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Peru firm exports coca leaves Regulation tight for crop that has medical uses BY LUCIEN O. CHAUVIN Special to The Herald
LIMA - As manager of international sales for the National Coca Co., Luis Hinostroza may have one of the world's oddest jobs.
His company exports coca leaves and processed cocaine, but only after meeting reams of red tape from drug-enforcement agencies in the buyers' countries. It offers coca-leaf teas, some with English-language packaging for sale abroad even though international norms bar their export.
ENACO, as it is known for its Spanish acronym, is the Peruvian government's official buyer and merchandiser of coca leaves and one of only two companies in the world to produce refined cocaine for medical uses.
''We have used coca in this country for 4,000 years. It is not a drug, but because of the negative image associated with one product it is considered evil,'' Hinostroza said in a recent interview. ``We are ready to export and have our products already in English for the U.S. market. We just have to get this prohibition lifted.''
Peasant farmers in the high Andes traditionally chew coca as a nutritional supplement and energy booster and use it in religious and fortune-telling rituals. Besides cocaine, which is one of 14 alkaloids in the leaf, coca has a long list of vitamins and minerals.
ENACO purchases roughly 3,000 tons of coca leaf a year from growers, and then sells about 2,800 tons for traditional uses. Another seven tons are ground up at one of its two Lima plants and packaged as teas, often consumed in the Andean highlands as a remedy for altitude sickness.
The remainder is sold abroad in leaf form or refined into about 330 pounds of cocaine, with a 92 percent purity level, that is exported mostly to Europe as an anesthetic used mainly in eye surgery.
Cocaine, coca leaves and teas are all available for sale on ENACO's website, www.ena co.com.pe. But there are strict controls on the cocaine, which ENACO sells for $1,000 a pound but which would bring about $50,000 on the illegal market.
''Purchase of cocaine has to be approved by drug-enforcement agencies in the importing country. We are very careful with the lab and with the exports,'' Hinostroza said.
The other company producing cocaine is New Jersey's Stepan Co., a multinational that makes a long line of industrial and household products.
Stepan buys about 110 tons of coca leaves from ENACO each year to make cocaine for pharmaceutical companies. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration grants Stepan a special license to import coca leaves.
''We process coca leaves for a pharmaceutical product, principally used in ocular [eye] surgery. That is the primary use for the coca we import,'' says Stepan's general counsel, Sam Ebert, in a telephone interview.
ENACO asserts, however, that Stepan also processes the coca syrup used for flavoring Coca-Cola since 1905. Stepan would not comment on whether it makes the extract, which lacks the cocaine alkaloid. Coca-Cola officials in Peru said only that the Atlanta-based firm does not buy raw coca leaves.
Supplying Coca-Cola is a business that the Peruvian company would dearly like to have.
''It is ironic that we cannot sell our products, but a U.S. company is given special permission to industrialize coca,'' said ENACO chemist Silveria Dongo, who has overseen the company's laboratory for 11 years.
''The DEA wants us to eradicate our coca, which is part of our cultural heritage, but it has no problem allowing it to be imported so a U.S. company can do the same thing,'' Dongo added.
With nearly 90,000 acres of coca under cultivation -- enough for 150 tons of cocaine -- Peru is the world's second-largest coca producer behind Colombia, which has three times the acreage and accounts for most of the 770 tons of illegal cocaine sold in the United States and Europe each year.
Peru receives about $140 million a year in U.S. counter-narcotic aid, and in September 2002 signed an agreement with Washington to eradicate all but 28,000 acres of coca by 2006.
After a steady decline from nearly 300,000 acres of coca in the early 1990s, Peru saw an increase of 8 percent last year, apparently the result of increased eradication efforts in Colombia under the U.S.-financed Plan Colombia.
While the possibility of legally exporting coca leaf or coca products appears unlikely to become reality anytime soon, that has not stopped Dongo from thinking up coca-baased products.
In her tidy laboratory, amid rows of beakers holding different caramel-colored liquids, Dongo shows off soaps, shampoos and industrial products made from coca.
If all goes well, ENACO will launch a power drink later this year to compete with imported, high-caffeine drinks. The company is keeping the name of the drink secret for now.
Coca period is illegal so the tea probably is also but I dont think cops would give a fuck about then since its real easy to order it from the internet and if the DEA wanted to stop it they could probably easily do it...