At the beginning of February of this year and as part of Operation Hunter, under the supervision of a judge of national jurisdiction, agents of the National Directorate of Anti-Drug Police (DNPA) and the Honduran Special Operations Command (COE) seized a plantation of coca shrubs. The operation, which took place in a rural area of the department of Colón, brought together more than 13,000 plants and items needed to make cocaine paste.
The idea that Central America is exclusively a region of drug transit from South America to northern consumer markets is starting to be questioned. Although it remains an area for receiving and sending remittances from the south, the fact is that in recent years countries like Guatemala and Honduras have also become, albeit slowly, producers of this drug.
The emergence of cultures
Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world, but as if that weren’t enough, since the middle of the last decade security forces have discovered coca plantations in remote and sparsely populated areas of these two countries. And there are those who claim that there are probably experimental cultures also in El Salvador and Nicaragua, but they have not yet been discovered.
The countries of the Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have absorbed much of the drug trade in the south for decades. Large, isolated, almost inaccessible regions, like most of the Honduran Mosquitia, contribute to this phenomenon. They also have vast sea coasts and naval forces that do not always have the operational capacity to adequately control them.
In 2018, it was said: “For now, illegal cultivation in the Northern Triangle is more anecdotal than dangerous. About 50 hectares in Honduras is nothing …”. However, more extensive crops have been discovered, with laboratories, greenhouses and technologies to produce larger quantities of cocaine, under better conditions and with better quality. This is worrying, although production has not yet reached significant figures.
Central American plantations
In May 2018, due to a “tip”, Guatemalan security forces entered almost inaccessible areas of Alta Verapaz, an area with hills reaching 2,500 meters high, hot and humid. It is a territory very similar to the Andes of the Amazon basin, where the best coca crops are grown. It was an operation carried out in the greatest secrecy, which allowed them to find the first culture of coca leaf in the country.
In the same year, the Honduran authorities discovered three coca plantations, including one covering around 20 hectares. These findings have started to show that the cartels are looking for production alternatives closer to the world’s largest consumer market: the United States. The shorter distance between Honduras and Guatemala and the United States, compared to Peru, Bolivia or Colombia, greatly reduces the risk of transport and the expensive and complex logistics required to transport tons of cocaine paste from South America.
Crop growth in Honduras
Since 2017, coca leaf plantations have been found in Honduras in the departments of Yoro, Olancho and Colón, all located in the northern part of the country. The first harvest was found in April 2017, in a mountainous area of Esquipulas del Norte, in Olancho. About 84,000 square meters of plantations and an adjoining narco-laboratory have been discovered, whose activities date back some time. In 2019, authorities found several blocks of coca leaf in the department of Colón, bordering the Caribbean coast. It is in this department that are found most of the hectares of plantations.
Despite the increase in the number of plantations seized in the country, some analysts believe that these crops have practically insurmountable limits. The first is that the Honduran territory is small and the coca leaf requires cleaning a large area to receive enough sunlight, which would make the plantations easily visible from the air. However, according to law enforcement officials, if these plantations were interspersed and smaller in size, they would not be so easy to identify and could even be mistaken for cattle.
Although conditions in Central America are not the most ideal, the growing trend of this phenomenon is concerning given the context of the Northern Triangle. These are countries with weak institutions, high levels of corruption, armed forces and security forces that are permeable to the “incentives” of drug trafficking and societies steeped in violence, produced by both common and organized crime. . In addition, the three societies are suffering from the effects of persistent economic crises, now structural, which have led to massive migration and displacement. All of these ingredients are fertile ground for coca plantations to become a survival alternative for marginalized families living in the hills, jungles and forests, where the authorities have little or no presence.
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