In Guatemala, Cocaine Isn’t Just Passing Through

On September 19, Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart confirmed that drug cartels are manufacturing cocaine in Guatemala. “As a result of the discovery of fields planted with the coca leaf, Guatemala is now a cocaine-producing country,”  he admitted in a press conference last week. “This places Guatemala in a totally different situation with respect to regional security.”

Guatemala is a Central American nation that shares its northern border with Mexico and its southern border with Honduras and El Salvador. Earlier this month, the Guatemalan military discovered coca leaf plantations in the eastern, mountainous Izabel region. The leaves of the coca plant are the raw ingredients for cocaine production. The military found the plantations while they were patrolling the region in search of drug traffickers who murdered three soldiers there several weeks ago. The military destroyed the plantations, dismantled two laboratories for processing cocaine, arrested 342 people, and confiscated a large supply of weapons and vehicles.

Prior to the military’s drug control operation and Degenhart’s announcement, Guatemala was widely considered a country through which cocaine from South America merely moved north towards the United States, home to the largest and most lucrative market for the illegal drug anywhere in the world. Until now, the world’s cocaine crop has always been grown and cultivated in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, not anywhere in Central America.

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Guatemala And Drug Cartels

In Guatemala, cocaine is illegal, but it exists in abundance and the supply is increasing. In the first eight months of 2019, Guatemalan authorities confiscated 11,741 kg. (25,000 lb.) of cocaine. This amount is significantly greater than the 5,753 kg. (12,683 lb.) of cocaine that authorities confiscated in the first eight months of 2018. Just last month, the Guatemalan police seized 422 packets of cocaine from one airplane, and then seized another 210 packets of cocaine from another airplane one week later. Almost all cocaine in Guatemala, whether it’s hidden on an airplane or carried through the rainforest, comes from South America and goes to Mexico.

The Guatemalan government has been waging a campaign against drug traffickers who seek to use Guatemala as a transit zone for illegal drugs between North and South America. Guatemala is one of the most impoverished and unstable nations in the Western Hemisphere, and the ongoing drug war in Guatemala has contributed to the country’s high rates of violent crime. Drug cartels also play a role in Guatemalan politics. In fact, cartels exercise effective control over some of the country’s land, and some senior Guatemalan leaders, such as former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, are under suspicion of collaborating with cocaine smugglers.

Since Guatemala has achieved some success in reducing the flow of cocaine through its territory, experts believe that cartels might be attempting to grow their own cocaine within the country to simplify the supply chain and send the drug to the United States more quickly. In 2018, the same year the Guatemalan military seized a record breaking three tons of cocaine from a single boat on the Pacific coast, Guatemalan police discovered a one-hectare “trial plantation” for coca, complete with a cocaine laboratory. This provided initial evidence for cocaine production in Guatemala.

When the discovery of additional plantations this month confirmed a pattern of production, Interior Minister Degenhart vowed to amplify Guatemala’s law enforcement partnership with the United States. The American government recently gave Guatemala a fleet of military helicopters to strengthen its operations against drug traffickers.

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Nathan Yerby

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  • Nathan Yerby is a writer and researcher. He is a graduate of the University of Central Florida.

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