Cocaine-Making Chemical Is Curbed After Use by Cartels Exposed

A second U.S. chemical company has stopped sales of one of its products after a Bloomberg Businessweek investigation found that drug cartels were diverting massive amounts of it to make narcotics, as an American epidemic raged.

Tetra Technologies Inc. recently said it stopped selling calcium chloride in South America late last year after Bloomberg revealed that traffickers had been acquiring the chemical in Peru and illegally smuggling it by the truckload across Ecuador to cocaine laboratories in Colombia. For years, police in Ecuador took crime-scene photos showing multi-ton seizures of calcium chloride packed in Tetra’s factory bags. Arrested smugglers described it as the brand of choice for cocaine chemists.

Cocaine-Making Chemical Is Curbed After Use by Cartels Exposed

“Out of an abundance of caution and due to the potential for diversion, Tetra discontinued all sales and shipments of calcium chloride into South America in late 2020,” the company said in an emailed response to questions. Tetra and its sole distributor in Peru said they are authorized to sell the chemical there and that they comply with all laws and regulations.

Avantor Inc. said in a statement last September that it had ceased sales in Mexico of the essential heroin-making chemical, acetic anhydride. It did so after Bloomberg documented how the company built a business line around selling jugs of the chemical. Each of the 18-liter jugs could make about 90,000 hits of pure “China white” heroin, and photos of drug raids showed Avantor’s J.T. Baker-brand acetic anhydride at labs in Mexico over the last decade.

Former U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors told Bloomberg that ceasing sales is a smart corporate move. Chemical companies could be in legal jeopardy if they continue to sell after learning that narcotics traffickers have easily tapped their products to make drugs bound for American street corners.

Avantor began ceasing sales and destroying its stocks the day Bloomberg’s story was published, on Aug. 26, “due to the potential for misuse of acetic anhydride outside of the regulated supply chain.” Avantor has said it followed all regulations and sold only to authorized distributors and retailers, and they were responsible for policing their customers.

Tetra didn’t say exactly when it began shutting down sales last year. Tetra calcium chloride flowed legally into Peru until the waning days of 2020, two months after a Bloomberg report on the company was published in October. One 42-metric-ton load arrived by container ship at the port of Callao on Dec. 4, while another 63-ton shipment got there on Dec. 28, customs records show.

It’s unclear when Tetra sent those two shipments to Peru. The company didn’t respond to requests for comment about the shipments.

Cocaine-Making Chemical Is Curbed After Use by Cartels Exposed

Without chemicals, it’s impossible to produce cocaine from coca leaves or to make heroin from poppies. Calcium chloride has myriad legal uses, like de-icing roads or keeping dust down on tennis courts. But in 2013 Colombian and Bolivian police noticed a surge in the use of the chemical in cocaine labs. Chemists were using it to recycle and recover solvents that are more tightly controlled under a global drug-making chemical policing system overseen by a United Nations agency.

Bloomberg found that drug chemists have long exploited weak or non-existent oversight of supply chains to get the chemicals they need or to bypass international controls.

Since the mid-1990s, calcium chloride sales in Ecuador and Colombia required licenses and verification that it’s not being diverted to traffickers.

Peru didn’t start regulating the chemical until January 2020, and only after years of international pressure. Efforts in Peru to enforce the new law were hobbled by the Covid shutdown of business and government. Peru’s National Customs and Tax Administration Superintendent, or Sunat, has been cracking down on calcium chloride since Bloomberg’s report was published.

All legal buyers, sellers and consumers have been registered, said Paul Vera, who leads Sunat’s enforcement of controls on narcotics-making chemicals. Now, agents are planning to audit them to assure that calcium chloride stocks are not diverted to narcotics labs. “We are looking into the calcium chloride market,” said Vera. “We now know who is who in the world of calcium chloride.”

Tetra said it “strongly opposes” the use of its chemicals for illicit purposes and hasn’t “been made aware of any additional information concerning the status of any law enforcement investigations being conducted by any governmental authorities.”

Quimicos Goicochea, Tetra’s authorized distributor in Peru since late 2016, said it has always complied with the law, and has no control over how third parties use its products. The company said it’s not aware of any legal action or investigation regarding calcium chloride. Quimicos Goicochea declined to comment on Tetra’s decision to stop sales of the chemical.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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