Ecuador turns surfeit of seized cocaine into concrete
QUITO, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Huge quantities of seized drugs in Ecuador are presenting the Andean country with an unlikely new construction material: cocaine.
Under President Guillermo Lasso, a conservative ex-banker, Ecuador has ramped up efforts to fight gangs who use the country as a transit point for shipping cocaine to the United States and Europe.
The amount of drugs seized in Ecuador almost doubled in 2021 versus the previous year to more than 210 tonnes, mostly cocaine, according to the country's police.
Though seizures in 2022 dropped slightly, they remained high and quantities exceed the available space at 27 police warehouses where the drug is kept before being destroyed, officials said.
The record amounts also exceed the capacity of the ovens normally used for incineration, Edmundo Mera, undersecretary for Drug Control at Ecuador's Interior Ministry, told Reuters.
Now the country is using some of the excess cocaine in construction materials.
Using the so-called encapsulation method, with support from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Ecuador pulverizes seized bricks of cocaine in industrial machines with other refuse at a waste disposal plant before mixing the resulting fine powder with cement, sand and water to create concrete platforms.
"Our focus was that we took this process (encapsulation) and we did it big, perhaps out of desperation to make good on destroying the drugs," Mera said.
Hundreds of blocks of cocaine hydrochloride and coca paste seized from across Ecuador arrive each week at a waste treatment plant on the outskirts of the capital Quito to be broken down along with glass, expired medicines and even oil waste, technicians said.
The powder is then mixed with other materials to produce a cement slurry for use in construction.
As the slurry sets, it reacts with the other material present to form a stable, hard and impenetrable matrix which prevents the cocaine from seeping into the ground or being recovered, according to the UN office.
Ecuadorean authorities are using this process to fill a 15-meter-deep hole with layers of the concrete, which will later form a warehouse floor in the plant - which cannot be named for security reasons.
Once this hole is filled with the cocaine-laced concrete, another one is waiting to repeat the process. There are currently no plans to use the encapsulated cocaine for other infrastructure projects.
So far some 350 tonnes of crushed cocaine and coca paste - a cocaine precursor - seized between 2021 and 2022 have been used to fill the hole, according to plant technicians.
It can take about 12 hours to incinerate a tonne of cocaine but it takes less than three hours to encapsulate the same amount, according to Pablo Ramirez, Ecuador's Director of Anti-Drug Investigation.
The procedure is helping to free up police drug collection centers. Some 83 tonnes of cocaine are waiting to be encapsulated.
"This procedure is cheaper, takes less time and doesn't affect the environment," Ramirez told Reuters.
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