A rare look inside Colombian coca farms and cocaine labs, via TikTok (1/2)

Screengrab of a video filmed in Putumayo, Colombia showing a clandestine laboratory where coca leaves are turned into coca base, the last step before the materials are turned into cocaine.
Screengrab of a video filmed in Putumayo, Colombia showing a clandestine laboratory where coca leaves are turned into coca base, the last step before the materials are turned into cocaine. © 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 labs where the leaves are transformed into the drug. Colombia is the largest global producer of both coca and cocaine. One of these TikTokers told the FRANCE 24 Observers team that many locals are reliant on coca production to make a living but that the sector continues to be controlled by illegal drug traffickers.

Advertising

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

This image shows the density of coca plantations in Colombia in 2019. Around 84% of them are found in five departments: Norte de Santander (which borders Venezuela), Nariño, Putumayo (which borders Ecuador), Cauca and Antioquia.
This image shows the density of coca plantations in Colombia in 2019. Around 84% of them are found in five departments: Norte de Santander (which borders Venezuela), Nariño, Putumayo (which borders Ecuador), Cauca and Antioquia. © UNODC and Colombia

Coca leaves play an important role in Andean culture, primarily because of their powerful qualities as a stimulant. But Colombia is also the leading global producer of cocaine, a highly addictive drug made from these leaves. According to the UN, 1,228 tonnes of cocaine were produced in the country in 2020, most of it sent to North America or Europe.

Producing coca and cocaine in the country is banned, but that does not stop many young Colombians from posting videos on TikTok showing their work in the sector. Some of these videos have garnered thousands of views. We’ve shared a number of these videos in this article, but deleted the names of the TikTok accounts that shared them to protect the safety of those individuals.

'Raspachines' in the spotlight

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

Montage of three videos shot in the Putumayo, showing coca fields. In the first, we hear: "Friends, I greet you from Putumayo, look, this is the famous 'pecueca' [name of a species of coca]. [...] It must be harvested this week [...]". In the second, a raspachin is seen at work. © TikTok

In one of these videos, a “raspachin” explains how to wrap one's hands to protect them before gathering coca leaves.

"Hello friends, I'm making this video for those who asked me how I tie the strips," says the young man at the beginning of the video, which was shot in Putumayo. He then shows his technique for protecting his hands with strips of fabric. © TikTok

Several videos also show “raspachines” lifting up giant bags filled with coca leaves.

Montage of three videos shot in Putumayo and Cauca: we see "raspachines" lifting large bags of coca leaves and walking with them. © TikTok

'Lots of people make a living through coca production in Putumayo'

Juan (not his real name) is a young TikTok user. He stopped going to school around the age of 13 and a few years ago started growing coca in Putumayo (a region bordering Ecuador), mainly for financial reasons.

I have a small plot of land, one hectare, and I started growing a kind of coca called “orejona blanca” there, but there are lots of other types as well.

Video posted by Juan, filmed in Putumayo, showing the land where he grows coca. © TikTok

On a hectare, you can gather 220 arrobes [Editor’s note: 2,750 kilogrammes] of leaves every three months. An arrobe sells for 32,000 pesos [Editor’s note: €7], so, every three months, I can get seven million pesos [€1,585]. But with all of the expenses related to production, I only end up making about 1.3 million pesos [€294] every three months. I have to buy pesticides, for example, and pay the labourers who help me to harvest.

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

Video posted by Juan, shot in Putumayo on his Relatives' land. "I'd rather be involved in drug trafficking than love, it hurts less", we hear in the audio accompanying the video. © TikTok

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

Montage of three videos shot in Putumayo and Cauca (the first one was published by Juan): they show coca leaves being crushed in secret laboratories. © TikTok
Video posted by Juan, filmed in Putumayo: someone pours lime and ammonium sulphate over the crushed coca leaves. © TikTok

Then we put the mixture of crushed leaves into a barrel with petrol in it. An hour later, we separate the leaves and the petrol, which goes down a pipe.

Video posted by Juan, filmed in Putumayo. At 0'06, we see a basin in which petrol, which has been separated from the coca leaf mixture, flows out. © TikTok

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

Montage of two videos shot in Putumayo, showing the different stages of processing the materials before they turn into cocaine. © TikTok

When I am working on other people's land, they pay me between 40,000 and 80,000 pesos [Editor’s note: between nine and 18 euros] per day. The rate depends on if I am gathering leaves or helping in the lab.

'The advantage of working in illegal crops is that you can meet your goals more quickly'

Essentially, between that and what I make from my own land, I can make between 1 and 1.2 million pesos per month [Editor’s note: 226 and 271 euros]. If I had a legal job, 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 shop, but I wasn’t making as much money. The advantage of working in illegal crops is that you can reach your goals more quickly – like buying a motorcycle, building a house.

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

More than 200,000 families made their living working in the coca fields of Colombia between 2016 and 2018, or roughly a million people (2% of the population), according to the UN.

Video shot in southern Colombia. A worker sprays coca leaves. © TikTok

'It’s clearly not the farmers who make the most, but the groups of narcotraffickers'

Alexander Sanchez is a community activist based in Putumayo, and a spokesperson for the National Coordination for Coca, Marijuana and Poppy Growers (COCCAM):

There is not enough work in Putumayo and in Colombia in general. Many young people who finish their studies are left without a job [Editor’s note: Officially, the unemployment rate was 13.7% in 2021, but is higher for young people, at around 21.5%]. So lots of people turn to the farming of illegal crops, especially during the harvest. For example, you need eight people to gather 200 arrobes [Editor’s note: 2,500 kg]. It’s a real source of jobs.

Moreover, the advantage of working in this sector is that you can make more if you are working hard. That said, it is clearly not the farmers who make the most but the groups of narcotraffickers who buy their goods.

The government is responsible for this situation because they don’t carry out the necessary investments to respond to people’s needs. [Editor’s note: For example, if farmers want to grow anything else, the bad state of the roads makes it extremely difficult for them to go sell their wares elsewhere.]

>> Read the second part of this series: Seeing Colombia's coca production through TikTok (2/2): Farmers under control of traffickers