Giant coca paste maceration pit smashed by police in jungle Department of Loreto

A giant coca paste maceration pit — measuring more than 25 meters in length — was found in Peru’s Amazon Department of Loreto and destroyed by police, daily El Comercio reported Monday.

As part of “Operation Piranha,” 35 anti-drug police left Iquitos for the isolated jungle town of San Isidro late Thursday night. Because of the element of surprise, police were able to destroy a 3-hectare coca plantation, as well as clandestine drug processing labs.

In one of these labs, officers were stunned when they found a 28 by 4-meter maceration pit, filled with over 300 gallons of kerosene.

The conversion of coca leaf into coca paste is usually accomplished in what is known as a coca paste maceration pit. The leaves are first dusted with an inorganic base, usually lime or carbonate salt, then dampened with a minimal amount of water, and then placed in a pit. A water-immiscible organic solvent — usually kerosene, less commonly diesel fuel or gasoline — is added to the dampened coca leaf and the mixture is either vigorously mixed or left standing with occasional stirring for up to 3 days, thereby extracting the cocaine free base into the solvent.

Last May, as part of its fight against drug trafficking, Peru has voted to outlaw the sale, use and distribution of kerosene by 2010. Instead of kerosene — which is still widely used across Peru and in its capital city, Lima, for cooking — Peru aims to promote the domestic and industrial use of natural gas.

But, because a number of chemicals and solvents which play vital roles in the processing of coca leaves to paste are common and all have legitimate uses, it makes the sale for illicit drug processing difficult to control.

In Colombia, for example, kerosene and gasoline are used interchangeably by drug traffickers.

The decree could therefore prove inefficient in the fight against drug trafficking in Peru, as traffickers could easily switch to gasoline, rather than kerosene, to keep production steady.

Peru was, until 1996, the world’s largest coca leaf producer, and is now the world’s second largest producer of coca leaf, though it lags far behind Colombia.

Peru slashed its production by 70 percent between 1995 and 2001 primarily because of low coca prices, interdiction, forced eradication of coca fields and programs that encourage farmers to grow alternative crops.

But by 2002, the number of hectares used to illegally grow coca in Peru increased as efforts to eradicate the crop in Colombia forced production southward.

This can be explained, in part, by the balloon effect, or the drug fields’ tendency to shift elsewhere and sometimes to smaller and harder-to-reach plots in response to local eradication campaigns, and the fact that for farmers, the coca harvest provides more money than any other crop: up to five times as much can be earned for a kilogram of coca than for a kilogram of coffee.

In June 2008, a study conducted by Peru’s National Commission for the Development of Life without Drugs, or Devida, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicated that coca crops had increased by 4.5 percent in 2007 and that approximately 92 percent of Peruvian coca production is destined for the fabrication of cocaine paste and cocaine hydrochloride.

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