Prepared coca leaves and solid sulfuric acid. Photos by the author.
"If you want, I'll take a picture of you with a line this long," the Colombian Walter White tells me, holding his hands about a foot apart as I was discussing what his "special tour" would entail. "As long as you don't take pictures of our faces."
At first, all he spoke about were more standard environmental tours offered through his hostel, such as six-hour horse rides for $10 and all-day jeep tours for $15. But then I pointed to an entry in the composition book that counts as his hostel's registry and asked what the "special tour" is.
"You're not police, are you?" he asks.
"I used to work for Pablo Escobar," he says. "As a chemist."
I'd be going on the tour that evening, it was decided. Seventy-five dollars for a coke cooking class and three grams of the finished product.
Like the fictional Walter White, the Colombian version has a wife and a kid, and a comfortable home in small, quiet town in the southern part of the country. Like the fictional Walter White, his wife, so he claims, has no idea what he does for a living.
When discussing his "special tour," he talks in a hushed voice, putting his finger to his lips.
"Nothing to the cab driver," he says. "Nothing to my wife. If she asks, tell her you were interested in learning more about Colombian coffee."
The elderly gentleman, who we might as well call Walter, is not a great criminal. His business, after all, runs on word of mouth. I heard about the "special tour" at a hostel in Popayan, a town that's a grueling 6 hour, 150 kilometers drive down an unpaved, mud-strewn carretera from his place. Word is, he's got people spreading information about his tour in Salento, a backpacker-friendly town 10 hours north.
The finca's guard dog, Cati
Ostensibly, he runs a hostel out of his home, renting out beds with crappy pillows and worn mattresses for seven bucks a night to tourists passing through on their way to or from more interesting cities.
"Hot water available from 6 PM to 9 PM daily," a sign reads on the bathroom door of my dormitory. When I check in, the power is out. At 9 PM, the family goes to sleep, and you're either locked in or you're locked out.
"What if I want to take a shower at night," a girl in my dorm room asks him. "Could I get hot water then?"
"Nada es imposible," Walter tells her. "Todo es posible."
That's his motto. It even says so in a few entries of the worn composition book he drops on the table of reception as we check in. People from more than 50 countries have signed the guest book, he says. More than a handful of the entries written in English reference the special tour.
Like I said, Walter is not exactly a lawbreaker hiding in the shadows.
"The special tour is amazing, if you're into that kind of thing," a girl from England wrote.
Finding cocaine in Colombia is not a difficult or costly endeavor. The country, trying to clean up its image, has in recent years attempted to crack down on one of the two stimulants that have made it famous worldwide. Police regularly search sketchy-looking tourists in Cartagena and Medellin. Special agent teams use mortars and grenade launchers to fight traffickers in the jungle. Airplanes drop coca-killing chemicals that decimate the crop by the hectare. The navy seizes it by the ton.
None of it makes finding cocaine here any tougher. Supply has stayed roughly the same over the past few years.
"While the area used for coca leaf cultivation decreased in 14 of the 24 departments of Colombia, that trend did not offset increases in 6 other departments. In 4 departments, no major change was observed," reads a United Nations report from last year. "Overall, the picture, therefore, remained stable for the raw material used in the production of the illegal drug cocaine."
Outside discotecas in the major cities, tobacco and gum hawkers also sling blow. If you're paying ten bucks a gram, you're paying too much. Taxi drivers will offer it to you unprompted, as will drunk guys at bars who are trying to practice their English.
If Walter wanted to sell cocaine inside Colombia, he wouldn't have a very profitable business. Instead, he offers a rush you're not going to get from sliding 10,000 pesos to a dude on the corner. He teaches you how to make the stuff yourself.
I don't make a habit of hanging out with drug chemists, but I am confident that Walter does not look like your average cocaine cook. He's got a well-groomed mustache and a nice windbreaker jacket that bears the name of his hostel on it.
He speaks a slow, easy-to-understand Spanish that makes it clear he's constantly dealing with foreigners who generally smile and nod and ask if he can turn on the warm showers at night or if he can show them how to make cocaine. He's never in a rush. He's always positive. Anything is possible.
Later on the day of my arrival, I told him I was ready for the tour.
"The weather's bad," he said. "Tomorrow."
The weather was not bad, but when dealing with such things, a bit of flakiness is to be expected.
Walter's partner, who we might as well call Jesse, actually does look like a drug chemist.
His button down shirt has the top three buttons undone. He's got on a crusty old Quicksilver hat that doesn't completely cover his wild hair. He's got a toothy grin, speaks fast, colloquial Spanish. His right hand is deformed from spending 20 years cooking up coke in Santa Marta, a city along Colombia's Caribbean coast that was once dominated by drug cartels, but which was recently described by the New York Times as "a streetlamp-lighted refuge of romance."
Jesse used to make coke by the kilo there, with dozens of men working on a finca at any given time. Now, he says, that kind of operation only happens high in the mountains.
He looks like he hasn't slept for days, and that, I'll soon find out, is because he hasn't.
"[Walter] said you guys wanted to go to the finca last night, but I didn't feel like it," Jesse later told me. "We had a group of five yesterday afternoon. Two French guys, two girls. A Swiss girl. We made 10 grams. One of them did too much." He gestured to his heart. "We partied all night. I haven't slept at all."
At the last minute, I realize Walter will not be coming with us. The other wannabe coke chemists and I hop in a taxi with this new man.
"To the finca," he says. It is 8 AM.
Cocaine roasing on an open fire
The finca is shockingly close to the town. Hang a left down a dirt road near a cow pasture, cruise up a hill and through a small forest, and you're there. The ride takes less than five minutes. A neighbor, who I later learned is paid off to keep quiet, is harvesting coffee. He takes the time to explain to us the difference between caturro, an old Colombian coffee variety, and tabi, a new, taller version that makes it so laborers don't have to bend over to pick them up.
A minute later, we're talking about strains of a different plant.
Jesse gestures to six branches of coca leaves arranged on a cutting board laid on a concrete slab.
"These are called pajarito," he says. It's a small version of coca plant that farmers have taken to growing between coffee plants if they want to score some extra cash on the side. It's small and easy to hide amongst other plants, perfect for less rural areas. "In the mountains, we have larger ones, huge fincas. We don't grow pajarito there."
The finca's lone building consists of a concrete kitchen with a wood burning stove and a dirt floor. A covered light fixture is overhead. A separate—but open—division of the building has a hole of a toilet.
"Who wants to start cutting these?" Jesse asks.
As I watch one of the other tourists begin to finely chop the coca leaves, it occurs to me that cooking cocaine is not notably different from preparing a stir fry. The main difference, I think, is that you generally shy away from sprinkling battery acid into your stir fry.
Instead of tossing vegetables and some chicken into a bowl, you toss in a couple hundred chopped coca leaves, a tablespoon each of raw potassium, urea, and sulfuric acid, topped with a sprinkle of concrete--a binding agent. Jesse begins to stir them all together. Then he grabs a can of gasoline. He pours in about a quart. This will help speed up the extraction of the coca leaves' alkaloid, the active ingredient in cocaine.
He sticks his crippled right hand into the mixture, squeezing the leaves and wincing in pain. He is dipping his hands into a mixture of various caustic ingredients, after all. He then grabs a handful of the leaves out of the bowl and tosses them into the distance, scattering the evidence a bit as he goes along. They've served their purpose.
"If the police come, I'm always ready to go," he says.
I have a feeling that his escape plan doesn't include provisions for me and the other tourists.
At various points during this hour-long process, he calls to his assistant—a fresh-faced, quiet 20 year old who insists he's been doing this for years but looks like he should still be in middle school—asking him to look up the hill to see if there are any people coming. His cocaine-addicted German Shepherd guard dog, Cati, has perked up a couple different times.
At this moment, I realize that the punishment for manufacturing cocaine is likely larger than the one for possessing it (up to 1 gram is legal in Colombia). It's doubtful that the police would accept "journalist on assignment" as a legal defense. But even though the tours are run at least three times a week, neither one of the cooking duo has ever been caught. I hope today's not the day.
The cocaine is almost ready for cooking. Jesse pulls out a rag and places it over a tin cup, straining the rest of the mixture and separating out whatever's left of the leaves. He pours the tin cup mixture into a plastic quart bag. The low density of the gasoline makes it float to the top, leaving a slimy greenish liquid at the bottom. He takes a pine needle and pricks the bottom of the bag, allowing the liquid to flow back into the tin cup. He tosses the gasoline into some nearby bushes.
In the cocina, the baby-faced assistant has a fire going. A single metal pot sits on the stove. He pulls out a chalky substance—sodium bicarbonate—and tosses it into the pot. A few seconds later, it starts bubbling. He pours the boiling substance over the coca mixture. It sizzles. Then he pours that tin cup into a long metal cooking spoon. He holds the spoon over the fire, and it starts to bubble and evaporate. Along the edges of the spoon, a greenish reside is starting to form.
The finished cocaine, before it's whitened
"That's the cocaine," Jesse says. He passes the spoon to another one of the tourists. "Take a photo, show your friends." Unlike Stringer Bell, he's got no problem with people taking notes.
"You're a really good cook. I couldn't do it better myself," Jesse says.
It takes five minutes for the rest of the liquid to evaporate. We're left with dirt-like substance that's scraped into a smaller spoon. It does not look appetizing, and it's still not white.
"Watch this," he says. "Set a timer for three minutes."
The assistant slides a standard incandescent light bulb out of his pocket and screws it into the fixture, balancing on the backstop of a creaky wooden bench. He takes the spoon and places it on a platform under the light fixture. We wait. Three minutes later, the powder is bone white.
It is 9 AM. From leaf to powder in an hour.
He chops up a few lines. The tourists do them. Uniformly, their reactions are the same and they are positive.
"You're not going to find anything better than this," Jesse says. "Tell your friends there's nothing better than Colombian coffee."
Disclaimer: This article is for entertainment and informational purposes only. Do not attempt to recreate anything depicted in this article, including trying to make your own cocaine. That's totally illegal.