Illicit traffic and abuse of cocaine


Cocaine-related problems in Canada
Cocaine offences and seizures
Mode of cocaine abuse
Cocaine prices and purity
International sources of supply
Production of Coco leaves, Coco paste and cocaine
Cocaine trafficking
Trafficking routes for Coco paste
Cocaine-smuggling methods
Other Smuggling methods
Trafficking routes for cocaine
Main ports of entry


Author: R. T. STAMLER, , R. C. FAHLMAN, , S. A. KEELE,
Pages: 45 to 55
Creation Date: 1984/01/01

Illicit traffic and abuse of cocaine

R. T. STAMLER, Officer in Charge, Drug Enforcement Branch,
R. C. FAHLMAN, Chief, Research and Publications Section and
S. A. KEELE, Senior Intelligence Analyst, Research and Publications Section Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada


There has been an increasing availability and abuse of cocaine in Canada in recent years. Cocaine abuse has spread from the affluent adult sectors of society to middle-income groups and the young, involving large sections of the population. The increase in illicit demand for, and the social acceptability of, cocaine has led to an increase in illicit cocaine supply. The availability of cocaine on the illicit market has been sustained by a vast over-production of the raw materials needed to produce cocaine in coca-growing areas of South America and the activities of sophisticated trafficking organizations with large operations and profits. As a result, cocaine prices at the wholesale level in South America and Canada are declining, and at the retail level in Canada have remained relatively stable or have slightly decreased.

It has been estimated that more than one half of the amount of cocaine on the illicit market in Canada was illegally produced in Colombia, but the main quantities of the raw materials used for such production originated in Bolivia and Peru. Cocaine is smuggled into Canada primarily by commercial air transport, arriving at the three principal ports of entry, namely Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, from whence it is distributed to other parts of the country. As drug law enforcement efforts increase in one area, traffickers shift their illicit operations to other areas in an attempt to escape detection. Current evidence suggests that both the availability and abuse of cocaine in Canada are likely to increase in the coming years.


This article has been prepared on the basis of the most recent intelligence and information contained in the "National Drug Intelligence Estimates", "Monthly Drug Intelligence Trend Reports" and "Foreign Drug Situation Reports" of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Intelligence and information provided by the "Operational Statistical Reporting" and "Automated Drug System" of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police have also been utilized.

The article describes illicit sources of supply and trafficking in and demand for cocaine in Canada. It also outlines international trends in the illicit cocaine traffic.

Cocaine-related problems in Canada

The availability and abuse of cocaine continue to increase in Canada. A dramatic increase in demand for the drug occurred during the 1970s. Cocaine was a relatively uncommon drug in Canada during the 1960s. By the early 1980s abuse of cocaine had spread from the upper middle class to the middle and working class. What had been the drug of the affluent adult sectors of society became a popular substance for teenagers and young people. The upsurge in illicit demand for cocaine naturally resulted in an increased supply.

The hazards associated with cocaine abuse have been seriously underestimated. This has led to new and more dangerous patterns of abuse, as well as increasing numbers of abusers. Other factors have also contributed to the rise in the availability and abuse of cocaine in Canada. Among them are the new forms of social acceptability as well as the tendency of the communications media to glamourize use of the drug. There is also an overproduction of raw materials in coca-growing areas of South America. The availability of the raw materials allows for the production of enormous quantities of illicit cocaine of high purity which is then sold on the world market. In addition, illicit cocaine trafficking provides an opportunity for enormous profits to be made at a time of economic downturn.

Cocaine offences and seizures

During 1978 - 1982 the number of persons charged by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) for cocaine-related offences more than doubled (see table 1 ) to reach a total of 3, 101 persons. The amount of cocaine seized by RCMP increased by 76.3 per cent during the five-year period, reflecting the increase in cocaine availability and abuse. In 1982 the amount of cocaine seized by RCMP exceeded by 19.8 per cent the amount seized in 1981 (see table 2).

Table 1

Number of persons charged for cocaine-related offences, 1978-1982 a







131 199 258 348 335
Trafficking b
207 257 304 410 428
53 31 35 51 54
391 487 597 809 817

aPersons charged by RCMP only.

bIncludes possession for the purpose of trafficking.

Table 2

Amount of cocaine seized by RCMP a in Canada, 1978-1982


Amount of cocaine (kg)

Percentage of total drug seizures

1978 26175 14.5
1979 26618 14.7
1980 43147 23.9
1981 38528 21.3
1982 46163 25.6

aIncludes seizures made by Canadian Customs.

While enforcement statistics are not the only data on the basis of which the magnitude of the problem can be assessed, they are important measurement indicators of the effectiveness of enforcement programmes. In addition to RCMP, a number of other agencies also attempt to measure the extent of the problem of drug abuse in Canada. The Health Protection branch of Health and Welfare Canada has been involved in the analysis of drug samples over the years. In 1979, the average purity level of cocaine was approximately 40 per cent, while in 1982 it was 49 per cent. The latter figure was somewhat lower than in 1981 (52 per cent), but the decrease was not significant enough to Indicate any real change in availability of the drug. The number of cocaine samples tested by Health Protection branch laboratories increased from l,893 in fiscal year 1980/81 to 2,448 in the following year.

Mode of cocaine abuse

Cocaine is mainly abused by sniffing. The injection of cocaine had until recently been seldom seen in Canada but it is now becoming more prevalent as the abuse of the drug increases. The euphoria created by intravenous injection of cocaine hydrochloride is more intense than that created by sniffing the drug. However, the profound feeling of anxiety and depression felt by the user after the effects of the injection have worn off are also greater than those felt after sniffing the drug.

"Freebasing" is the third method involving smoking or inhalation of alkaloidal cocaine. In recent years this method has increased in popularity, but it can be extremely dangerous. The most popular way to obtain freebase (alkaloidal) cocaine is through a chemical process involving solvents such as ether. A great danger of explosion exists because solvents used in the process are heated.

A less hazardous method of obtaining the freebase cocaine is reported to have been developed, one in which the highly flammable solvents are not required. Abusers of freebase cocaine, regardless of how they obtain the drug, are far more likely to become dependent on the substance than those who sniff cocaine hydrochloride. Freebase cocaine is not soluble in water and therefore cannot be taken intravenously; the smoke is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and a highly concentrated dose can almost instantaneously reach the brain. There is a great danger of overdose using this method of cocaine abuse, which in some cases can lead to death. As the more dangerous methods of cocaine abuse have become widespread the number of cases requiring emergency hospital treatment for such abuse has increased.

Cocaine prices and purity

The supply of cocaine remains plentiful throughout Canada. The purity of cocaine at the street level ranges from 1 to 99 per cent, the average being 49 per cent. There has been little change in the price of cocaine at the retail level. This is partially attributable to the acceptance of the drug by its consumers in recent years. Given current inflation rates and a rising consumer price index, the price of cocaine has actually been decreasing each year. Cocaine currently sells for $Can 125 to $Can 250 per gram and for $Can 3,000 to $Can 4,000 per ounce. At the wholesale level, a kilogram of highly pure cocaine was sold for $Can 80,000 in 1982 compared with $Can 100,000 in 1981 . Price stability at the street level demonstrates that traffickers, while making considerable profits, have also been able to meet the growing demand despite losses resulting from seizure at the various ports of entry.

International sources of supply

Cocaine trafficking usually begins in the Andean area of South America where the bulk of the Illicit cultivation of the coca bush takes place. The habitual use of the coca leaf for chewing has historically played a socioeconomic and cultural role in the area and sustained production.

Production of Coco leaves, Coco paste and cocaine

Throughout the coca-growing areas of South America coca leaves are far more plentiful than required for medicinal purposes or for chewing by the indigenous population. Coca leaves, harvested approximately three times a year, are either chewed by natives or converted into an intermediate product, called coca paste. The more refined products from coca paste, such as cocaine sulphate and cocaine hydrochloride, are the forms which are available on the illicit market in Canada. The cultivation of the coca bush yields an income which far exceeds that derived from other crops raised in thecoca-growing areas. The profitable yields of this crop have induced many of the local peasants to cultivate coca bush exclusively.

Peru is one of the largest producers of coca leaves in the world. The chewing of the coca leaf is an ancestral custom for the native people. The legal production of coca leaves in Peru is strictly controlled by the Empresa Nacional de la Coca (ENACO). This organization has the responsibility for, and monopoly of, the commercialization of coca leaves.

ENACO was created in 1969 for the purpose of controlling the entire economic process of coca cultivation, harvest, processing and sale, in an effort to.keep any abuse or illegal cultivation under control. Of the total amount of legal crop, the greatest part is consumed at the local level and is sold through approximately 2,000 authorized vendors. The remaining quantity, according to ENACO, is exported, either in the form of dry leaves, cocaine base or cocaine hydrochloride required for medical purposes. The plant Is also used for flavouring some beverages. The legal crops are grown primarily in Cuzco, Huanuco and Ayacucho, while a large portion of the Illicit cultivation and production takes place in Alto Huallaga, Huanuco and San Martin.

Illegal growing of coca bush is considered to be much larger than legal cultivation; it was estimated that in 1982 more than 50,000 ha were likely to be under cultivation. The areas cultivated with coca bushes are situated in the higher mountain areas, sometimes in hardly accessible jungles, as well as in small plots in the Andean valleys.

In Bolivia, which, like Peru, is one of the largest producers of coca leaves in the world, the cultivation of the coca bush is legal but the conversion of the leaves into cocaine prohibited. The principal growing areas in Bolivia are Yungas and Chapare. The Yungas comprises northern and southern areas of the country and part of Inquisivi. The altitude ranges from 500 to 3,500 m and cultivation takes place in the rugged ridges of the mountains. The climate is generally subtropical. Chapare includes the areas of Arani, Carrasco, Totora and the tropical Chapare zone of Cochabamba. This tropical area is situated at altitudes of 200 to l,200 m. The coca bush is the most important crop in these areas. There are generally three annual harvests in Yungas and four in Chapare.

It has been estimated by Bolivian authorities that coca leafproduction increased by 75 per cent from 1977 to 1981. Intelligence reports indicate that 20 to 25 per cent of the coca leaf produced in Bolivia is destined for local consumption. Coca paste is sold in Bolivia for approximately $Can 1,250 per kilogram, and cocaine hydrochloride for $Can 7,500 per kilogram.

The largest sources of illicit cocaine in the world are in Colombia. Those sources are controlled by powerful and sophisticated cocaine trafficking organizations. The huge volume of operations of those organizations and the influx of raw materials smuggled from other countries such as Peru and Bolivia provide a large base for drug trafficking syndicates. Coca bush cultivation has increased considerably in Colombia in recent years. Previously the coca bush was cultivated in small areas and the amounts produced were primarily used by the indigenous population for chewing.

The total amount of cocaine produced in Colombia is destined for the illicit market, with approximately 90 per cent going to the North American market. It is estimated that in recent years the profit gained from the illicit drug trade has exceeded the profit generated by Colombia's major legitimate crop, coffee. The country has favourable year-round growing conditions and it is expected that very good coca bush crops may continue to beharvested in future.

With the rapid growth of coca bush cultivation in Colombia and extensive processing of smuggled raw materials from other countries, cocaine prices may remain steady or even decline. The price of cocaine in Colombia at the beginning of 1983 ranged from $Can 9,000 to $Can 18,000 per kilogram. Thelower price was given to a trusted buyer while a buyer with no previous connections paid the higher price.

Intelligence reports indicate that a large number of illicit laboratories probably operate in Bolivia and Peru. In those laboratories coca paste is produced through maceration of coca leaves with sulphuric acid, kerosene, water and carbonates in specific proportions. The most important component in such production is the formula and some technical expertise is required. Cocaine hydrochloride is obtained through a more complicated process involving the use of such chemicals as hydrochloric acid, acetone, ether, potassium permanganate, ammonia, kerosene, calcium carbonate, sodium carbonate and sulphuric acid. The process requires well-trained personnel with acertain knowledge of chemistry. The production capacity of the laboratories varies according to the quality and availability of the raw materials. An illicit laboratory in Peru is likely to produce up to 16 kg of cocaine hydrochloride of high purity per month.

Coca paste is mainly processed by illicit laboratories in Colombia to produce cocaine hydrochloride which is then illicitly shipped to the drug markets of the world. Tonnes of coca paste are smuggled from Bolivia and Peru into Colombia and then converted into cocaine. Although local coca leaf cultivation in Colombia is expanding, it cannot meet demand for the production of cocaine. The bulk of the raw materials therefore continues to emanate from Peru and Bolivia.

The drug trafficking groups in Colombia are exceptionally well organized, often sharing equipment and personnel. For example, they have been known to provide drugs to compatriots to make up a required amount for a shipment. As a result, there is very little inter-organizational strife. They have also established their own distribution systems in North America, principally in the United States. A number of those organizations have established their own banks.

Cocaine trafficking

Recent trends

A large proportion of the illicit cocaine in Canada originated in Colombia. Cocaine produced in Colombia increased its share of the cocaine market in Canada from an estimated 39 per cent in 1981 to 57 per cent in 1982. It had been expected that the amount of cocaine of Colombian origin would show a decrease in 1982, but the sophisticated trafficking organizations which move illegal drugs supplies from Colombia into North America with relative ease appear to be increasing their stronghold. There was a significant decline in the proportion of cocaine on the illicit market in Canada originating in Peru; it was estimated in 1981 at 48 per cent and in 1982 at 13 per cent. The proportion of cocaine of Bolivian origin was estimated at 15 per cent in 1982 compared with 13 per cent in 1981. One of the more interesting developments in 1982 was the increase in the proportion of cocaine originating from other South American sources, which was estimated at 15 per cent. The estimated shares of cocaine from foreign sources of supply on the illicit market in Canada in 1982 are given below:

Country of production

Percentage share of cocaine


Drug traffickers from Colombia have become the major suppliers of illicit cocaine in the world over the past decade. The geographic location of Colombia, with its excellent transport, communication and banking facilities, have contributed to such a development.

Trafficking routes for Coco paste

The unavailability of chemicals necessary for the illicit production of cocaine hydrochloride has limited its production in Bolivia and Peru. Those countries are therefore forced to sell large quantities of their raw materials to Colombia for final processing. As indicated earlier, the largest percentage of coca leaves and coca paste are produced in Bolivia and Peru. The raw materials are either manufactured into cocaine hydrochloride at the source or transported to Colombia or other refining areas for manufacture into the finished product.

In Peru access to coca bush plantations in the mountain and jungle areas is limited. Coca paste, often produced at or near the growing site, is transported by various means to other locations within Peru or to Colombia for further refining or possibly to other countries (for example Bolivia). Coca paste produced in the jungle areas of Peru is considered to be of much higher quality than that produced elsewhere. In many of the areas, air strips have been built to accommodate a small aircraft used to transport coca paste. The Amazon river and many of its tributaries are used as natural causeways for the traffic. Various other means of transport are used : commercial and private vehicles, aircraft, boats, donkeys or individuals travelling on foot.

Cocaine-smuggling methods

Illicit cocaine hydrochloride destined for Canada from Bolivia and Peru is almost always sent by air, being either carried by couriers or concealed in airmail. Smaller shipments of cocaine continue to leave Colombia by couriers via commercial aircraft. The large number of Colombians arrested as couriers at various international airports suggests that the multiple courier system is the most favoured method of operation. The means of concealment include body packs, false-sided luggage, hollowed-out handicrafts and internal carries in the body. The latter method is extremely dangerous but increasingly used. Use of the double-mule courier system from Colombia to the Caribbean, with another courier taking over once the. drug has reached a resort island, is quite common.

Other Smuggling methods

Another popular method for smuggling small amounts of cocaine into Canada is through the postal system in first class mail. Current legislation in Canada does not allow first-class mail to be searched, even with a search warrant. Air cargo, private vehicles, pet carriers, trailers and any other possible concealments are used by traffickers anxious to reap the enormous profits to be obtained by smuggling cocaine into the country. The possible profits are reflected in table 3, in which a general price progression for cocaine from the farmer cultivating the coca bushes in South America to the street level in Canada is presented.

Trafficking routes for cocaine

The international trafficking routes for cocaine depend largely on available flights and the sophistication of the illegal organizations involved.

>Table 3

Prices of cocaine and its precursors at successive stages of illicit trafficking, 1982

Stage of trafficking


Unit weight (kg)

Approximate unit price (Canadian dollars)

Coca leaf
500 a 1000- 2000
Illicit laboratory
Coca paste
2.5 3600- 6000
Cocaine base
1 4500- 7000
Cocaine hydrochloride
1 7500- 18000
Whole sale market
Cocaine hydrochloride (pure)
1 80000 - 100000
Retail market
Cocaine hydrochloride (25 per cent Purity)
0,001 200

aApproximate Weight

Daily flights to Curacao, which have connections to most of the larger Caribbean islands, along with flights to Panama and Jamaica, are the routings mostly involved in cocaine trafficking to Canada.

The islands of Antigua, the Bahamas, Barbados, Curacao and Trinidad are preferred routings. A direct flight now exists between Colombia and Haiti, which is likely to be used in future trafficking attempts. Venezuela, which has daily flights to many of the Caribbean islands, may also be used as a trans-shipment point for cocaine from Colombia destined for Canada. both Maracaibo and Caracas have active international airports favourably located for transporting the drug northwards.

Brazil, thanks to its common borders with Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, continued, in 1982, to be a transit point for cocaine illegally transported from the latter countries to the illicit world market. The amount of cocaine in transit through Brazil is reported to have increased. Cocaine seizure statistics released by the Brazilian authorities indicate that 362 kg of cocaine were seized in 1982 compared with 98 kg in 1981 . There is also evidence that in Brazil the number of illicit laboratories converting coca paste into cocaine is also probably increasing.

The use of small aircraft to transport cocaine from the area of production increased considerably in 1982. Transport in the border areas relied heavily on land routes. International flights from Bolivia were largely used to bring cocaine into Brazilian centres for transit to other countries. Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo remained important transit areas for drug couriers travelling to North America and Europe, while traffickers from Canada seem to favour direct flights from Buenos Aires to Montreal via Rio de Janeiro and New York. A flight from Rio de Janeiro to Manaus, another major cocaine transit point, is used by traffickers from Canada and the United States. This flight terminates in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where direct flights or flights via Barbados are readily available.

Canada emerged in 1982 as an increasingly frequent destination for cocaine in transit through Brazil. Intelligence sources indicate that Argentina may become a more important transit or even processing centre for South American cocaine. As pressure is mounted against traffickers in Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, as well as in transit countries like Brazil, Argentina may become a logical alternative.

A number of major trafficking syndicates from Colombia are seeking new routes for their cocaine shipments destined for North America. Flights from Brazil and Colombia are receiving closer scrutiny by both United States and Canadian customs authorities. For this reason, traffickers from Colombia have started moving into Argentina in order to utilize Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities such as Mendoza and Crdoba as less suspicious points of departure for cocaine shipments destined for North America. Direct flights from Buenos Aires via Rio de Janeiro to New York, and onwards to Montreal, are preferred routings.

Central America and the Caribbean are also frequently utilized as transshipment points for cocaine destined for North America, particularly Canada. Mexico is believed to have been an increasingly common transit area for air drops of drugs in rural or remote areas of the country. There is evidence that hundreds of kilograms of cocaine and cocaine base are transported in this way, with ultimate destinations being the United States and, less often, Canada. A number of heroin traffickers from Mexico, faced with a decline in the availability of Mexican heroin due to increased enforcement efforts, are reported to have attempted to find new sources of income by moving into the cocaine market, using their already established trafficking networks.

Independent traffickers are also known to transit through Mexico with smaller quantities of cocaine by commercial airlines, land vehicles and vessels. Some of these individuals are associated with large organizations in South America, Mexico or Canada, while others claim to have no associates. With the South Florida Task Force of the United States operating in the Yucatan Channel and Florida, the trafficking routes have been moved back towards Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula and the Pacific Coast.

The Caribbean islands are used as trans-shipment points for approximately 20 per cent of cocaine illegally transported from South America to Canada. Traffickers attempting to avoid detection at United States and Canadian border points often transit through the Caribbean posing as tourists returning from vacation. This is particularly true when the doublemule method is used. Panama also continues to be an important transit route for major illicit cocaine operations from South America. There are numerous secluded airstrips used as refueling points for aircraft smuggling cocaine to the United States and possibly Canada.

Based on the analysis of samples of cocaine destined for or seized in Canada, it was determined that almost 75 per cent of the cocaine was transshipped through the United States. Miami, in spite of the South Florida Task Force, as well as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle remain popular transshipment points.

Main ports of entry

The principal destinations in Canada for illicit cocaine shipments are Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. Those three major ports of entry then act as points of dissemination to other Canadian centres. Some 75 per cent of cocaine entering Canada arrives by commercial airlines, 24 per cent by land and l per cent by sea. The amount of cocaine entering Canada by land has considerably increased.