Anthony Henman  Report for TNI

Report on smokable forms of cocaine in Lima, Peru. 


1. The Substance


Though there have been some reports of cocaine HCL being converted into crack cocaine in Lima –notably in prisons (Jerome will add data on this) – the most common smokable form of this drug is a crude cocaine paste, technically a cocaine sulphate, known as pasta basica de cocaina or PBC. This is of variable quality and consistency: at one extreme a gummy grey substance of uneven consistency (pasta proper), at the other an almost-white dull powder (pasta lavada), only distinguishable from cocaine HCL by its lack of a clear crystalline molecular structure and its poor solubility in water. Crude pasta retains traces of sulphuric and hydrochloric acids, as well as the solvents used in the first stage extraction process, normally kerosene. Pasta lavada, on the other hand, usually betrays through its smell the solvent used in the “washing” or purification process – commonly either ether or acetone. In general, crude pasta is found closer to coca-growing regions, while pasta lavada is the staple of the illicit market in Lima and other major cities in Peru. Given the low cost and ready availability of cocaine paste in this country, there is little incentive to adulterate the product with extraneous matter. Users, however, often complain about pasta which is “lumpy” (“en torroncitos”), a fact which indicates an understanding of the variable quality (and thus, purity) of each individual sample. The nature of the substance has remained pretty constant since it made its appearance on the illicit market, certainly by the 1960s, possibly in the 1950s, or even before. In the early 1970s it was observed principally in the crude, lumpy form, but since the 1980s the urban market has been dominated by various grades of pasta lavada. Slang names are generally small variations on the pasta theme: pastita, base, pasta-base, pbc, and above all “pie” (a term in use since the 1980s, the English equivalent of Spanish pastel). 

2. Marketing 

Pasta is universally sold in Lima in individual paper wraps known as ketes, which contain a notional gram (usually more like half a gram). As with cocaine HCL, the use of glossy magazine paper may denote a better quality product, but most ketes are wrapped in simple newpaper, or the paper used for bills and receipts. An individual kete is sold for 1 sol (USD 0.35) but most users buy in larger quantities: 20 ketes held together by a rubber band, known as a liga, which is sold for 10 soles (USD 3.50). This price has remained constant for 25 years, since the late 1980s at least. Surprisingly, given the stability, longevity, and persistence of this market, there has been little attempt by users to find even more economical means to access supplies. It is very rare to hear of anyone buying pasta in multi-gram quantities. This is the preserve of dealers, and their networks discourage users from accessing the product at the wholesale level. The economics of the trade explain this: A kilo of pasta can be purchased for USD 500-600 – divided into ligas, this quantity yields a minimum of USD 2,000, and often considerably more.

3. Point of sales 

Very occasionally, pasta is sold by ambulant street dealers, or delivered to a home or hotel address. The vast majority of sales, however, take place at fixed premises which are known to both users and police, and which count with security staff both inside and outside, on the street. In a city-centre area such as La Victoria, comprising approximately 20 by 20 100 metre blocks, there are four major retailing sites, known as ollas, all located in small side streets, and protected by a series of gates and doorways. Users either enter the inner area and purchase from the principal dealer (if they are known to him or her personally) or, more commonly, advance the money to a runner and wait out in the street. In some cases, there are adjacent rooms known as fumaderos where pasta can be consumed on the premises, principally by clients of long standing. Some of the local hotels which double as brothels also tolerate smoking and will send runners out for supplies of pasta, but this is a practice which has declined significantly in recent years – due principally to crack-downs on under-age prostitution. In the ollas themselves, carefully choreographed “operations of interdiction” are conducted by police at periodic intervals – there is normally enough advance warning for the principal operators, and the main body of the stash, to vanish before the authorities arrive. The principal victims of official harassment are therefore users caught with a liga while leaving these well-known sites. In over a decade of observation of La Victoria, the sites have not changed, nor has there ever been any serious shortage of pasta on the local market. It is an extremely stable arrangement for all concerned. 

4. Dealers

It is a common belief in Lima that most pasta dealers, as well as their runners and lookouts, are persons with criminal records, recruited to the underworld while serving prison sentences, and subject to threats of elimination or re-imprisonment should they break the rules of the illegal trade. In sociological terms, they are a class of illicit entrepreneurs controlled directly by trafficking hierarchies and indirectly (through bribes and “protection”) by certain sections of the state apparatus, such as the narcotics and local police forces. The degree of overlapping, connivance and co-existence between policing activities and illicit drug trafficking is likely to be substantial, and is subject to considerable speculation, in Lima as elsewhere in Peru. Given the physical dangers of dealing, there is a heavy preponderance of young and middle-aged males, though some ex-inmates of the women's prison in Chorrillos have also found a niche. In the case of the pasta outlets in long-standing working-class districts (La Victoria, Rimac, Callao, etc.) there is a definite ethnic bias towards persons of African descent, since these form a significant part of the local population. In the newer suburbs (Villa el Salvador, San Juan de Lurigancho,  Ate-Vitarte, etc.) this role is often taken by mestizo migrants from the coca-producing regions of Huanuco and Ayacucho. Finally, lower-level runners and lookouts may be occasional users of pasta themselves, mainly when off the job. More senior dealers tend to look down on this practice, and will consume cocaine HCL, alcohol, and occasionally marijuana.

5. Sources 

Most of the illicit cocaine in Lima has traditionally been sourced from the Huallaga valley, being routed through Tingo Maria and Huanuco. This is still likely to be the principal source, though new routes from the VRAEM and Trujillo are undoubtably making their presence felt. Some users claim to be able to distinguish the pasta from the North, which is derived from a different species of plant:  Trujillo coca, or Erythroxylum novogranatense var. truxillense. This has certain volatile compounds, notably wintergreen oil, which are absent in E. coca. This may parallel the experience of Colombia, where cocaine-paste smokers often prefer the pasta derived from la caucana (E. novogranatense) over that from coca tingo (E. coca). Pasta from novogranatense  (whether from Colombia or Trujillo) is said to provide a sweeter and more aromatic smoke. 

6. Forms of use 

Paralleling the stability in prices, forms and sites for marketing pasta in Lima, the methods of consumption have also remained largely constant, hardly varying over the last three decades, at least. Unlike Colombia, where pasta is often mixed with marijuana in a maduro con queso, the admixture of cannabis to pasta in Peru is relatively infrequent. The characteristic practice in Lima is to empty a filter cigarette of 80-90% of its tobacco, discard half of this and mix the remainder with the contents of one, or often, two ketes. The resultant mix is reinserted with great care into the unbroken filter cigarette, and tapped down firmly, twisting the paper at the open end. The filter is then laboriously picked out and replaced by broken match sticks, which provide a holder in the mouth. A single cigarette is normally smoked by each user, quite quickly and deeply, holding down the smoke, and is only abandoned when the pure tobacco plug at the end is reached. It is very rare to see users sharing a single cigarette, even if a group all smoke simultaneously. The subcultural rules decree a degree of concentration in the act of smoking, and an intense subjective appreciation of the short-lived effects. It is generally bad form to talk too much or touch another person while the effects last, though conversation flows freely during the relatively long period that it takes to prepare the next cigarette. It could be argued that the slow and laborious process of preparing each cigarette acts as a brake on too-frequent repetition of the act of smoking, and thus may be considered a spontaneous and user-led form of harm-reduction. It also spreads out the contents of a single liga over a period of a couple of hours, the basic running time of a pasta user in Lima. Many enthusiasts, however, if they have enough money, will consume two, three or more ligas in a single sitting, which may go on all night and into the next morning. Though popular belief considers pasta smoking to be an “addiction”, and a hard core of pastrulos (inveterate pasta smokers) are sometimes visible in the street, most users in reality exhibit a pattern of occasional binge smoking, and often spend several days without smoking at all.. 

7. User profiles 

The vast majority of pasta smokers in Lima are in the 15-30 age group, with older users either curtailing their habit, or switching to cocaine HCL. In the general population, pasta users tend to be somewhat discreet and predominantly male, and – in the absence of comprehensive field research, or even credible household surveys -  it is quite difficult to identify their numbers or social profile with any degree of certainty. Many are engaged in illicit or informal activities, and pasta smoking is often both a cause and a symptom of their broader social marginalization. Among the more visible “street people” in central Lima, on the other hand, it is clear that young women form almost half the population. This group turns over quite quickly, with individuals joining and leaving at frequent intervals; overall, it remains largely stable at a few hundred at any given time. Both males and females in this group fund their habit largely through prostitution and petty theft. They therefore form the visible, target “problem” population which attract both police repression and attempted intervention by social workers. Among this group, a characteristic career begins with the sniffing of glue in early teenage years. This shifts to pasta-smoking in the later teens, and – should illness or arrest not intervene – usually matures out with the finding of a stable partner, or regular economic activity, and an upgrade to cocaine HCL and marijuana in later years. Male pasta users, and a few females as well, sometime progress to active roles in the illicit hierarchy – being recruited into the ranks of runners, lookouts and dealers. The higher ranks of this business, both in Lima and in the coca-producing districts, actively discourage pasta smoking,