In a kitchen in Medellín, reporters Nicolás Achury and Óscar Güesguán observed the making of a mysterious new drug cocktail. At that point, no one except for those producing it knew exactly what it was.
Some media outlets had called the drug “Colombian pink cocaine.” Others suggested it was related to the psychedelic drug 2C-B, and gave it a derived term, “tusi.” Without solid evidence, some said it was a mixture containing various substances including fentanyl, an opioid that is now the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States. Whatever it was, the Colombian government was concerned because more than 28,000 lives there had been lost to psychoactive substances between 2013 to 2020, and the numbers could rise if this new drug cocktail proved lethal.
Achury and Güesguán, who had investigated drug stories in the past, knew that the only way to find out what the cocktail contained was to go looking for it on the streets of Medellín. Their reporting led them to the kitchen of a drug producer and to a late-night party where supplies of the new drug flowed among adolescents and young adults. The audiovisual material they collected illustrated the ease with which this dangerous drug is prepared, the environments in which it is consumed, and its immediate effects on the people taking it. Further, the reporters collaborated with the chromatography group at the University of Caldas as well as with chemists, psychologists, and sociologists at a drug-research and advocacy organization, Échele Cabeza to analyze the products they recovered in the streets.
The chemists confirmed what the man who made tusi in his kitchen had told the reporters: The powder they got from him, along with 25 other samples collected from social events in Medellín and Bogotá, included ketamine, oxycodone, caffeine, MDMA, and other substances, but not 2C-B. In the substance analysis report that the researchers published in March 2023, they warned that the combination of oxycodone and ketamine in “tusi” may cause sedation, and that mixing the drug with alcohol may lead to the depression of the central nervous system, causing symptoms such as decreased motor capacity and drowsiness. The researchers made an urgent call to the authorities to monitor possible emergencies related to the use of tusi.
Analyses of additional samples obtained one month after the publication of the story proved even more alarming. Those backed up the claim that tusi can indeed contain fentanyl.
Achury and Güesguán’s reporting—a multimedia package that included two text articles, a photo library, several infographics, and a short video, was published in the Colombian newspaper El Espectador, where they are reporters, in March 2023. The footage Achury and Güesguán obtained in the drug dealer’s kitchen and a clandestine party became the most viewed video report ever in the newspaper’s history.
The article made waves as mayors of Colombia’s largest cities were asked to make transparent the information they had about tusi consumption and the actions they were taking to address it.
Humberto Basilio spoke with Nicolás Achury about the investigation, how the team collaborated with researchers, and the security and ethical considerations required to report the story. (This interview has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.)
Where did you and Óscar Güesguán get the idea to report this story and to collaborate with researchers?
I was reading a report by Échele Cabeza that talked about Colombia’s most altered drugs, tusi included. [Several drugs in Colombia, as in other countries, are diluted or mixed with other components to lower production costs and increase profits.] It also said that [among other illegal substances] the consumption of tusi was the one that increased the most in the country in recent years.
We found that media from around the world, [including in] Mexico, Uruguay, Argentina, Italy, and France were talking about the Colombian “pink cocaine” boom. It was relatively easy to see that this information is incorrect, and that [tusi] is nothing like cocaine. I was curious to know what tusi really was, what kind of substances it contained, and how it was produced and consumed.
We immediately contacted Julian Quintero, [who is] director of Échele Cabeza and who had been my source before. We told him about this idea we had of going to the clandestine kitchens to do a story, and he told us that they were working with the chromatography group at the University of Caldas on a new analysis [describing the contents of tusi]. We told them that we would like to work hand in hand with them. They were interested because of the number of readers that El Espectador has. The strategy was that our story and their substance analysis report on tusi would get published on the same day.
At El Espectador, field reporting is always a priority. But for us, it was very difficult to get to places in marginalized neighborhoods where tusi gets produced. We started calling contacts we had for coverage we had done in the past on the drug issue in Colombia. We got the contact of a local [drug] producer who shared with us the contact information of other sellers. That was the longest process; it took us more than two months to get a person to let us into his clandestine tusi kitchen. Finally, we found Calavera.
Who is Calavera?
Calavera [not his real name] is a [drug] producer from Medellín who agreed to let us into his tusi kitchen. From the beginning, we were very honest and direct with all our sources. We told them that we were journalists wanting to do an investigation on tusi that was going to be published [online and shared] in all El Espectador‘s social media. Calavera said yes, but ten others said no. They were concerned that their faces would be seen in the images and that they could be identified.
We told Calavera that we intended to report on what drugs they produced and how. The ground rules were always clear: His voice would be distorted, and neither his face nor any part of his house would be recorded in a wide shot.
He cooks his tusi in the kitchen of his home, the same kitchen where his children and wife eat. Calavera is aware of how dangerous the stuff he sells is, and I think he has a genuine interest in letting people know what is behind the substance. He is a person who grew up in a violent context. He grew up and lives in a very difficult world from which he cannot get out.
How did you protect your safety while you were in drug kitchens and other dangerous parts of Medellín?
At all times, the people from the newspaper’s management were aware of where we were, where exactly we were going, and what kind of transportation we would use. I communicated with them every hour to report how, where, and with whom we were or if we needed anything.
We had to be careful when arriving at Calavera’s house because we were not the only ones at risk. Calavera himself could not let La Oficina, the criminal organization he works for, know we were there. He and all his family would be at risk just for that.
To get into his house, we were transported in a car. Since getting out at the same time with the recording equipment was extremely suspicious, we would drive around the block three times, each time one of us would get out with some of the recording equipment. First me, then Óscar, then our producer.
Talking constantly with my editor was very useful because he helped me to keep my thoughts in order, without getting carried away by the rawness of the testimonies I heard or the situations I saw. It’s always good to hear another voice, [someone] far from the story, to tell you if something you are thinking of doing is too risky or not.
I recommend that anyone who wants to do something similar should always look for a backer who will see it through. Not necessarily a big media outlet, but a publication or organization dedicated to the protection of journalists that [will] look out for your safety.
Can you describe a difficult situation during your reporting?
The clandestine party was the most dangerous moment. The place was surrounded by people from an armed group. We couldn’t bring our cameras, so we had to film with our cell phones. Inside the venue, we had to act like we were [each just] one more person at the party. A difficult moment was having to watch the young people pass out from inhaling the tusi and not being able to do anything about it. None of the people around were doing anything to help them.
At one point one [young person] fell next to me. I immediately picked him up and asked him if he was okay. His eyes were totally wild. I think that in addition to being journalists we are human, and that means that we cannot be indifferent to the things that happen around us while reporting.
Did you face other ethical choices as you were creating this piece?
Colombia’s history has been marked by narcotraffic. Historically, the media have focused on covering drugs from a prohibitionist and stigmatizing perspective. At El Espectador, we try to bring the discussion and public debate to points that do not criminalize those involved, and that do not cause sensationalism or fear mongering. We wanted to show that drug producers aren’t always super-organized criminal groups, but like Calavera, a young man who sees that the way to help his family is to sell drugs that he prepares in his kitchen. Literally, anyone with a frying pan and a wooden spoon can make it at home. We didn’t want to romanticize it, nor say that what he does is good, because it is not. But it is all part of a very complex cycle.
Calavera told you that tusi may contain fentanyl, but that’s not what the initial chemical analyses found. How did you handle this information, considering that Calavera might be considered an unreliable narrator?
We clarified that, as of the date of publication of the story, no entity had found fentanyl in tusi, despite what Calavera was saying at the time.
Almost a month after our story was published, Échele Cabeza found traces of fentanyl in the tusi of a person who attended the Estéreo Picnic festival in Colombia. In other words, our story, through the testimonies of actual drug producers, alerted readers almost two months earlier that this was already happening.
The intention was not to create huge alarms about the fact that the tusi had fentanyl in it, but we wanted to create a public health discussion. It is very risky for people to have no idea what they are consuming.
Has your story altered policies or public discussion?
The impact was massive, and it was something we did not expect. It generated reactions from decision-makers in Colombia, and public debate.
After the publication of the story, a Bogotá councilman asked for “derechos de petición” [a request for transparency] to the secretary of security and the secretary of health of Medellín to know what they were doing about the consumption of tusi.
In Medellín, the councilors asked the mayor, Daniel Quintero, to make a statement on what was happening with tusi in the city. Unlike other municipalities, Medellín has opted to take a non-criminalizing approach to drug use. Councilors from opposition parties criticized him for this and began to question his strategy.
Quintero also answered questions from El Espectador. He specified that the Medellín government has made arrests for the crime of drug trafficking and narcotics, as well as seizing doses of drugs circulating in the city. He also said the government has focused on addressing the problem through information campaigns and campaigns for early detection and control of addictions.
What advice might you offer journalists who wish to cover drug use, addiction, and policy?
This kind of work always makes me think about how important it is to “take to the streets,” as my editor, Jorge Cardona, says. When working from a desk, sometimes you don’t free yourself from your prejudices and stigmas about certain things.
Humberto Basilio is a Mexican freelance science writer and a TON early-career fellow sponsored by the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. He has written for Eos, SciDev.Net, World Wildlife magazine, and other publications. He is a member of the Mexican Network of Science Journalists and the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. Follow him on Twitter @HumbertoBasilio.