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I Spent a Week in the Colombian Jungle Harvesting Cocaine

To understand the drug that has shaped my country's history, I set my fear aside and got to work.


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Photos by Felipe Chica Jiménez

I meet Aura, a formidable and untrusting Afro-Colombian woman, at the side of the main road in a sweltering 86-degree heat. I am looking for a job. I want to spend a week harvesting coca in the forest, working as a raspachín, or “scraper.” 

“They will think you’re a spy,” she says. “And spies who seek to reveal the location of cocaine factories or guerrilla camps are treated horribly.” 

Her fears are well-founded. This region of the Pacific coastline in the Southern Colombian department of Nariño has been a historic battle ground for FARC and ELN rebel fighters, paramilitary groups and narcos, drug-traffickers each commanding their own private army. And ultimately, inevitably, it is the local, rural population of campesinos that end up paying the human cost of war. Between 1990 and the end of 2000, hundreds were raped, kidnapped and massacred here, to be buried in mass graves. Nariño became an open wound. 

Our conversation takes place in the middle of a “commercial zone,” a cluster of street vendors and small businesses on the road linking the department capital of Pasto to the port town of Tumaco. Settlements like this one have seen their population double in recent years due to the cocaine industry.  

Llorente is a small town located west of Nariño, near the sea. Houses are concentrated at the edge of the highway and surrounded by African palm tree plantations. The sun reflects blindingly off the asphalt. The pavements are saturated with junk for sale: cooking pans, diamante-encrusted clothing, entire tables of meat and dry fish, giving the place a distinct aroma. “Bush meat for sale” declares one cardboard sign near the remains of a skinned deer.  

It is 11 a.m. and music blasts from the bars and clubs. Inside, Afro-Colombians are dancing, their all-nighters showing clearly on their faces; indigenous men of the local Awa community are doubled over tables crammed with beer bottles. Outside, meanwhile, women and children from the same community sit waiting on the pavement. During my conversation with Aura, a group of mestizos come and go in flashy trucks and a constant whirlpool of motorcycles swirls around us.  

Aura is a mother of four and a coca leaf raspadora 

“Why are you doing this?” she says. 

“I didn’t choose it,” I say. “It was necessary.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“Like all Colombians, I grew up listening more to Pablo Escobar, the great drug lord, than to the founders of the Republic. I want to tell the true human face of that story.” 

Aura agrees to introduce me to her husband and family, all of whom are dedicated to coca paste production, and to let me stay there until I can get a job. We drive for thirty minutes in a dilapidated-looking car to the area known as Bajo Mira, an extensive territory on the banks of the majestic River Mira, home to various small settlements. Here every family has lost somebody, either “disappeared or violently killed,” says Aura. However, the ceasefire between the government and the FARC rebel group, which began about two years ago, seems to have improved public order somewhat. As I am learning, a deep mistrust of outsiders remains intact. 

Processing coca paste is hard work in which all members of the family participate. Here, children play with the harvested coca plants.

At Aura’s family home, I eat boiled plantain while the children stare at me, goggle-eyed. The house is a wooden structure, raised on stilts. Everything inside is made of wood. There are two rooms that sleep six people, and a small soot-filled kitchen where I will sleep with the children. On a wooden porch, the family dries cocoa seeds that they sometimes sell in Tumaco. Recently, following the last big oil spillage into the river at the end of 2015, they built their own pool for clean drinking water. The plants that line the banks of the River Mira are completely stained with petrol, and the current carries black crude oil downstream. 

The week passes slowly until the arrival of a soaking wet dog announces the return of Léder, Aura’s husband, from the forest. The children jump about him, bombarding him with questions, as he ties up the horse. He enters the house, filling the room with the stench of gasoline. Aura serves coffee and bread, filling Léder in on my arrival as we wait for the lentils to finish cooking. He greets me by name, removes his swamp-filled boots, takes a bath, and retires to the hammock in the kitchen, where he watches me in silence.   

Léder and Aura are an unlikely couple. Léder’s strong indigenous features speak of his roots in the Amazonian region of Putomayo. Aura, an afrodescendiente, grew up on the banks of the river, and speaks as loudly as if she were trying to talk to someone on the far bank. Her husband speaks in a whisper. Long before becoming the owner of his own coca paste laboratory, Léder learnt the tricks of the trade in Bajo Putomayo, during the time when paramilitaries would leave a handful of dead bodies daily at the side of the road. He arrived at the Pacific Coast twenty years ago with nothing, fleeing war. The one thing he knew how to do well was scrape coca, and so was soon employed as a raspachín. 

The family has been in business for three years now, sowing their own coca plants in these wastelands, cultivating the crops I was hoping to get to see, with Léder’s consent. And, like so many other campesino families, whether they have their own crops or buy the leaves loose, they have taken the risk of installing their own homemade processing lab. The real money lies in not only growing and harvesting the plant, but preparing paste from the leaves.  

The biggest fear is always being caught: the army is omnipresent, circling the area by both air and land. Since the United States launched their “Plan Colombia” initiative in the late ’90s, thousands of raspachines and paste cookers have been jailed, and hundreds of thousands of hectares of crops (both illicit and legitimate) have been destroyed by Glyphosate. In this game, the risks are as high as the gains. 

More than 60,000 peasant families make a living processing coca plants.

Léder fell in love with Aura 20 years ago at a village party, and they have four children whose physiques are African but whose features are Amazonian. After dinner, Léder falls asleep in the hammock, to wake rested and animated the next morning. As usual, he rises early to feed the chickens and inspect the cocoa beans. At nine o’clock, men arrive to claim their wages for the previous week’s work harvesting. For harvested coca, Léder pays 6,000 pesos (about two dollars) for each 25-pound unit. Each man knows exactly how much he has harvested but awaits Léder’s confirmation. The boss takes out a small notebook, smeared with mud and gasoline. “R”: 16 arrobas, “Trompón”: 12, “Puerco”: 13, etc. 

A crop, or tajo, can be harvested every two or three months. Léder has three tajos, allowing for a cyclical regrowth of two crops whilst the third is being harvested. In this way, coca paste can be prepared every two weeks.  

These lands, now filled with plantations, were once virgin forest. Although always inhabited by various small Indigenous communities, the area was most marked by the arrival of descendants of Africans brought over and enslaved by the Spanish conquerors. Once escaped or freed, the Afro-descendants sought protection in jungle areas like Nariño, where they settled, deforesting hundreds of hectares and forming their own community councils.  

This was the beginning of a long struggle for civil rights that would eventually result in the landmark creation of Law 70 in 1993, to guarantee and protect Afro-Colombian identity and liberties. However, this fight is another sad example of a social movement that the FARC rebel group took advantage of, seeking to increase support and legitimize themselves by adopting existing causes. The manipulated leaders of the movement were subsequently, and wrongly, implicated as FARC sympathizers and assassinated by paramilitary groups.  

After three days, Léder agrees to take me to his laboratory. At four a.m., six of us set off into the rain and endless palm tree plantations, Léder on horseback and us, his entourage of scrapers, on foot. We trudge quickly and silently between swampy trenches and small streams that, despite being deep in the forest, emit a nostril-burning odor. Here, the insects are on another level. The forest teems with life, almost a living, breathing organism in itself. 

By six in the morning, we arrive at the tajo, hidden in the forest. The other scrapers wrap lengths of cloth between their index finger and thumb. Each man positions himself at the head of a line of at least 20 coca plants and, holding the first plant still between his feet, pulls the leaves from the stem upwards. As they work, murmured conversations are heard between the furrows. The harvest is collected in huge hessian cloths full of leaves that each worker drags with him through the crops.  

My inexperience is clear. Without protection, my fingers blister instantly. By ten o’clock, I have scraped only six plants, while the others are finishing their first line and preparing for the second, packing their yield into sacks. It is monotonous work. Exposed to the sun and plagued by thousands of bugs, each scraper finds their rhythm. Some manage to de-leaf a plant in less than three minutes.  

From time to time, a weed wacker interrupts the silence. When midday arrives, everyone seeks shade under a banana tree to eat and talk. “R” wants to buy a motorbike with his wages. “Puerco,” a defiant break-up song playing from the mobile phone he has tied to his arm, only wants to go to the “Chongo,” a well-known brothel near Tumaco. Aura says that if the army doesn’t fumigate their crops with Glyphosate this year, she and her husband will finish building their house with proper materials.  

The sound of the weed wacker comes from the laboratory about two hundred meters away. Camouflaged by the remaining trees, dripping in thick vines, the lab is little more than a plastic shack. Surrounding the makeshift building are over 500 litres of gasoline in plastic drums that, at night, must be hidden to avoid robbery and the eyes of the military. The discovery of even one gasoline bottle would mean a grenade dropped from a plane and the end of everything. 

Acids and other hazardous chemicals are used in large quantities to transform coca leaf into the final product.

After lunch, the raspachines carry their immense sacks of harvested coca leaves into the forest, where Léder and his notebook await. At the laboratory, Léder’s eldest son hooks the sacks onto a scale tied to a tree trunk. “Puerco,” with 74 kilos, harvested the most. He celebrates, pouting and blowing air kisses, as we all look on with sun-stroked faces.  

I watch, my hands destroyed, my skin covered in jungle boils. For the next four days, I try to keep up with the other raspachines, but in the end, I cannot harvest more than 20 kilos. The thick air and intense exhaustion are nothing compared to the anxiety knowing that I am in the middle of a battleground. Every time I pick up my camera, I feel a spike of fear, and pray that some armed group doesn’t choose this moment to pass through and ask why I’m taking pictures. 

After four days’ grind, not one single plant remains to scrape. On the fourth day, Léder pays his men and they return to their homes. Some head to other plantations to continue scraping; others go down to Llorente to spend their wages or pay their debts. Léder, Aura, their children and I remain, confined to the laboratory, preparing to make coca paste. Aura cooks up an insipid dish of rice with river water that we mix with cheap tuna – the typical meal in this line of work – and Léder works late carrying up gasoline from the road. 

The next day, everything is ready. The floor of the shack is strewn with coca leaves sheltering from the rain: a mountain of pale greenness in which the children play, making angels and burying themselves. The harvest is chopped into a fine picadillo using the weed wacker, and then mixed with generous amounts of lime. Everybody chips in, the eldest son taking charge of the heavier tasks while Aura and the children help their father with the mixing. 

The picadillo is transferred into a huge 2,000-liter container, black and filthy, to which Léder carefully adds 240 liters of pure gasoline. The air fills with the stench. Half an hour later, Léder removes a plank of wood that was blocking a hole at the back of the enormous container. A beautiful, emerald green liquid spills out into a metal can that acts as a channel into another, smaller container. “Here we go,” says our satisfied plantation owner. 

The 240 liters of gasoline, with extract of coca, are carefully collected in their totality by the eldest son. A solution of sulphuric acid and water is stirred in, turning the liquid a yellowish color. As it dissolves into the water, the gasoline separates. A cross-section of the containers would reveal a three-tiered desert with a dark green base, followed by a layer of whitish water, and another greenish layer of gasoline. The top layer is removed and left to settle with a caustic soda. This unwanted “dirty gasoline layer,” as Aura calls it, is thrown into the river. A few minutes later, a gum forms on the surface of the clear liquid, which is collected into a pot.  

Outside, the children play, and a helicopter circles overhead. Léder goes outside to take a look: it is a Sikorsky Arpía, a model built especially for the Colombian Armed Forces, often seen in these skies scouring the area for coca kitchens. The family, however, doesn’t pay it much attention. They return to the thick liquid, straining it through a muslin cloth into another containerThe muslin retains a white paste that looks like ground corn but smells like burnt caramel, and the end of the process is in sight. The paste is now heated over a wood fire and begins to excrete a black, unnatural-looking liquid. This is disposed of, leaving a sticky cream, which, as it cools, turns the color of a Cuban cigar. 

a closeup of a worker holding processed coca paste

Processed coca paste.

Here is the final product. Léder’s face glows with happiness through the exhaustion. One hectare of coca planted, 90 arrobas harvested, 1120 kilos of leaves, 200 liters of gasoline… The final result, at this stage, is two and a half kilos of produce.  

The average return of a harvest of this variety of coca paste in any roadside settlement is a maximum of 5,000,000 pesos (about $1,600), depending on the current price of the dollar and other local offers. This is the Chipará variety, which is currently in fashion. Other varieties have already disappeared completely off the market, such as Tingo, a Peruvian type that gave an even higher yield. Some varieties produce a whiter, higher quality paste, which pays better but the seeds are not easy to get.  

Léder knows them all well, having dealt with countless varieties of leaf: light, dark, thin, thick, bitter, large, small… He could surely write a manual about different coca plants and how to cultivate each one. Meanwhile, in our pan, an ochre-coloured gum is left behind. This is bazuco (a word derived from the Spanish for the “dirty base of coca,” base sucia de coca), a by-product of the process, something similar to crack. Aura laughs, “imagine how much this pan would be worth in the center of Bogotá.” 

The goods are ready; Léder’s work is done. Next, his produce will be entrusted to the employees of a local narcoto continue their journey to the crystallization kitchen. Here, a complicated process extracts the crystal, at this stage at least 90 percent pure coca. One such kitchen lies somewhere nearby. The clue is a small, white stream, whose pestilent waters carry downstream hundreds of liters of gasoline and other chemicals from the crystallization process. Just like in Léder’s lab, kitchen waste is thrown into the river or onto its banks; discarding it into the forest is too risky as the chemicals corrode the earth and dry up the vegetation, leaving the illicit installations exposed. 

Léder has no vices. He doesn’t drink beer and his wife’s cigarette smoking irritates him. For him, coca paste is nothing more than a product that sells better than yucca, plantain or cocoa. The 2.5 kilos of paste will produce at least two kilos of cocaine, which could be sold in the United States for over $50,000. When it’s ready, a squad of armed men will emerge from the kitchen, who will escort it to the Pasto-Tumaco highway or the River Mira, both corridors to the sea. From the port of Tumaco, it will be transported in small boats or specially-built submarines towards Guayaquil (in Ecuador), or Buenaventura, to follow the route up to Panama, Mexico, the U.S., and even Japan.  

Each route has specific links. “The best-organized narcos also own companies that export legal goods, to camouflage the illegal ones,” Aura explains, glad that her husband is not involved in the business at this level. She knows it rarely ends well. She witnessed first-hand the small-time narcos war that turned Tumaco into the deadliest town in Colombia.  

The silent head of the house doesn’t know much about what happens after he sells his product – maybe because, the moment it is sold, he is accosted with demands for roast chicken, toy tractors and other whims of his children. We finally leave the lab, and return to the house via a different path, a veritable biologist’s paradise. We arrive at a track. A passing tractor, pulling a trailer carrying 12 hundred-liter containers of gasoline, stops to offer us a ride.  

A man jumps down to ask Aura about me, an obvious outsider, before they let us up into the trailer, where a group of raspachines are sat on a pump, joking amongst themselves. Although Léder introduces me as a friend, they stare unblinkingly. In their eyes, the familiar fear and mistrust particular to this line of work.  

“Since the FARC stopped operating in these parts, it has filled up with mafia,” says Aura, quietly. 

Since they got involved in the coca paste business, Aura and Léder have had relatively few problems. They tell me this is because they are “legal” businesspeople, by which they mean that, unlike some paste producers, they don’t add salt to the final mixture to bulk it out. In time, those that do are inevitably discovered, and rarely survive. The same is done by the big buyers, who cut the cocaine with other substances like out-of-date medicines and laxatives, and then again by the smaller neighborhood buyers. Everybody wants to be a winner. In the end, the losers are the consumers and the environment. 

Léder and the other raspachines only know the small part they play in the business. Uneducated and living hand-to-mouth, they have only their own basic wants and needs in mind. Of the few million pesos earned from this sale, the family must save for gasoline for the next harvest (this includes police “taxes,” because it is impossible to transport 200 liters of gasoline without being seen); the scrapers’ wages; the transportation of supplies by horseback to the lab; and, with the rest, to live. In the end, this family is nothing more than a small and fragile link in the immense chain that continues to mark Colombia’s history.

Felipe Chica Jiménez studied environmental engineering, but journalism kidnapped his heart. He currently collaborates with magazines like Frontera D, Universo Centro and El Espectador.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published August 4, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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