New GM coca super strain? (30/8/2004)

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As the the US-funded crop eradication programme soaks the countryside in Roundup, are the criminals genetically engineering herbicide resistance? Or is this plant just too good to be GM?

New super strain of coca plant stuns anti-drug officials
The Scotsman, 27 Aug 2004

DRUG traffickers have created a new strain of coca plant that yields up to four times more cocaine than existing plants and promises to revolutionise Colombia's drugs industry.

The new variety of coca, the raw material for cocaine, was found in an anti-drug operation on the Caribbean coast, on the mountainsides of the Sierra Nevada, long known as a drug-growing region.

Samples of the plant were sent for laboratory analysis and experts then pronounced drugs traffickers had developed a new breed.

"This is a very tall plant," said Colonel Diego Leon Caicedo of the anti-narcotics police. "It has a lot more leaves and a lighter colour than other varieties."

A toxicologist, Camilo Uribe, who studied the coca, said: "The quality and percentage of hydrochloride from each leaf is much better, between 97 and 98 per cent. A normal plant does not get more than 25 per cent, meaning that more drugs and of a higher purity can be extracted."

Experts estimate that the drugs traffickers spent GBP60 million to develop the new plant, using strains from Peru and crossbreeding them with potent Colombian varieties, as well as engaging in genetic engineering.

The resulting plant has also been bred to resist the gliphosate chemicals developed in the US that are sprayed on drugs crops across Colombia.

While traditional coca plants are dark green and grow to some 5ft, the new strain grows to more than 12ft.

"What we found were not bushes but trees," Col Caicedo said.

Such an investment by drugs traffickers is small compared to the earnings from what is the most lucrative business on earth. Traffickers can produce a kilogram of cocaine for less than GBP1,500. That kilogram will sell in Miami for GBP14,000, in London for GBP34,000 and in Tokyo would bring GBP50,000.

The discovery threatens to undermine the successes the US-funded crop eradication programme has enjoyed.

Over the last two years, thanks to an unprecedented aerial eradication campaign, Colombian authorities have sprayed hundreds of thousands of hectares of drug crops, reducing narcotics cultivation by more than a third.

Two years ago Colombia produced an estimated 800 tonnes of cocaine a year. That figure is believed to have dropped below 600 tonnes.

On Monday, Mexican authorities signalled a major blow for the drugs-smuggling gangs when they announced the arrest of the man thought to be a leader of a crime organisation responsible for nearly half the cocaine and marijuana entering the United States.

The US had offered a $2 million (GBP1.1 million) reward for Gilberto Higuera Guerrero’s capture.

However, such success could be immediately wiped out if the potent new coca strain spreads across Colombia.

In the southern province of Putumayo, once the coca capital of Colombia, drug farmers have changed the way they sow crops in the face of repeated aerial fumigations.

"We know the spray planes need a target area of three hectares," said Sebastian Umaya, standing in the middle of a tiny field of coca. "Now we just have smaller fields, but with more intensive farming of the coca bushes."

Should the new strain be introduced, these smaller fields could yield up to four times more drugs and be immune to aerial eradication, meaning anti-narcotic police would have to eradicate them manually, an impossible task in the southern jungle provinces controlled by Marxist rebels.

The introduction of the new coca strain could undermine the efforts of the Oxford-educated president Alvaro Uribe to win the 40-year civil conflict.

By destroying drugs crops, the president was hoping to weaken the warring factions, both Marxist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, who between them earn more than GBP500 million a year from drugs.

The US, the primary destination for Colombian drugs, finances the war effort with GBP400 million a year and has hailed reduction in drug crops as evidence that its war on drugs is finally bearing fruit.

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