“Do you like cocaine?” he asked, politely.
I shook my head.
“No, I don’t like,” I replied, in my best broken Spanish.
“I think stupid.”
The cocaine farmer laughed.
“Do you like cocaine?” I asked, curiously.
He shook his head and gave me a beautiful smile, revealing two rows of startlingly white teeth.
“No, I don’t like it,” he replied, pointing to his temple.
“It’s only for crazy people.”
It was a surprising response, considering I had spent the morning at this man’s cocaine factory deep in the Colombian jungle, yet hardly surprising considering the long process of cocaine rehabilitation.
The factory was a mere 15 minute walk from the popular hiking trail used by tourists to reach the ruins of a lost city, several hours south of Santa Marta.
The farmer, known only as The Teacher, has an arrangement with the hike’s guides and now makes extra money showing his farm to any tourist who is interested.
I was fascinated.
But don’t assume The Teacher isn’t taking a risk.
The surrounding area used to be under the control of the paramilitary, who were responsible for a spate of kidnappings that plagued hikers some years ago.
Now it is under military control and the soldiers, unlike their predecessors, do not tolerate cocaine farms.
“Do you worry about the military?” a fellow hiker asked The Teacher, who appeared surprisingly relaxed considering the precariousness of his profession.
“They are at the top of the hill,” he replied, hands plunged deep into his pockets.
“They don’t come here.
“But if they come too close, I will pack up and I will move on.”
The Teacher is 26 and left his home city of Medellin to move to the jungle and learn his trade.
His farm is sizeable.
He claimed to have some 6,000 plants, apparently the exact amount required to make a kilo of cocaine.
But only about 20 of his plants were on display to tourists, alongside all of the ingredients required to produce the drug.
The farmer, neatly dressed in an orange t-shirt and jeans tucked into black rubber boots, offered to demonstrate his production process.
I’ve never given cocaine too much thought, so had never considered that the word only referred to a finished product.
Chocolate cake is not chocolate cake until you have mixed together butter, flour, chocolate and sugar and finished baking it.
In the same way, cocaine is not cocaine until you have completed a complicated process involving cocoa leaves, sulphuric acid, salt, a chemical similar to those used in paint, caustic soda and petroleum.
The farmer sells his product as a paste too, which means it is only 90 per cent of the finished product.
Only when acetane is added does that white powder magically appear and you find yourself with pure cocaine.
(The farmer would later chuckle as he reeled off a list of the white powders he knew his product would be diluted with. It’s not his problem)
Now, unless chemistry was your favourite subject at school you would probably struggle to follow the complex production process.
But there was no doubting that all that crushing, soaking, sieving and separating has its risks.
“Some of the chemicals I use are 20 times stronger than those you use to take paint from your nails,” The Teacher agreed grimly as he crouched beneath a tarpaulin, surrounded by buckets, pans and a towering vat of petrol.
But it’s not all misery.
When the time comes to crush the cocoa leaves, the farmer and his friends are not above cranking up the music and dancing all over their product in a bid to get the job done.
Still, their lives have changed these past few years.
When the paramilitary were in charge they knew about every farm and swapped their tolerance for a hefty chunk of the profits.
But they hassled the farmers, keen to ensure they kept track of their income.
The Teacher prefers his life now.
“They hassled us every time we went out, when we went to the market,” he said.
“Now we can’t make as much money, but our lives are more tranquil.
“Some people don’t like the way it is now, but I do.”
The soldiers aren’t stupid. They know how cocaine is produced.
Someone carrying a large vat of salt through the jungle, for example, would be stopped immediately.
The Teacher admitted the farmers have to be increasingly ingenious about how they obtain their ingredients.
The government is helping them to find new trades and The Teacher also farms coffee.
But with coffee profits only available annually, as opposed to the three month turnover with cocaine, he is sticking to what he knows.
He refused to give his real name and refused to be photographed.
“Please be careful when you reach the Lost City,” he said, as we prepared to leave his farm.
“There are lots of soldiers there. Do not show them your pictures of this place.
“If they catch me, they can put me in prison.
“They can put me in prison for 20 years.”
Never gave it much thought either but what you just described here……
This must have been quit the experience, coming so close to one of those things Colombia is so (in)famous for and hearing first hand about the what and why.
Actually yes, and if people saw how it was made it would put them off for life! It was interesting talking to the guy, he’s just earning a living… they need to have better options if they are going to stop doing it… coffee just isn’t as viable. I was so glad I went.