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How Cocaine Is Made in Colombia With Bootleg Gasoline

bootleg gasoline of colombia

By NICHOLAS MURIUNGIPublished 3 months ago 2 min read
How Cocaine Is Made in Colombia With Bootleg Gasoline
Photo by Colin Davis on Unsplash

Hundreds of illegal oil refining labs are contributing to the cocaine trade in Colombia. A specialized police force is actively pursuing and dismantling these labs one by one.

The labs, operated by locals, involve the theft of crude oil from nearby pipelines, which is then transformed into low-quality gasoline. This substandard fuel serves as a crucial ingredient in the production of cocaine. Despite Colombia's long-standing War on Drugs, the country remains the top global producer of cocaine.

The government is now intensifying efforts to combat every stage of the cocaine production cycle, including cracking down on illegal oil refineries. So, why do locals engage in these perilous activities, and what challenges do Colombian police face when targeting these labs?

Jorge Moreno leads a team of nearly 40 officers who have traveled from Cali for a mission. They are accompanied by almost 200 soldiers from the Colombian armed forces, assembling at the Oriente police station near the coastal city of Tumaco. They arm themselves, anticipating potential encounters with criminal gangs and drug cartels. [Music] [Applause]

At the crack of dawn, they venture into the jungle, stopping by the Transandino oil pipeline, most of which is above ground, making it susceptible to drilling holes for crude oil theft. EcoPetrol, a government-majority-owned company, manages the pipeline, transporting crude from the Orito oil field to Tumaco, with a significant portion exported to the U.S. However, theft amounts to over 270,000 barrels annually, resulting in losses exceeding $2 billion.

Although no holes are found during this stretch, the team moves deeper into the jungle, guided by months of research, planning, and a National Police app indicating drops in pipeline pressure, a sign of tapping. Following hoses, they confirm they are on the right track.

After more than two hours of walking, they reach an abandoned refinery. Despite workers likely being tipped off, a pool of refined gasoline, locally known as "patigrillo," remains. The environmental impact is severe, with toxic gases harming the forest floor and nearby ecosystems. Given the jungle's density, bringing in helicopters to remove the oil is impractical. The only solution is to destroy the refinery and the remaining patigrillo by detonation, despite the ensuing pollution.

Last year, Moreno's team destroyed 60 labs in a single mission, but with hundreds still scattered across the jungle, the fight against illegal refineries continues.

Trabel, a former worker in an illegal refinery in Tumaco, shares his experience. One day, the facility caught fire, severely burning his face and hands, leading to a two-month coma and a face transplant. He now wears a mask, and his wife left him due to his inability to make a living.

Workers lack safety protocols in these labs, utilizing a risky process involving a 300-gallon tank and fire to produce low-quality gasoline or patigrillo. Demand is high, especially from coca farmers, who use it to make a paste, the base for cocaine.

Despite efforts by the Colombian government, such as a crop substitution program introduced in 2016, coca farming remains a major source of income for many families. The illegal status of coca farming poses challenges to alternative crop programs, leaving thousands reliant on its cultivation.

Colombia's cocaine production mainly targets the U.S., where overdose-related deaths are high. The government, aided by the U.S., actively combats drug labs, but the process is challenging. Destroying distilleries is not a permanent solution, as workers quickly set up new ones. Moreno acknowledges the environmental impact but emphasizes the difficulty in addressing the problem effectively.


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