Paco: Drug War Blowback in Argentina

About two years ago, the global media discovered "paco," a cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine that was ravaging the impoverished neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. In explaining why paco had become so prevalent, most articles emphasized the widespread poverty that followed Argentina’s economic crisis beginning in 2001. But a NACLA investigation supported by the Samuel Chavkin Investigative Journalism Fund finds that the more important, if infrequently discussed, factor in the paco phenomenon is a shift in cocaine trafficking in the region—largely as a response to the U.S.-led War on Drugs.

Guy Taylor

Beginning in mid-2006, news reports in English began appearing about paco, a cheap, highly addictive form of cocaine ravaging the impoverished neighborhoods of Buenos Aires. By early 2008, at least eight major news outlets—including The Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, The Miami Herald, and The New York Times, as well as Al Jazeera, the BBC, and Deutsche Presse-Agentur—had covered the story. In February, Slate media critic Jack Shafer noted that the paco story had become a “journalistic staple.” Indeed, the narrative about paco offered by the news media varied little.

Most of the reporting from Buenos Aires barrios emphasized paco’s link to impoverishment in Argentina following the country’s 2001–02 economic meltdown. Official poverty among residents of Buenos Aires suburbs reached 61% in 2003, according to the Argentine National Institute of Statistics and Census. And in neighboring Montevideo, Uruguay, where cheap cocaine has also taken root, unemployment surged to more than 20%.

The media identified paco as pasta base (“base paste”), or cocaine sulfate, the form of the drug that both precedes its conversion into powder (cocaine hydrochloride) and is left over, in small quantities, when that process is completed. Selling for less than 50 cents per dose, the drug is said to have saturated the street-corner drug market. Between 2004 and 2006, paco consumption increased 200% in Buenos Aires, according to the Argentine government. United Nations and U.S. State Department narcotics reports cite similar figures, while some Argentine newspapers put the number even higher. About 70,000 Argentines between the ages of 16 and 26 have tried the drug in greater Buenos Aires, according to the Argentine Secretariat for Prevention of Drug Addiction and Control of Narco-trafficking (Sedronar).

When I visited Buenos Aires in the summer of 2007, the people I spoke to did connect paco to Argentina’s economic struggles—but also to the broader dynamics of the cocaine trade. The emergence of a generation of young men growing up in neighborhoods plagued by unprecedented levels of unemployment and social disarray gave dealers and traffickers the gift of a previously nonexistent marketplace, said Ricardo Nadra, an official at Sedronar. The economic crisis created “a great lack of everything, including drugs, and as a result drug traffickers quickly sought to broaden their market in response to a lack of cocaine.” He said dealers discovered that cheap, easy to get chemicals like mannitol and caffeine, mixed with a tiny bit of cocaine, could be sold to compensate for the shortage. In no time, what began as a makeshift market for this “cocaine trash” swiftly evolved into a sophisticated industrial system of producing paco to meet the demand for a cheap cocaine high.

While conditions in Argentina and Uruguay have improved markedly since the economic crisis, paco’s spread continues unabated. “There are still large sectors of the population living under the poverty line, and once a [drug] market is created, it’s very difficult to get rid of it,” said Tom Blickman, a researcher at the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute and co-author of a 2006 study called “Paco Under Scrutiny.” “Once it’s there, it doesn’t go away very easily, especially with something so addictive as paco.”

My visit to Villa 20, a Buenos Aires barrio on the outskirts of the city, confirmed the drug’s tenacity. People described starved-looking addicts, most of them young men, willing to sell everything and betray anyone to get high. And as a number of news reports mentioned, many addicts’ outraged mothers have organized local anti-paco organizations that advocate for better prevention programs and law enforcement. The electricity had gone out at the community center I went to, where former addicts and addicts’ relatives gather to share their stories and strategize. Since it was too dark to see inside, we stood outside on the sidewalk. A small crowd gathered around as a hardened-looking, teary-eyed woman, who asked to be identified only as Cristina, told her visitors about her 18-year-old paco-addicted son, who had stolen everything from her, “even my jewelry.”

As she spoke, young men on motorbikes roared onto the street every few minutes, discreetly handing packages to other young men milling about on the curb before loudly peeling away, leaving plumes of bluish exhaust in their wake. It was the only sign of economy I saw in Villa 20. Cristina paused for a moment as the growl of another motorbike drowned her out. When it passed, she said, “Here the problem is not the kids. It’s the dealers and the people who should take charge of the problem. The police know who’s selling, that’s the truth of the matter, and I don’t care what could happen to me for saying this.”

A former paco user, who asked to be identified only as Matías, told me paco suddenly appeared in his neighborhood in 2004, when Peruvian dealers began selling it. Describing his addiction as an isolating, alienating experience, Matías, 24, said once he was hooked, the addiction broke apart his most cherished relationships, even with his beloved younger brother, who steered clear of the drug. “I’m proud of him,” he said. “Often in my craziness, while I was using, I wanted a brother who would use with me.”

Matías was receiving treatment at Casa Joven de Flores, one of only two publicly funded clinics that provide outpatient care exclusively for young paco addicts. Ignacio O’Donnell, the clinic’s director, said paco is “much more addictive” than alcohol or heroin. “The effect lasts for only five to eight minutes, and it takes about 30 seconds to hit, so it’s a very big high and a very big crash,” he said. A lot of users, he said, are initially attracted to paco for it cheapness. But once they become addicted, they will smoke as many as 100 doses a day. “That’s the paradox,” he said. “People say it’s cheap, but it’s not cheap at all compared to how many doses users have to take in a day to feed their addiction.”

The paco-poverty association seems easy enough to establish—although there are many hidden middle-class users, who didn’t merit much attention in the mainstream coverage—but Milton Romani Gerner, Uruguay’s chief counter-narcotics minister, insisted there is more to the story. “I don’t want to commit the stupidity of looking for a direct connection between poverty and pasta base consumption,” he said, though he acknowledged that poverty and high unemployment have played their part. Gerner pointed instead to the cocaine industry itself and its flexibility in the face of counter-drug operations. The Transnational Institute’s report on paco comes to much the same conclusion, noting another crucial factor in the drug’s appearance: “a general transformation in the production, trade and trafficking of cocaine hydrochloride, and not merely the increase in poverty.”

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While the “paco phenomenon” may be a novelty for Argentina and Uruguay, it is well-known elsewhere in the region. Pasta base appeared in the Andes during the cocaine boom of the 1980s, where it was known by different names in different countries—
bazuco (Colombia), pitillo (Bolivia), kete (Peru), baserolo (Ecuador), mono (Chile). The epidemic was especially widespread in Colombia, and was indelibly linked to the wider international cocaine trade; that is, while most of the Colombian cocaine was produced for the lucrative export market, some of it stayed and underwent a degree of product differentiation, serving both the local middle- and upper-class markets, as well as the barrio poor in the form of cheap, heavily diluted pasta base.

The recent appearance and prevalence of paco in Argentina is, then, largely an indication of the country’s new status as a cocaine producer, as well as its continuing importance as a transshipment point for the European market. As Diego Álvarez, a program coordinator at Sedronar, told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur: “Where there is paco, there is also cocaine.” Thus, the key to understanding paco may be Argentina’s changing role within the international cocaine business as a result of the U.S.-funded, multibillion-dollar counter-drug program, Plan Colombia, implemented in 2000, on the cusp of Argentina’s meltdown. Nadra of Sedronar said that since Plan Colombia, it has become “much more economical and less dangerous for drug traffickers to bring the raw material, pasta base, directly to Argentina, where the [chemicals used to produce cocaine], while controlled, are legal.” He added: “Before, cocaine hydrochloride would pass from the producer countries into Argentina. Now what enters is the pasta base, which is much cheaper. In the past, Argentina was a transit country. Now it’s a country of transit, consumption, and production.”

According to Adam Isacson, director of the Washington-based Center for International Policy’s Colombia program, “The geography of cocaine production really hasn’t changed much since the mid-1990s—meaning which countries are growing the most coca—but the geography of cocaine marketing and transshipment and demand has changed.” International Colombian cocaine cartels that were broken up by increased law enforcement have been replaced by Mexican cartels to the north and Brazilian cartels to the south, he said, and “they have found new ways to market cocaine in the south.” The Transnational Institute’s Blickman adds that the past decade has seen “a change in global cocaine markets, in the sense that Europe is a growing market while North America is much more stable.”

European cocaine use has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels, the United­ Nations reported in 2006, with 3.5 million users who make up a quarter of the global market. An EU report the following year put the number at 4.5 million. As Mother Jones reported in March, U.S. cocaine prices increased by more than 40% in 2007, a predictable result of the U.S. dollar’s precipitous drop in value, which makes exporting the drug stateside far less lucrative an enterprise. Meanwhile, wholesale cocaine prices in Europe are roughly double those in the United States. Reflecting the importance of this European demand, South American traffickers have gone to great lengths to get their product to market. Deflected by the Mexican cartels in the north and heavy interdiction efforts in the Caribbean, the U.K. Guardian reported in March, traffickers now follow a transshipment route from Brazil, Colombia, or Venezuela to Europe via West African nations, especially Guinea-Bissau, which the United Nations has called “Africa’s first narco-state”—and where, like Argentina, a cheap, smokable cocaine product (known by its Brazilian name, pedra) has taken hold among locals.

Part of this rerouting of cocaine traffic through Argentina came about as a response to a U.S.-led crackdown on the chemicals necessary to produce cocaine. The crackdown on “precursor chemicals,” as they’re known, began almost simultaneously with Plan Colombia, in 1999, with Operation Purple, a multilateral effort to track the movement of potassium permanganate, an oxidizer used in the powder-making process to remove the residue of kerosene, gasoline, acid, and other toxic chemicals used to isolate the drug from the coca leaf. This “cleansing” yields a “very white and fluffy” powder, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), while poorly oxidized cocaine is a “dark, lumpy, and less attractive product.” The anti-precursor­ effort also includes the DEA-led Operation Six Borders, launched in 2000, as well as Operation Andes III, supervised by Interpol and the World Customs Organization.

The South American counter-drug officials speaking to foreign reporters covering the paco story all mentioned the anti-precursor offensive as a cause of the epidemic. A Brazilian official told The New York Times that the paco surge results from “a crackdown by [Argentina and Brazil] on the chemicals needed to transform cocaine paste . . . into powder form.” Argentine officials told The Miami Herald the same thing, while the Los Angeles Times noted that the phenomenon reflects “the [co­caine] indus­try’s adaptation to enforcement measures.”

The newspapers, however, avoided a substantive discus­sion of the relationship between the precursor crackdown, paco’s emergence, and the con­tinuing importance of Argentina as a transshipment point for the European market. Such a discussion would have required an account of what’s known in Mexico as el efecto cucaracha—the cockroach effect. Set a trap for the pests in the kitchen, and they scurry away to the bathroom; set another trap for them in the bathroom, and down they go to the basement. The metaphor, also known more politely as the “balloon effect,” nicely captures a basic feature of the War on Drugs: A heavy-handed crackdown on producers and traffickers in one place inevitably leads to their reappearance elsewhere. It is well-known in Colombia, where after eight years of the U.S.-funded drug war, the country’s cocaine industry remains as robust and adaptable as ever.

In the Argentine case, producers and traffickers responded to the crackdown on precursors by simply moving production closer to the source of the chemicals—of which Argentina is a major producer. Cocaine laboratories (known as cocinas, or kitchens) in Argentina have proliferated: Whereas Argentine authorities raided 15 small labs between 1999 and 2003, they found 20 in 2004 alone, including one capable of manufacturing 660 pounds a year, according to data collected by the Transnational Institute.

Only the BBC came close to a critique, quoting Hugo Miguez, a Buenos Aires psychiatrist who treats paco addicts, who said of the precursor crackdown: “It was a very ill thought out strategy.” The New York Times, meanwhile, did not mention the appearance of Argentine cocaine production at all and instead pointed the finger at Bolivian president Evo Morales. Apparently referring to Morales’s “coca is not cocaine” approach—in which forced eradication is eschewed in favor of allowing farmers to grow a certain amount of coca for traditional uses—the Times reported that the paco surge has been partly fueled by “the rolling back of restrictions on coca growing since [Morales] took office in 2006.” Although the Times did not elaborate, this claim contradicts the official U.S. estimate, released in April 2007 by the State Department’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, which announced that Bolivian coca cultivation in 2006 was “statistically unchanged” compared to the 2005 estimate. (Cultivation in Peru, in contrast, was up 17%, while Colombia’s numbers remained unchanged.)

The Times went on to mention the precursor crackdown, noting that it effectively debased the quality of Bolivian cocaine, which the European market rejected, forcing the Bolivians to “flood” the region with pasta base and low-quality cocaine, turning the Southern Cone into a “dumping ground.” The latest State Department figures do indeed register a spike in Bolivian base exports: U.S.-supported Bolivian counter-narcotics units seized 11.4 metric tons of cocaine base in 2007, an almost 200% increase over the four tons seized in 2001. But most of the Bolivian base going to Argentina and Uruguay is likely not meant to serve the local paco market, as the Times seems to imply, but to be processed into the far more profitable powder for export.

Paco’s link to the more lucrative cocaine-powder market is apparent in its very composition. While the news reporting on Argentine paco identified it as diluted pasta base, much of the drug is, in fact, diluted cocaine powder. So said Roberto Máximo Silva, head of the provincial police department’s Illegal Drug Trafficking Investigations Unit, which has carried out systematic chemical analyses of paco. Silva keeps a tidy office, with specimens of confiscated drug paraphernalia adorning his shelves like trophies, at the back of a small brick building in La Plata, the quiet capital of Buenos Aires province.

“This is new!” he exclaimed, his eyes widening. “It’s a new strategy of commercializing cocaine hydrochloride [powder cocaine], of selling it with a different name and a different method of administration.” According to Silva, paco is powder cocaine that has been heavily diluted with whatever chemicals drug traffickers can get their hands on (unlike crack, which is made by reverting cocaine to its previous base form using ammonia or baking soda, resulting in a solid that produces inhalable smoke at relatively low heat). The cutting agents that have appeared in Silva’s lab tests include dipirona (an anti-inflammatory drug usually used on farm animals), mannitol (a sugar alcohol widely used in the food and pharmaceutical industries), lidocaine (an anesthetic commonly used in producing powder cocaine), and caffeine. Paco is on average only a third cocaine; the rest is a mixture of cutting agents, according to Christina Ramerta, a chemist who works in Silva’s unit.

“But what do they smoke it with?” Silva asked, his eyes widening again as he explained that paco can’t be smoked exactly like crack because it still contains cocaine powder, which vaporizes at a high temperature. In a laboratory next to his office, he pulled a small steel pipe from a wooden box. “They smoke it with this,” he said, pointing to a sinewy chunk of bronze sponge jammed in the pipe’s mouth. When the user’s flame touches the bronze, Silva said, it turns fire red, reaching a high-enough temperature to break apart the cocaine molecule.

This is not to say that all “paco” contains cocaine powder. South American counter-drug authorities have yet to agree on a single definition of the drug, said Gabriel Abboud, an official at Sedronar. The cheap cocaine market is fairly differentiated, and may include diluted powder as well as pasta base. “It’s a family of products,” he said.

Paco was at the top of the agenda at an Informal Dialogue on Drugs Policy, convoked in September by the Transnational Institute and the Washington Office on Latin America, bringing together 25 Latin American government officials involved in drug policy, with a few NGO participants, in Montevideo. Operating under the Chatham House rule, in which participants’ views are made public but their identities kept secret, the dialogue yielded a number of dissenting views on the matter.

There was a general consensus that paco had been demonized as an especially harmful, insidious drug, as well as stigmatized, given its frequent association in media portrayals as a “drug of the poor.” Yet “despite the problems it has caused very vulnerable populations,” those problems remain “on a small scale,” compared with the damage still wrought by the more damaging legal drugs, alcohol and tobacco. One participant went so far as to say that “it is difficult to talk of a ‘paco boom,’ ” calling it “a media creation.”


Guy Taylor is an independent filmmaker and journalist. His has reported from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and family.

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