In Bogotá the homeless weave between the cars shouting and directing and demanding compensation for doing the traffic police’s work. They hit tyres with sticks to alert people to air pressure some, or they can rent a cart in El Bronx and examine and destroy every bag of waste left on the street for collection — looking for plastic or cardboard to sell. Some shout and lunge at pedestrians or run the length of power lines stripping the copper wire. Sometimes they steal the internet from the end of your street. Most of them want the money for basuco.

In El Bronx al desnudo: La caldera del diablo (available on Youtube in Spanish) an indigent inhabitant of El Bronx describes the eight taquillas selling basuco along La Ele. Two people behind an office table sheltered tarpaulin and wood that sell doses of basuco twenty fours a day. He and journalist Rafael Podevo indulge in some questionable calculator work based on an estimate of 20 doses per minute per taquilla, that’s 230,400 doses per day at 2,000 COP (£0.42) per dose.

Strangely, not a lot seems to be commonly known about the drug itself. A 2011 Guardian article on Oxi in Brazil claimed it’s “Twice as powerful as crack cocaine at a just a fraction of the price” yet most English-speaking people in Bogotá just refer to it as “crack” (Including Bogotá resident Christopher Kavanagh in his unsettling and worthwhile co-written memoir Mad Outta Me Head).

Basuco has appeared in the media under various names, especially since an uptick in use after Argentina’s financial crisis in the early 2000s. As oxi, paco, and pasta base. It’s responsible for the peculiar and often intimidating behaviour and appearance of many homeless people in Bogotá.

It’s difficult to determine the facts from the media’s inevitable — and possibly harmful -inability to resist sensationalising “new” drugs.

Although the police chief in the Guardian article reports confusion about the technical details of the substance, we can be fairly sure that it’s a intermediary substance in the processing of the coca leaf to the relatively pure cocaine powder exported to the US and Europe. It’s possible that it was originally a by product of the process, perhaps residues left over in equipment, but the volume of consumption now makes it likely it’s now produced intentionally for sale in Latin America.

Usually, labs in the jungles of Colombia and Peru extract cocaine sulfate paste from the raw leaves using kerosene, lime, alcohol, ammonia,and sulphuric acid, and then process it again to make cocaine hydrochloride (pure cocaine powder) and which the cartels export. Crack cocaine is made from the pure powder by dealers or users in the destination countries. Basuco is smokable freebase form processed directly from the chemical laden paste stage without the further purification western cocaine gets. All the immediacy and intense effects of crack but much cheaper, plus kerosene and sulfuric acid.

It’s usually smoked in cigarettes — when you see Bogotá homeless in huddled groups that seem to be repeatedly lighting cigarettes with unreasonably large flames, they’re smoking basuco. Rather than smoking one hit every hour or two as crack users tend to, basuco users might smoke 15–200 “potillos” in a night.

A report from a Bolivian rehab centre claims that it’s unlikely the adulterants (kerosene etc.) make any difference to to the psychoactive effects of the drug, as they’re probably burned off when it’s smoked. However the kerosene alone likely contributes to the brain damage found in almost all long-term basuceros. The most detailed and commonly cited study on the effects of smoking the drug is F. Raul Jeri (1983), conducted in Peru on 389 users. The study makes no attempt to compare the drug directly with crack, but it includes a number of poignant case studies that give a good insight into what life is like for a lot of Bogotá basuceros. A selection follows.

“A 44 year-old male was admitted due to repeated convulsions. Hisfather had been an alcoholic and had committed suicide; an uncle was also an alcoholic. The patient began to drink alcohol when he was 18 years old, and within a few years he drank heavily every day. He has smoked coca paste for the last five years at the rate of 10 to 15 cigarettes a day. He has developed tonic-clonic seizures after drinking or after using paste and alcohol.He has had several hallucinogenic episodes, mainly of visual hallucinations.On examination, he had a moderate increase of blood pressure (150/100 mmHg),and many scars due to burns. Fourteen years ago he had been run over by a car while inebriated and had sustained a skull fracture, spending several hours in a coma. Diagnosis: Alcoholism, intensive use of paste, probable brain scar, alcoholic and cocaine epilepsy.”

“A 19 year old male was admitted with headaches. He had been an excellent student and athlete; at 18 he had been called to the military. There he learned to smoke cannabis and coca paste. He quickly became an intensive smoker. After six months, he needed to smoke paste every day. He was expelled from the Army and later no one could stop him from climbing through the windows and ceilings to get the drug. He sold all his belongings, robbed his own house, then those of the neighbours; -later he became associated with a gang of bank robbers. He was detained, and while in prison, he exchanged his clothes, food, and money for paste. He contracted pulmonary TBC and tuberculous meningitis. In spite of that disease, he would exchange his medicines for the drug. Gradually he became worse and was taken to the hospital, where he deteriorated steadily. The infestion was controlled, but he developed obstructive hydrocephalus and a state of prolonged coma with persistent myoclonic and generalized convulsions. At present, he is unconscious, cachetic and rigid. Diagnosis: tuberculosis, akinatie mutism, coca paste addiction, personality disorder: passive-aggressive.”

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