Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Cocaine as currency

From Jim Wyss: some more evidence of the drug war's failure. Plenty of rural Colombians still use coca base as cash.

Don Antonio unscrewed a vitamin bottle and dumped a few chunks of coca base – a precursor to cocaine – in his hand. In this part of Colombia, along the Guayabero River that divides Meta and Guaviare, coca base, or mercancia, is as good as cash.  A gram is worth 2,000 pesos and might buy you a Coca-Cola. 
I just got back from a trip to the region with the International Committee of the Red Cross. Despite the decades-long war on drugs and routine fumigation flights in the area, locals said about 90 percent of the population depends on the shrub to make a living. Those who have tried to make the switch to legal crops say the costs of trying to get their yucca or corn harvests to the nearest town, where they might find buyers, make it unfeasible.

Years ago, a student brought me a fascinating National Geographic story about Colombian villages that used coca base rather than cash. Seeing this current story was a reminder of how some things haven't changed.

I soon learned that merchants all over the region accepted base as payment for purchases, weighing out the right amount and handing back the remainder of the base in change.

It is also a reminder, as if we needed one, of how difficult crop substitution is in practice. What incentive do people have to grow yucca?


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