A rare look inside a Colombian coca farm and cocaine lab, via TikTok

Hundreds of videos posted on TikTok by young Colombians document cocaine being produced in the South American country, from the fields where coca grows to the factories where the leaves are turned into the drug. Colombia is the world’s largest producer of coca and cocaine. One of those TikTokers told Jowharmonitors that many locals depend on coca production to make a living, but that the sector remains under the control of illegal drug traffickers.

Two-thirds of coca plantations worldwide are found in Colombia, according to the United Nations — far ahead of the next two countries on the list, Peru and Bolivia. In 2020, an estimated 143,000 hectares of Colombian land were covered with coca fields.

This image shows the density of coca plantations in Colombia in 2019. There are about 82% of them in five provinces: Norte de Santander (bordering Venezuela), Nariño, Putumayo (bordering Ecuador), Cauca and Antioquia. © UNODC and Colombia Coca leaves play an important role in Andean culture, mainly due to its powerful stimulant properties. But Colombia is also the world’s leading producer of cocaine, an addictive drug made from these leaves. According to the United Nations, 1,228 tons of cocaine were produced in the country in 2020, most of which was sent to North America or Europe.

Coca and cocaine production is prohibited in the country, but this does not prevent many young Colombians from posting videos on TikTok showing their work in this sector. Some of these videos have garnered thousands of views. We have shared a number of such videos in this article, but we have deleted the names of the TikTok accounts you have shared to protect the safety of these individuals.

Most of these videos show sunny coca fields and are often recorded with catchy music. In the fields you can sometimes see “raspachines” – the local name given to workers who collect coca leaves.

In one of these videos, the Raspachin explains how to wrap his hands to protect him before collecting the coca leaves.

Several videos also show Raspachi lifting giant sacks filled with coca leaves.

“A lot of people make their living from producing coca in Putumayo.” Joanne (not his real name) is a young TikTok user. He stopped going to school at about the age of thirteen, and a few years earlier, he began growing coca in Putumayo (a region on the border with Ecuador), mainly for financial reasons.

I have a small plot of land, one hectare, and I have started to grow a kind of coca called “orejona blanca” there, but there are also many others.

On an area of ​​​​a hectare, you can collect 220 robins [Editor’s note: 2,750 kilogrammes] of papers every three months. The price of arubi is 32,000 pesos [Editor’s note: €7]So I can get seven million pesos every three months [€1,585]. But with all the expenses related to production, I ended up making only about 1.3 million pesos [€294] every three months. I have to, for example, buy insecticides, and pay the workers who help me with the harvest.

So I supplement this income by working on larger plots of land that belong to people I know. In those lands, we grow coca, harvest the leaves and then process them in the laboratory [Editor’s note: These labs are secret because the coca is being processed into cocaine.]

In laboratories, we crush coca leaves with a machine, and then pour lime and ammonium sulfate on them. Then we crush it all again.

Then we put the mixture of crushed leaves in a barrel containing gasoline. After an hour, we separate the leaves from the gasoline that goes down the tube.

Then we pour water and acid into gasoline and shake everything. This creates a liquid, oil-like acid. Then there are more steps that require other chemicals [Editor’s note: notably caustic soda] To create a “coca base”. That’s what we do in the lab where I work. And to get cocaine itself, there is another step [Editor’s note: including chlorohydric acid]…

When I work on other people’s land, they pay me between 40,000 and 80,000 pesos [Editor’s note: between nine and 18 euros] in a day. The rate depends on whether I am collecting papers or helping out in the lab.

“The advantage of working in illegal crops is that you can achieve your goals more quickly” Basically, between that and what I make from my land, I can earn between 1 million and 1.2 million pesos a month [Editor’s note: 226 and 271 euros]. If I had a legal business, I wouldn’t make more than 900,000 pesos [Editor’s note: 203 euros.In Colombia, the minimum salary is 253 euros per month, minus some social welfare contributions]. A few years ago, I was working in a store, but I wasn’t making much money. The advantage of working in illegal crops is that you can reach your goals more quickly, such as buying a motorcycle, building a house.

Personally, I started working in the Coca Company because there was a lot of work in this sector. In Putumayo, many people make their living from coca.

According to the United Nations, more than 200,000 families worked in the coca fields in Colombia between 2016 and 2018, or nearly 1 million people (2% of the population).

Obviously, it’s not farmers who make the most profits, but drug smuggler groups Alexandre Sanchez is a Putumayo-based community activist, and spokesperson for the National Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers Coordination (COCCAM):

There is not enough work in Putumayo and Colombia in general. Many young people who have finished their studies are left without work [Editor’s note: Officially, the unemployment rate was13.7%in 2021, but is higher for young people, at around21.5%]. So many people resort to illegal crop cultivation, especially during the harvest, for example, you need eight people to collect 200 arubi [Editor’s note: 2,500 kg]. It is a real source of jobs.

Moreover, the advantage of working in this sector is that you can achieve more without working hard. Having said that, it is clearly not the farmers who benefit most, but the drug smuggler groups who buy their goods.

The government is responsible for this situation because it is not making the necessary investments to respond to the needs of the people. [Editor’s note: For example, if farmers wantto grow anythingelse, the bad state of the roads makesit extremely difficult for them to go sell their wares elsewhere.]

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