CARTAGENA, Colombia — For the tanker Catalina, this week-long journey is to be routine: south from Houston across the Gulf of Mexico, a squeeze through the Yucatan Channel then a dash for home across the Caribbean to this steamy Colombian port.
Nothing unusual about the cargo, either. Among the shipments sloshing in her holds will be close to a million pounds of methyl ethyl ketone, direct from Exxon Chemical.
It is an ordinary solvent, best-suited for producing rubber cement. Colombian customers bought up thousands of tons of the chemical last year--about 12% of U.S. exports.
The trouble is that Colombia doesn't make any rubber cement. Nor does it make nearly enough smokeless powder, varnish or other products to account for the mounting deliveries of MEK and other solvents to its shore.
Instead, authorities believe, its voracious appetite for shipments like the Catalina's is fueled primarily by the needs of a better-known Colombian industry: cocaine.
Solvents like MEK are vital ingredients in the alchemy that transforms cheap coca leaves into cocaine hydrochloride worth $100 a gram. And while the United States is not the only supplier, it is clear that the vast majority of cocaine chemicals are American-made.
Nine gallons in 10 of MEK dispatched by the United States to Colombia are diverted for use in cocaine production, according to U.S. investigators in Bogota. While other solvents are more often used legitimately, they pose similar problems. Perhaps 20% of what the United States exports to Latin America as a whole winds up in the cocaine laboratories, officials fear.
There is no evidence that U.S. manufacturers knowingly abet this process. Not until the chemicals arrive legally in Latin America do they find their way "out the back door" into the hands of cocaine enterprises, investigators believe.
Thus the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has found no reason to halt the Catalina, which is due to embark on Wednesday, even though a new law empowers the DEA to block suspicious chemical shipments.
Some U.S. officials hope they can use that law to disrupt the chemical trail, which they regard as more vulnerable than the return flow of user-ready drugs along secretive smuggling routes.
"It's a heck of a lot easier to intercept a tanker-truck of acetone than a few dozen kilos of cocaine," a senior U.S. diplomat said.
The U.S. assault, known as Operation Tourniquet, aims to staunch the flow of "cocaine chemicals" along arteries that stretch from the behemoth petrochemical plants of Texas and Louisiana to tiny jungle processing laboratories along Colombia's Magdalena River.
Those arteries span thousands of miles of pipeline and highway, tanker route and river channel. And the suspects in the stream seem infinite: millions of tons of chemicals, countless vehicles and lists of chemical companies that fill five daunting pages in the Bogota telephone book alone.
Critics argue that the knot is simply too big to tighten. In particular, chemical industry officials have warned of the difficulties of squeezing worldwide sources of supply and voiced doubts that such a tourniquet could significantly inhibit the cocaine trade.
But an effort by The Times to chart the chemical trail--based on Commerce Department data, industry documents and interviews with U.S. and Colombian officials in Washington, Houston, Cartagena and Bogota--provided a map of surprising clarity.
Its principal route runs through the single U.S. port of Houston and links only a few dozen U.S. exporters and 270 principal Latin American customers. Compared with the quantity of buyers and sellers that investigators had once feared, "all the big numbers disappeared," said Gene Haislip, deputy assistant administrator of the DEA.
Demand for Chemicals
Among the lengthy investigation's most important findings:
--The cocaine industry's need for chemicals is enormous. To produce a package of cocaine the size of a two-pound bag of sugar, chemists need 15 liters of a solvent like MEK and a host of other chemicals. The annual demand for the solvents alone fills hundreds of full-size tanker trucks.
--Most of these chemicals come from the United States. In Colombia, where the vast majority of processing laboratories are located, officials believe as much as 80% of the solvents used in cocaine production enter via direct shipments from the United States.
--The main trail begins in Houston, where 70% of shipments carrying cocaine chemicals depart. In Colombia, most shipments arrive at the Caribbean ports of Barranquilla and Cartagena.
--Many Latin American companies that regularly import American-made chemicals are suspected of aiding their transfer to cocaine enterprises. In letters dispatched last week, the DEA denied "regular customer" status to 41 of those 270 firms--a major step toward cutting them off permanently from the U.S. supply.