Paul Gootenberg


On his book Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug

Cover Interview of June 25, 2009

A close-up

I use a number of lenses on cocaine’s history, but one revealing close-up concerns the actual “technology” of cocaine making.

Usually, the history of cocaine departs from the heroics of modern trained German scientists like Niemann, Merck, and Freud who discovered, made, or toyed with the newfound alkaloid Cocaine Hydrochloride (HC1) in the late 19th century.  In Andean Cocaine, I follow the sinuous trail of another form of cocaine, so-called “crude cocaine” or cocaine sulfates.  Crude cocaine is a simpler concoction, produced by using kerosene and other cheap local ingredients to reduce coca leaf to an alkaloid-rich cake.  It is exported abroad for refining in pharmaceutical labs into medicinal grade HC1—or, now, mainly powder recreational “coke.” From page 281: Blanca Ibáez de Sánchez, Female Bolivian Drug Trafficker, c.1960.  (U.S. National Archives, Record Group 59, Dept. of State, Decimal Files, 411.24342/2-761, “Narcotics Trafficker Blanca Ibáez de SANCHEZ,” 6 April 1961.)

Crude cocaine was actually invented in 1885 by an unknown pharmacist-researcher in Lima, Alfredo Bignon, and promoted by the Peruvian government to make cocaine widely available for export use, which it did.  By the 1890s, this technique was adopted to the remote Amazonian coca-growing zones of eastern Peru.  It served there as the “appropriate technology” for a highly successful legal cocaine export industry at the turn of the century, led by regional elite businessmen like Augusto Durand and Andrés Soberón.  Over decades, their devotion to this regional trade kept backwoods knowledge of cocaine-making alive as the drug faded in other parts of the world.

When cocaine became criminalized in Peru after 1948, this exact same formula (in part passed along by actors like Soberón) transformed into the basis for onsite peasant production of “coca paste” or so-called PBC (short for Pasta Básica de Cocaína).  PBC remains the key Andean input into today’s global criminal cocaine enterprise.  Thousands of anonymous jungle peasants make it by mashing coca leaf with simple chemicals in makeshift plastic-lined pits, under the gaze of the DEA.

So, in contrast to modern corporate Western science, cocaine has a long hidden genealogy of local knowledge, honed by forgotten grassroots actors.