The House That Cocaine Built

Jan 14, 2014 at 9:58 AM ET

Cocaine exports account for roughly 2.5 percent of Colombia’s GDP. That’s the equivalent of the mining industry’s share of the American economy. Exports of the drug are down—but it’s still an $8-billion-per-year business for Colombian traffickers. That’s plenty of incentive to keep production going no matter how hard the government cracks down.

Over the last decade, America has given billions to the Colombian military to fight the narco-traffickers. In some ways it looks like the U.S. is getting bang for its bucks—Colombian authorities destroyed 2,356 labs in 2012, a serious dent in Colombia’s cocaine industry. But producers and traffickers of the drug are finding more creative ways to keep this lucrative business thriving. It’s like a never-ending game of whack-a-mole: Just when authorities think they’ve got the cartels on the run, their methods evolve and adapt.

As a British journalist living in the region, our reporter Toby Muse was curious about the current “state of the art” for Colombia’s processors, traffickers and dealers. What are the latest tricks to outsmarting the authorities? He made a few calls and obtained rare and potentially dangerous access to a processing laboratory. It’s not in the jungle as you might expect, but in an urban center of a Colombian city, which we agreed not to name. It turns out that the latest trend in Colombia’s cocaine trade is moving processing out of the huge plants in the jungle to small, mobile and disposable urban labs. In this new, decentralized world of cocaine production, two men with some buckets, a handful of microwave ovens and only the most basic knowledge of chemistry can take naturally growing coca leaves and turn them into 100 percent pure cocaine powder. And here’s the craziest part…they show us how they do it.