20 February 2020
Category : Interview
When acetone becomes a drug: How are explosives and narcotics precursors controlled?
We interviewed Jose Luis Martin, head of service of the precursor area of the Intelligence Centre against Terrorism and Organized Crime (CITCO). FIIAPP works with this institution through projects such as COPOLAD, a cooperation programme between the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States and the European Union in drug policies.José Luis Martín, head of service of the precursor area of CITCO
What are precursors?
Precursors are substances which intervene in any way in a chemical process, either to manufacture drugs, narcotics, psychotropics or to manufacture explosives. There are two types of precursors that are regulated by their own specific regulations. These are drug precursors, on the one hand, and explosive precursors on the other.
In what context are they used?
On a historical level, this scourge exists both in Spain and internationally. We are talking about drug trafficking and terrorism.
In reference to drug trafficking, precursors are essential substances for manufacturing drugs from primary processes practically until the moment that drug is made available to the consumer.
In reference to explosive precursors, we are now seeing that, internationally, through wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, etc. things have evolved greatly when it comes to making explosives based on substances which are not commercially illicit.
So, precursors are not only used illicitly…
Not by any means. Drug and explosive precursors have an absolutely lawful and legal use. Drug precursors, for example, are used extensively at the industrial level. For example, in sectors such as medicine, veterinary medicine, paper, water purification, etc.
As for explosive precursors, the case is practically the same. The only difference is that explosive precursors also have a particular use, for example in activities such as aero-modelling, water cleaning, etc. That is, they have a widespread use both at an industrial level and at a professional or even private level.
Can anyone access these precursors?
No, countries and their laws have to put limits on their use and acquisition. In the case of drug precursors, it is not easy to acquire them. There are very particular connotations. Currently, European legislation, and therefore Spanish legislation, mark three categories as being within the control of drug precursors. Category 1 refers to the regulations that control drug precursors which are themselves practically drugs, which can be merely manipulated and turned into drugs for consumption. This is a very controlled category of substances and one needs to be in possession of a licence to purchase them. Then we have category 2 which are substances that are practically essential, such as potassium permanganate, to make cocaine. The precursors of this category require registration in the registry provided that certain quantities are exceeded. And, finally, there is category 3, which has widespread use at the industrial level, over-the-counter, and no special qualification is required.
In relation to explosive precursors, the legislation includes them in annexes. Annex I for potentially hazardous substances, which at the industrial level does not require any type of authorization but does require such authorization to access them at an individual level. Individuals who want to acquire an explosive precursor listed in Annex I of the Community regulation that regulates these substances must obtain a licence that is not easy to acquire.
What examples of commodities can be used to make drugs or explosives?
Acetone is a product that is used as a solvent in many products. It is used to make medicines, fibres, etc. but it is also used illegally to make drugs in almost all processes. Who doesn’t have a bottle of acetone at home? And as an explosive precursor it is a fundamental product because in combination with other products, an explosive can be made. In fact, we can say that making an explosive is actually simple, but fortunately, handling and storing them is much more complex.
When do the use of precursors become a crime and how do you act against it?
National legislation very clearly defines the crimes that can be committed with drug and explosive precursors. That is, the mere possession of these products does not constitute a criminal act. What does constitute it evidently is if it can be proved that such possession is destined for illegal use. Our job as Police and as Civil Guards is to prove if such possession is going to be used illegally.
In addition to the security forces, many actors are involved in this control process. Not only nationally. There are many agencies and many people involved in this control. I would like to emphasize that a fundamental part of the work belongs to the Member States of the European Union. Periodically, more and more frequently, working groups of specialists on both drugs and explosives are being convened to see what there is in existence outside European borders, for example, in Latin America or in Africa. And logically, according to those meetings we have, conclusions are drawn and action is taken.
Lately we are seeing how precursors can be controlled without harming trade, since it is fundamental. We, at the police level, would like to have everything inspected, but we know that this cannot be the case for commerce and industry since they are products that are used, as I said, on an absolutely daily basis.
For our part and in close collaboration with the chemical industry, whose support work is absolutely fundamental, we are holding many work meetings and informative meetings for the population and businesses.
I would also like to take the opportunity to say that we have a permanent telephone number for information about suspicious transactions, which is manned 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 915 37 27 66. There, if you have any doubts, or if there is any suspicious transaction or something that is not quite right that an individual has been buying, or is interested in, a product that can be used to make explosives, please pick up the phone and let us know and we will manage it from there onwards.
How important are precursors internationally and how do you work on them?
The control of such substances is internationally very significant. I remember the last COPOLAD meeting a month ago in Buenos Aires and the difference in control was significant, and the importance given to these situations depended on the countries. That is, it is very important to join forces and that we all paddle in the same direction.
Intelligence is also very important. Sharing intelligence is absolutely fundamental and we see that in the European Union’s perspective that everything is evaluated to a much higher degree and is much more controlled. But we also see the shortcomings of other countries that have difficulties or that do not have an established customs system as such, or have insufficient police, which affects us all in some way or another.
There are, for example, illegal drug trafficking routes and drug traffickers who take advantage of the shortcomings of the countries that have such routes. Therefore, it is essential to continue with working meetings and that we all put our experiences on the table so that we all go in the same direction.
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