The Deadly Art of Basuco Papers

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In 2014, when I first moved down to Cali, Colombia, the streets of the city were littered with small, colorful pieces of ultra-thin paper, covered on one side with cool graphic design. They looked like wrappers of local candies, with many of the images of cartoon figures. I started to collect them even before I knew that each of these pieces of paper had held a gram dose of basuco.

Basuco, which in Spanish is an acronym for base sucio de cocaína (dirty base of cocaine), is literally the bottom-of-the-barrel residues of cocaine production. Basuco is extracted, usually in makeshift, no-tech laboratories, by dissolving it in gasoline, sulfuric acid, chloroform, ether, kerosene or the liquid from car batteries, and is often cut or extended with Ajax, talcum powder, ground-up bricks, corn starch and quinine (to simulate the bitter taste of cocaine).

Basuco is known on the street with such nicknames as susuki, banana, little devil, freckles or crazy anxiety. Melted into a fatty-like liquid and smoked in a pipe, because it is unrefined and unpurified, it is much more addictive than cocaine or even crack, and with all the toxic chemicals used to process it, plus the particles inhaled from plastic pipes, it is much more toxic. The effects of smoking basuco last only a few minutes, so consumers generally smoke dozens of hits a day.

Basuco is the cheapest drug on the market and the most detrimental to a person’s health and wellbeing. Its regular use almost inevitably and quite quickly leads to yellowish skin, dry lips, the deterioration of the gums, weight loss, insomnia, irritability, tremors, and over a short period of time can cause sexual impotence, panic attacks, depression, psychosis, and irreversible nerve and brain damage.

This drug is sold in ollas (pots), which are similar to “crack houses” and are located in mostly abandoned areas of the city where hundreds of people live on the street around the house to purchase and consume the drug. There are many ollas in Cali, especially in the areas surrounding the center of the city. These areas are usually beyond the reach of the law and often serve as hideouts for sicarios, hired killers, most of whom are underage. The government has recently been demolishing large areas of inner-city neighborhoods in Cali where some of the biggest ollas are located to make room for a giant, modern mall and jail.

In the 1980s, when it first hit the streets, basuco was consumed by people from all classes, and there were even fancy clubs in which to have a smoke. It was first sold wrapped in pages from bibles or telephone directories, but for the last decade or so the doses have been sold in paper as thin as rolling paper. The paper inevitably came illustrated with graphic images of animals (especially animals of prey), cartoon figures or fantasy images, often repeated in rows. As the traditional printing industry in Cali is located in the center of the city, in the same neighborhood as many of the ollas, independent dealers can easily and cheaply print up any design they want.

Over the years, with the government demolishing ollas, and with the basuco homeless being dispersed to the outer neighborhoods of the city, these papers are being seen less and less. Today, as a result of the consolidation of the basuco cartels, rows of scorpions and pink piggies are almost the only brands to be found on the streets. Although basuco consumption is still substantial within the city, the graphic artform that added colorful images to the consumption of this white powder seems to have gone up in smoke.

Kurt Hollander is a writer and photographer. Originally from New York City, he lived in Mexico City for many years and is currently residing in Cali, Colombia, where he has recently completed a photography project entitled The Architecture of Sex. His writing has been published in the Guardian, Vice, Guernica, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Aeon, The Ecologist, Art in America, Atlantica, Weapons of Reason, Salon and elsewhere.