the nightclubs of Barquisimeto, a city in western Venezuela, while tusi refining laboratories were discovered in Peru and Panama. Uruguay’s government and Costa Rica’s press railed against the drug’s spread just as police in Paraguay made one of their first ever domestic interdictions.
However, for such a widespread substance there was considerable disagreement about what it actually was. In Panama, a police spokesman said tusi was ketamine cut with the pharmaceutical opioid tramadol. In Venezuela, media claimed it was LSD with a dash of MDMA. In Uruguay, the Interior Minister suggested it was a mixture of cocaine, methamphetamine, and LSD.
In a way, they were all wrong. Tusi, also known as “tusibi” or “pink cocaine,” is not a single substance, nor is it even just a drug cocktail: tusi is a narcotic name brand, said an expert interviewed by InSight Crime. It is the “Coca-Cola” of drugs – an instantly recognizable product of mass merchandizing.
Below, InSight Crime tracks the four major stages of the tusi craze in Latin America.
Medellin, Colombia: Birthplace of Tusi
It began as a phonetic translation. 2C-B was first synthesized by a US chemist in the 1970s, as part of a broader group of hallucinogenic phenethylamines called the 2C family, which includes 2C-C and 2C-D.
These designer drugs created both the euphoria of MDMA and the visual distortions of LSD. Most of them were banned in the 1990s and subsequently fell into obscurity, but 2C-B survived, carving out a niche for itself in European discos.
In the late 2000s, it reached Colombia’s nightclubs, courtesy of rich youngsters in Medellin who had small quantities smuggled from Europe by post, according to an article by El Colombiano. They sold it within their upper-class social circles, mostly as the whitish powder or small pill that 2C-B still comes as today.
It quickly began cultivating attention as an “elite drug,” a synthetic European import far more expensive than the locally produced cocaine that Colombia’s middle and working classes were increasingly using.
This shift was accelerated by a feat of marketing genius. 2C-B powder can look unappealing and is notoriously painful to snort, so some early vendor began mixing their powder with an aromatic pink food coloring.
Not only did it make consumption much more pleasant, but the bright pink color created a striking new visual aesthetic, according to Julián Andrés Quintero, investigative sociologist at Social Technical Action, a Colombian drug policy NGO.
“The food coloring [was important]: this is what gives it its color and smell. [It became] an attractive substance,” he told InSight Crime.
The pink look quickly caught on, causing demand to rapidly increase. According to Julián Quintero, police and media only facilitated this growth when a police officer told an unquestioning journalist about a “pink cocaine” seizure, leading to a sensationalist misnomer that gave the substance even further allure.
Yet, while demand was high, supply remained far too low: even in Europe 2C-B was a niche drug and only a tiny portion of that was reaching South America.
So, Colombian vendors began cutting it heavily, bulking their powder with caffeine and synthetic drugs like MDMA and ketamine, which though also European imports were cheaper and more available.
The chemical combinations differed, but the format was normally the same: a nice-smelling pink powder that contained at least a stimulant (“an upper”) and a depressant (“a downer”). Worldwide, the general term for this is a “speedball.”
Soon enough, the “tusibi” or “tusi” fueling Medellin’s nightlife contained almost no actual 2C-B. To this day, the purity has never recovered, and 2C-B is extremely rare in Latin America, according to a 2021 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC.)
Expansion Across Colombia
In 2010, a low-level criminal named alias “Alejo” arrived in Bogota. Alejo was one of the first tusi “refiners,” those retailers who dyed 2C-B pink and drowned it with other synthetics in artisanal drug kitchens.
According to a 2012 article by Revista Semana, Alejo started out refining and selling tusi in Medellin, but ran afoul of the city’s hegemonic crime group, the Oficina de Envigado. Forced to flee for his life, he moved to Cali. Once again though, local gangsters sent him packing.
He learnt his lesson the third time, moving to Bogota with the protection of a crime boss named alias “Máquina.” Tusi’s reputation had by now reached the Colombian capital and Alejo was soon dealing five to eight kilograms a week. Tailored towards high-income customers, it wholesaled for up to $43,000 per kilogram, about 33 times more than the equivalent $1300 brick of cocaine.
By 2012, Colombian media were reporting how tusi was now the status drug of the Bogota elite, giving it a healthy publicity boost in the process. Revista Semana, Colombia’s largest weekly magazine, claimed it was a favorite of “models, beauty queens, actors and politicians.”
“It became an object of desire, an aspirational object,” said Julián Quintero. “People believed that by consuming this substance they could belong or appear to belong to elite circles.”
Business was booming for Alejo. But in March 2012, Máquina was arrested and, having lost his criminal protector, Alejo was kidnapped by the Urdinolas, a notorious Cali crime family. They allegedly forced him to reveal his formula and expelled him from the trade for good.
This did nothing to reduce local tusi production. On the contrary, it was growing so much that in 2013, Colombia’s police director responded to the seizure of a few thousand alleged 2C-B capsules by claiming the drug was replacing cocaine.
The following year, authorities in the city of Pereira arrested a leading member of the Machos crime group, a partner of the Urabeños. Having taken over the country’s growing tusi trade from a captured Urdinola boss, investigators believed he was Colombia’s largest distributor of synthetic drugs. Machos-refined tusi was now selling in Bogota, Medellin and Cali, as well as Cartagena and Barranquilla.
But violent competition was never far away. In October 2014, a struggle for control over tusi sales in Cali led to an internal purge in the Urabeños crime group that murdered eight people. One faction had allegedly tried to break away and establish an independent tusi trafficking network, cutting out the other faction.
From Colombia to the World
By 2015, the genie was out of the bottle. That April, US and Colombian authorities arrested 18 members of a synthetic drug trafficking group named “Los Pri,” that used air shipments to traffic tusi to five foreign countries: the US, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Chile.
At first, tusi was a new Colombian drug export. Then, it was the Colombian refiners who became the export, teaching dealers across Latin America how to make their cocktail versions, said Julián Quintero.
These early adopters taught others, until a gamechanging realization hit home: that as long as it was pink and powdered, any random combination of locally available drugs could be turned into “tusi.” After all, what was being sold was as much an idea as an experience, Julián Quintero told InSight Crime.
“When it began to be revealed that the substance did not really have 2C-B in it, many people began to make it, to “cook” it as they say,” Julián Quintero told InSight Crime.
In 2016, Spain detained nine people, including several Colombians, for operating two refining laboratories in the greater Madrid region. It appeared the drug was being made with ketamine, cocaine and methamphetamine.
A statement by a Colombian drug testing project, Échele Cabeza, warned that until this point tusi mostly contained ketamine, MDMA and amphetamine. By around 2017 though, a list of increasingly dangerous new psychoactive substances (NPS) began to appear in tusi recipes.
These synthetics now appear regularly: cathinones, opioids, benzodiazepines, and a host of other high-risk substances, said Julián Quintero. In 2021, a gang was even dismantled that put fentanyl into their tusi.
According to Échele Cabeza, dealers convinced consumers that all this was normal, that this “2C-B” drug they were increasingly hearing about in both reggaeton and guaracha music and the mass media was “not a single molecule, but a mixture of different substances.”
In fact, it became accepted that tusi refiners would add an “individual touch” to their product, including various opioids and the psychedelic mescaline, reported France24 in May 2022.
Consumers in turn began to ask their dealers for tusi tailored to their personal preferences, notes Quintero. “[Today] people themselves commission the substance. They phone the supplier and say, ‘look, I want a more downer tusi,’ or one that is more stimulating or even a psychedelic one,” he told InSight Crime.
The Post-Millennial Drug
Since 2017, tusi has therefore democratized, going from the fanciest nightclubs to the toughest streets. In 2012, tusi retailed at $71 per gram; as of mid-2022, it sells in Colombia for under $10 per gram, according to Julián Quintero.
This loss of exclusivity has put off some of the drug’s richer users but has been more than compensated by the growth in middle- and working-class consumers, Quintero told InSight Crime.
As of mid-2022, besides Colombia, tusi is popular in the Southern Cone countries of Chile, Argentina and Uruguay, as well as Spain and Panama. InSight Crime open source research has also identified credible media reports of tusi in Mexico, Costa Rica, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia and Paraguay.
The brand has somewhat evolved with the appearance of tusi in other colours, including green and yellow. However, its consumption in Colombia – and possibly across the region – is thought to still be increasing.
“It’s a very millennial drug, very post-millenial as well,” Julián Quintero told InSight Crime. “I consider it the great ‘merchandising’ product of drugs in Colombia and [maybe even] in Latin America and the world.”