So far, however, even the chemical industry officials acknowledge that the United States remains the primary source of the chemicals. They expressed concern in recent interviews that DEA investigators had reportedly developed sufficient suspicions to refuse "regular status" to more than 15% of Latin American customers, as the agency did this week.
"If anywhere close to one-fifth of our chemical exports are going to jungle labs, we have a problem of proportions that no one has ever imagined or confronted," said Joe Cook, executive vice president of the National Assn. of Chemical Distributors.
Such concerns appear particularly well-founded when viewed from close range in Colombia, where the chemical trafficking is an open secret.
Near the port of Barranquilla, flatbed trucks share muddy streets with horse-drawn carts. One truck carries dozens of 55-gallon drums of MEK, painted a vivid blue. Its driver, who says he bought the load from a nearby paint factory, reports that it is headed "to a customer in the interior."
Outside Barranquilla's customs zone, 10,000-gallon tankers line up in hopes of winning bulk loads. Asked whether he knows his expected load of acetone can be used to make cocaine, one driver winks broadly.
"It makes no difference to me," he says.
And in Cartagena, whose majestic harbor has been guarded for centuries by the Castillo de San Felipe and ranks of cannon, Western authorities say there is little effort to guard against the chemical invasion.
The Navy has steadfastly insisted that smuggling poses no problem, a diplomat noted. Customs authorities are generally regarded as Colombia's most corrupt. And once shipments arrive in Cartagena, they are rarely scrutinized by the national police.
"These are dangerous chemicals, and the responsibility of the port is to get them out of the way as fast as we can," says Ricardo Daza, chief of security for the Port of Cartagena. "Who knows where they go next?"
COCAINE: THE CHEMICAL CONNECTION
The major delivery routes for chemicals necessary to process cocaine.
WHAT GOES INTO IT
Chemicals needed to make one kilogram of cocaine hydrochloride:
Kerosene--250 to 500 liters.
Sulfuric acid--10 liters.
Methyl ethyl ketone, acetone or ethylether--15 liters.
Potassium permanganate --100 grams.
Potassium carbonate or sodium carbonate--50 grams; or ammonium hydroxide--50 liters.
Source: U.S. officials in Colombia.
WHAT IS EXPORTED
U.S. exports of selected essential chemicals to Colombia:
In millions of pounds
Methyl ethyl Acetone ketone 1985 3.3 7.5 1986 3.5 13.9 1987 3.4 11.5 1988 4.7 12.8 1989* 6.1 12.9
Source: U.S. Commerce Department, Chemical Manufacturers Assn.