How does the DEA dispose of seized drugs

The scientists were probably not a minute too early to take notice of a previously unknown species of bird: In 2006, they discovered a new hummingbird called Isabella snow pant in the remaining cloud forests of the Colombian Serrania del Pinche (Eriocnemis isabellae), who only lives there and is already existentially threatened. Because the cultivation of coca bushes - the basis for the drug cocaine - eats into its remaining habitat and annually destroys at least 500 hectares of original nature on site.

Clear cutting for cultivation

The small mountain range in the south of Colombia is only an example of the dimensions of the overexploitation of the species-rich tropical forests of South America, to which monotonous coca plantations are being sacrificed. This does not include the subsistence economy of the Indians in the Andean highlands of Peru or Bolivia, who chew coca leaves for spiritual reasons, but also to suppress hunger or exhaustion. They traditionally grow the crop in terraces that have been used for a long time, the area of ​​which in Bolivia, for example, decreased by more than half between 1992 and 2000, because the farmers switched to other products or had generally given up cultivation.

The situation is completely different with illegal cultivation for the international drug trade: In order to avoid state persecution, the drug mafia in Peru, Colombia and Bolivia is moving to remote and hitherto largely untouched regions - such as the remaining cloud forests or the Amazon basin. Areas that have been cleared of fire are planted with coca, but also with opium poppies and abandoned after two or three harvests because the soil has become sterile or the authorities have become aware of this. This scenario is then repeated elsewhere.

Over the past twenty years, at least 2.4 million hectares of forest are said to have been lost in the three main cultivation areas of South America: an area the size of El Salvador. According to a study by Maria Alvarez from the Natural History Museum in New York, the acreage for coca in Colombia grew by more than twenty percent annually between 1997 and 2002 [1], of which almost two thirds concerned freshly cleared woodland - with opium poppies this is said to be 85 percent of the new areas apply. More recent figures are difficult to come by because of the continued control measures taken by the Colombian government with the help of the United States, but for this very reason the cultivation is likely to have shifted even more to remote, wooded regions. It is estimated that about half of all deforestation in Colombia's mountains is due to drugs.

As Alvarez discovered during her investigations in Colombia, drug producers are also increasingly penetrating national parks and other protected areas. There the hurdles for the use of state control measures are higher, so that defoliant herbicides can be used less easily. For example, the biologist discovered 3,000 hectares of illegal cultivation areas in three protected areas in the southwestern Andes, which are home to 115 endangered bird species, 2,200 hectares in two other reserves in the northwest of the mountain range with sixty endangered species and even more than 9,000 hectares in five parks in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria and Serrania del Perija. It is therefore not surprising that animals such as the Isabella snow pant, its relative, the blue-bellied hummingbird (Eriocnemis mirabilis), or the Magdalena-Tinamu (Crypturellus saltuarius) are facing extinction for this reason.

In neighboring Peru, the trace of the destruction could even be easily detected in the satellite image, when large areas of the forest in the upper Huallaga Valley had to give way to cocaine and 200,000 hectares were converted accordingly within a few years. What was not without serious consequences for the environment of the region: Since no forest could absorb the tropical rain floods, the discharge peaks of the Huallaga increased significantly and landslides increased. In 1987 the region suffered the worst known floods and mudslides in Peru, which according to the United Nations Drug Administration (UNODC) killed numerous people.

However, deforestation for the drug market is not the only phenomenon in the Andean countries: a similar pattern was observed in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia, before these opium capital in the border area between Thailand, Laos and Myanmar was replaced by the up-and-coming production center of Afghanistan. Chainsaws are also used in marijuana cultivation in Mexico, where old pine forests have to give way to hemp in the Sierra Madre Occidental. And even US national parks do not offer a definitive guarantee that nature will not have to give way to drugs, as discovered by marijuana plantations in California's Sequoia National Park.

Toxic fight

One reason why the drug growers are fleeing to remote regions is the rigid state control policy, which is practiced in Colombia in particular, but also in Peru - using plant poisons and fire. Financed by the US under the "Plan Colombia" plan, planes sprayed more than 170,000 hectares of poppy and coca fields in 2006: an increase of a quarter compared to the previous year. Herbicides based on glyphosate are mainly used - known from the weed killer Roundup, but even more concentrated and therefore effective. All sprayed plants die within a few days.

The poison clouds not only trickle down onto the fields, but also hit the local population - even in neighboring Ecuador, although Colombian government authorities point out that the spraying operations strictly follow environmental guidelines and are regularly monitored. A study by César Paz y Miño from the Catholic University of Ecuador in Quito contradicts this, however [2]: The doctors analyzed the blood of 24 villagers near the border to Colombia who were accidentally sprayed in 2000 during the application of the poison. Compared to the values ​​of compatriots who lived eighty kilometers away and had no contact with the glyphosates, they had 600 to 800 percent more DNA damage that could later lead to cancer or miscarriages.

Immediately after their contamination, they suffered from nausea, diarrhea, headaches, visual disturbances, breathing difficulties and other health problems that the researchers attribute directly to the herbicide. After all, the glyphosate concentrations measured in the blood at that time were twenty times as high as indicated by the manufacturer as being tolerable. Furthermore, a report by Jim Oldham and Rachel Massey from the Institute for Science and Interdisciplinary Studies in Amherst lists a number of studies and witness reports [3] that suggest a close connection between the use of poison and cases of illness - for example from the Colombian province of Putumayo, in the After spraying campaigns in 2000 and 2001, many people with typical symptoms of illness were admitted to hospitals.

Observations which, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), should not actually occur: "Glyphosates are only slightly absorbed in the digestive tract and excreted largely unchanged by mammals (...). Oral or skin contact has only a very low level of toxicity (.. .). Toxicological studies have shown that glyphosates are less toxic than table salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine or even vitamin A (...). An audited specialist publication comes to the conclusion that under the current and expected future terms of use, Roundup does not Represents health risk to humans. "

However, there are obviously worlds between the realities of use in the US and Colombia, because in the South American country the herbicide is applied without warning the rural population beforehand. In addition, the poison clouds unintentionally hit fields with legal crops, livestock or rainforest - even within protected areas - which are also affected and die as a result. If glyphosate gets into water, it affects the quality of drinking water and is fatal for many of the organisms living in it, including fish and amphibians.

Corrosive production

In many cases, however, the health and ecological consequences cannot be traced back to the plant toxin, but rather originate in the cultivation of the drugs themselves. Because coca or poppy seed producers are also not stingy with the use of pesticides to protect their plants from insects or plants Protect competition. These include agents containing 2,4-D (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), which formed the basis of the defoliants Agent Purple and Agent White during the Vietnam War. At times they have even switched to spraying their fields with petroleum in order to camouflage them from satellite or aerial reconnaissance.

Chemicals are then used on a really massive scale to convert the raw material into the drug, which in the case of cocaine takes place in three production steps. To extract the coca paste from the coca leaves, they are mixed with water, large amounts of sulfuric acid and kerosene in the jungle laboratories of the cocaine mafia - there are thousands in Colombia alone: ​​the latter is used to separate the cocaine alkaloids which in turn are separated from the solution with soda. Kerosene and acid then usually end up in running waters or in the ground.

The coca paste, in turn, is again dissolved in sulfuric or hydrochloric acid, mixed with potassium permanganate and water and then filtered, whereby the filter residue is usually disposed of in the environment. On the other hand, the narcotics laboratory technicians add ammonia to the filtrate, which precipitates the raw cocaine, which is then treated with hydrochloride, acetone or ether to obtain the coveted white powder. As usual, production residues are discharged into rivers or the surrounding area. A study by the US drug agency DEA comes to the conclusion that at least three liters of concentrated sulfuric acid, ten kilograms of lime, 60 to 80 liters of kerosene, one liter of ammonia and 200 grams of potassium permanganate are used per kilogram of cocaine. And a study by the National Agricultural University of Peru in Lima projected that in South America in the mid-1990s 600 million liters of various chemicals were used annually for cocaine production: Even then, that meant two tons of toxic waste per hectare of coca - since then production continues to grow.

What this means for the environment is again illustrated by the Huallaga Valley, which is best studied in this regard: in 1986 - at the height of local coca cultivation - the narco mafia dumped 100 million liters of toxic production residues into the water system, so that the Huallaga and many others its tributaries were practically dead biologically. Surviving fish suffered from genetic defects and had crippled offspring, poisons and their breakdown products accumulated in the food chain. Overall, they exceeded the humanly acceptable maximum values ​​for certain chemicals set by the World Health Organization many times over.

Smuggling trails

Even on their way to the most important sales markets, the drugs still cause damage to nature and the environment, as the example of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona shows. The park is right on the border with Mexico and is known for its impressive columnar cacti. Because of its confusing terrain, it is also a popular gateway for drug smugglers who want to smuggle marijuana or cocaine into the United States. In the meantime, endless miles of wild roads and paths traverse the previously untouched desert landscape and in some places the garbage dumps of resting drug dealers - and illegal immigrants - pile up between the rocks and cacti.

The Big Bend and Padre Island Seashore national parks in Texas, as well as many other smaller protected areas that are used for criminal business in the absence of adequate surveillance, also report similar problems. In 2002, dealers in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument even shot dead park ranger Kris Eggle, who was patrolling here alone - a victim of drug addiction almost forgotten like the environment.

This article is contained in Spectrum - Die Woche, 06/30/2007