Both are consolidating their beginnings as producer countries, which is an important qualitative leap despite the fact that production is still very limited.
° The first plantations were discovered in 2017 in Honduras and in 2018 in Guatemala; since then more than 100 hectares of coca bush have been located.
° During 2020, Honduras eradicated 40 hectares of coca cultivation and Guatemala 19 hectares; in addition, almost twenty cocaine processing laboratories were destroyed.
° The expansion of coca production into Central America is the work of Mexican cartels, which employ Colombian experts in locating the best areas for cultivation.
Honduran counter-narcotics action in a coca plantation in October 2020 [Gov. of Honduras].
report SRA 2021 / Eduardo Villa Corta [ PDF version].
Cocaine production has begun to spread to countries in Central America, which until recently were only transit points for cocaine coming mainly from Colombia, which is the world's largest producer, along with Peru and Bolivia.
The finding of drug processing laboratories in Honduras in 2009 already suggested the beginning of a shift, confirmed by the location of coca bush cultivation itself in 2017 in Honduras and in 2018 in Guatemala. Since then, more than 100 hectares have been located in both countries: some 50 hectares were counted together in those first two years, a figure that was doubled in 2020 in what appears to be an acceleration of the process.
In any case, these are very small areas, compared to those estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in its 2020 report for Colombia (around 180,000 hectares), Peru (almost 50,000) and Bolivia (around 25,000). Furthermore, the United States has so far claimed that it has no record of cocaine generated in the Central American Northern Triangle being found on its territory. entrance .
Everything indicates that for now we are in a stage of experimentation or essay by Mexican cartels, who are testing the aptitude terrain and climate of different areas and the quality of the product, with the help of Colombian experts, financial aid . Changes in the drug trafficking chain since most of the FARC left the illicit business in Colombia and the desire to reduce the complex logistics of transporting drugs to the United States explain these attempts in the Northern Triangle.
In Honduras, the location of crops has increased in the last two years. The latest report of the International Narcotics Control Strategy (INCSR), from March 2021, prepared by the US State Department's department , includes official Honduran information that 40 hectares of coca bushes were eradicated in the first ten months of 2020. This represents an increase in the number of cultivation areas compared to previous years, which estimated the accumulation of 50 hectares throughout 2017 and 2018 in Honduras and Guatemala combined.
The first evidence in Honduras that drug trafficking was not only using its territory as a transit point was the finding in 2009 in the province of Cortés of a laboratory for the transformation of coca leaves into cocaine hydrochloride. In ten years, twelve laboratories were discovered and in 2020 alone the authorities proceeded to destroy at least another eleven, as indicated by the INCSR. Although some had the capacity to produce up to 3.6 tons of cocaine per year, their facilities were rather "rudimentary", according to Honduran law enforcement agencies.
The existence of these laboratories led to the conclusion that some amount of coca leaf may have been cultivated in the country since at least 2012, but it was not until 2017 that a cultivated area was found, in the province of Orlando, with some 10,000 plants. In 2018, three other farms were located, one of them 20 hectares in size. Cultivation activity and laboratory is not concentrated in a specific area, although half of the findings have been made in the aforementioned provinces of Orlando and Colón.
The last particularly noteworthy location, in an increasingly visible process of locating coca fields, was carried out by the National Directorate for the Fight against Drug Trafficking (DLCN) in March 2020, which corresponded to a field of some 4.2 hectares of cultivation and narco-laboratory in the Nueva Santa Bárbara community. In 2020, at least 15 coca fields were seized, with a total of 346,500 plants.
The DLCN believes that Mexican cartels, such as the Sinaloa and Jalisco cartels, are behind this penetration, although they do not operate directly, with a deployment of armed individuals, but on several occasions through growers of Colombian origin, who know how to take care of the coca plant.
Recent convictions in the US, such as that of the brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, have provided details of the drug trafficking corridor that is Honduras, but also the country's incipient homegrown production. As exposed in his trial, Tony Hernández, sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2021, had a direct relationship with a local cocaine laboratory .
In the case of Guatemala, the first finding of coca leaf cultivation took place in 2018. Although it was only one hectare in size, with 75,000 plants, it also marked the country's emergence as an incipient producer. In addition to having been, like Honduras, a transit channel for cocaine from Colombia, Guatemala had already distinguished itself for its moderate production of marijuana and for having begun to grow poppy, as an extension of the activity of Mexican cartels involved in the heroin market, of which Mexico is the leading producer in the Americas. Now Guatemala, where narco-laboratories have also appeared, included coca among its illicit narcotics crops.
In 2019, Guatemalan authorities made an effort to combat this activity. On 4 September of that year, they declared a 30-day state of siege in 22 municipalities in the north of the country. Police operations led to a number of seizures, especially in the Departments municipalities of Izabal, Alta Verapaz, Petén and Zacapa. Some 23 cultivation areas were located, eight of them in Izabal.
Following these findings, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart admitted that Guatemala had become a cocaine-producing nation.
In the first ten months of 2020, 19 hectares of coca cultivation were eradicated and seven laboratories were destroyed, according to the latest INCSR, pointing out, in any case, that coca production in Guatemala is on a "limited scale" (as in Honduras, but even lower than in neighbouring Guatemala), at a distance from that of the largest South American producers.
Increased role for gangs
The Honduran and Guatemalan authorities fear, due to the increase in drug production activity, that some areas of their countries will become the new "Medellín of Pablo Escobar". The existence of areas that are difficult to access and the lack of resources for monitoring and combating organised crime complicate counter-narcotics efforts.
There is also a risk that the gangs or maras will gain even more power, entrenching or even aggravating the problem they pose. Because of their spatial dominance, they have so far collected tolls for the passage of drugs throughout the territory, but with production in the Northern Triangle itself, they could also come to control the very origin of the drugs, giving them the prerogatives of the cartels.
At the same time, international coordination against drug trafficking becomes more complicated, as it becomes more difficult to locate production sites and identify the actors involved.