It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Colombia is the world’s biggest producer of cocaine, providing around 80 percent of the whole planet’s supply. In true entrepreneurial spirit, mum and pop coke shops, or “kitchens”, pepper the countryside, churning out 345 tons of the white stuff last year alone. As a commercially-minded fellow who understands the pitfalls of a consumer-driven culture and the importance of production, I decided to spend a day as an apprentice with a cook in the Colombian village of San Agustin.
Although San Agustin is only 200 miles from where I was staying in Ecuador, getting there took me two full days. As is the norm in South America, my journey was coloured with confusion and mishaps, including rain, mudslides, three-hour immigration lines, lack of tickets, unpaved mountain roads, and chicken buses with no suspension that came very close to cracking my tailbone.
When I arrived at my destination, however, all of those inconveniences seemed trivial. I was about to make some artisanal blow.
Some of the wildlife on Pedro's property.
The proprietor of the cocaine factory’s name was Pedro. He greeted me warmly on a portion of his property that served as a coffee farm, and told me our class would last about two hours.
After a perfunctory glance at Pedro’s coffee field, I was led up to his ramshackle house, and into his cocina.
A heap of fresh green leaves sat atop a canvas bag on the table. They were so fresh that the fields they were picked from must have been very close. Not wasting any time, Pedro put a razor sharp machete in my hand and told me to start chopping.
Over vigorous hacking, Pedro’s story was revealed. He had learned his trade during eight years of service in a cocaine kitchen – a kitchen once visited by Pablo Escobar himself during a casual pickup of 70 kilos of pure cocaine, fresh off Pedro’s production line.
After the leaves were sufficiently minced, I was told it was time to add a binding agent. If he had asked me to guess what this agent would be, I would have said an egg, or something equally benign. I would have been wrong. Pedro pulled out a bag of cement, sprinkled it all over our wonderfully chopped leaves, and began to knead the dough by hand.
Next up was ammonia. Pedro found it particularly amusing when he shoved the bowl in my face and waited for me to breathe in. It felt like someone had spilled a giant bottle of smelling salts inside my brain.
After my heart restarted, Pedro explained that in the good old days they used to do this whole process with water. Unfortunately, the organic cocaine market never took off because the leaves need to soak in water for 15 days, which is far too long. The producers looked to expedite the process, and found that gasoline could be substituted, cutting down the waiting time substantially. With a flourish, Pedro dumped a whole bottle of super unleaded into the mix.
After waiting for the gasoline to work its magic, we added a bunch of hydrochloric acid and sodium bicarbonate. The acid, serves as an extractor, bringing out the cocaine hydrochloride as a solid, and the sodium bicarbonate increases the pH. After another short break we peeled back the frilly pillowcase Pedro had used to cover the mixing bowl to find little white rocks magically formed in the stinking liquid.
He fished them out and gave them a quick rinse, plopped them into some foil and held them by a 60-watt bulb to help the last of the toxic juice evaporate.
Finally, Pedro whipped out his Swiss Army Knife and began expertly smoothing and chopping his creation into its final, pearly white, 100 percent pure state.
With the bouquet complete, I assumed the somber poise of a Parisian perfumer and sniffed my creation. Bobcat Goldthwait’s line from Blow captured the moment perfectly: “I can’t feel my face… I mean, I can touch it, but I can’t feel it inside…”