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Colombian drug cartels exporting cocaine underneath Valentine’s day flowers

The season before Valentine's Day is the busiest time of the year for Colombia's growers, when the 130,000 people employed at hundreds of flower farms work nonstop to ship some 500 million stems

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Cocaine
Powder drugs. Image source-Wikimedia Commons
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Cocaine is probably the last thing most people think about when buying roses. But every year, police and growers in Colombia must work around the clock to make sure that the romance of Valentine’s Day isn’t spoiled by the drug, the nation’s other major export along with flowers.

As much as 330,000 pounds (150 metric tons) of flowers leave Colombia on 30-plus jumbo cargo planes daily starting in late January, presenting an opportunity for the country’s ingenious drug cartels to penetrate the frenzied, overworked chain of suppliers and stash drugs amid the roses.

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“Without a doubt we’re a target,” said Augusto Solano, president of the Colombian flower exporters’ association.

Security protocols that the flower industry developed with police begin the moment that refrigerated trucks carrying rose buds depart dozens of flower farms dotting the waterlogged savannah surrounding Colombia’s capital. Once the flowers are inside the airport, 100 police offices equipped with 15 drug-sniffing dogs and electronic scanners inspect each shipment.

Last year, police said they found almost 200 pounds (90 kilograms) of cocaine hidden in flower boxes.

“We have to guarantee that our flower exports aren’t contaminated by criminal gangs,” Col. Julio Triana said as he and his drug-sniffing Labrador retriever walked through the refrigerated warehouse where flowers are kept before being loaded onto cargo planes.

Colombia’s flower industry took off in the early 1990s when the U.S. Congress passed a law eliminating tariffs on goods from Andean drug-producing nations in a bid to encourage legal exports. That Colombia’s criminals now train their eyes on flower shipments as a way to smuggle drugs into the U.S. is a sign of just how much the industry has blossomed. It is now is the world’s second-largest cut flower exporter, after the Netherlands, and the top supplier to the U.S.

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The season before Valentine’s Day is the busiest time of the year for Colombia’s growers, when the 130,000 people employed at hundreds of flower farms work nonstop to ship some 500 million stems, mostly to the United States but other parts of the world as well.

“Right now there’s not a single rose available,” said Solano.

But with competitors from Kenya and Ecuador making inroads, the industry isn’t taking its leadership for granted and works hard to keep out smuggled drugs.

“It requires a big effort because if another country finds drugs they can ban flower imports from Colombia and that would be disastrous,” Solano said. (VOA)

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Low Quality Drugs, Medicine Costs More Than Just Money

Even in high-income countries, purchasing cheaper medicines from illegitimate sources online could result in obtaining substandard or falsified medicines.

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Medicines
A seized counterfeit hydrocodone tablets in the investigation of a rash of fentanyl overdoses in northern California is shown in this Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). VOA

About one in eight essential medicines in low- and middle-income countries may be fake or contain dangerous mixes of ingredients that put patients’ lives at risk, a research review suggests.

Researchers examined data from more 350 previous studies that tested more 400,000 drug samples in low- and middle-income countries. Overall, roughly 14 percent of medicines were counterfeit, expired or otherwise low quality and unlikely to be as safe or effective as patients might expect.

“Low-quality medicines can have no or little active pharmaceutical ingredient [and] can prolong illness, lead to treatment failure and contribute to drug resistance,” said lead study author Sachiko Ozawa of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“Or it may have a too much active ingredient and cause a drug overdose,” Ozawa said by email. “If it is contaminated or has other active ingredients, then the medication could cause poisoning, adverse drug interactions or avertable deaths.”

Much of the research to date on counterfeit or otherwise unsafe medicines has focused on Africa, and about half of the studies in the current analysis were done there.

 

medicines
One in five medications tested in Africa were fake. Pixabay

 

Almost one in five medications tested in Africa were fake or otherwise potentially unsafe, researchers report in JAMA Network Open.

 

Another third of the studies were done in Asia, where about 14 percent of medicines tested were found to be counterfeit or otherwise unsafe.

Antibiotics and antimalarials were the most tested drugs in the analysis. Overall, about 19 percent of antimalarials and 12 percent of antibiotics were falsified or otherwise unsafe.

While fake or improperly made medicines undoubtedly harm patients, the current analysis couldn’t tell how many people suffered serious side effects or died as a result of falsified drugs.

Researchers did try to assess the economic impact of counterfeit or improperly made medicines and found the annual cost might run anywhere from $10 billion to $200 billion.

While the study didn’t examine high-income countries, drug quality concerns are by no means limited to less affluent nations, Ozawa said.

Medicines
Different vaccines. Pixabay

“Even in high-income countries, purchasing cheaper medicines from illegitimate sources online could result in obtaining substandard or falsified medicines,” Ozawa said. “Verify the source before you buy medications, and make policymakers aware of the problem so they can work to improve the global supply chain of medicines.”

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how counterfeit or poorly made medicines directly harm patients, however. And the economic impact was difficult to assess from smaller studies that often didn’t include a detailed methodology for calculating the financial toll.

Also Read: Eating in 10-hour Window May Boost Health

The report “provides important validation of what is largely already known,” Tim Mackey of the Global Health Policy Institute in La Jolla, California, writes in an accompanying editorial.

“It is important to note that although the study is comprehensive, its narrow scope means it only provides a snapshot of the entire problem, as it is limited to studies conducted in low- and middle-income countries and to those
medicines classified as essential by the World Health Organization.” (VOA)