How fentanyl devastated the opium trade in Guatemala

How fentanyl devastated the opium trade in Guatemala
How fentanyl devastated the opium trade in Guatemala

In Guatemala, fentanyl seizures in 2023 more than doubled: they went from 4,989 kilos to approximately 12,246.

Photo: El Espectador – Gustavo Torrijos Zuluaga

Before dawn, the convoy left the military base and headed into the fog-shrouded mountains that stretch along Guatemala’s border with Mexico. Their mission was to destroy the poppy plants that are used to make heroin.

Armed with rifles and machetes, the caravan of nearly 300 soldiers and police belonging to elite anti-narcotics units climbed steep slopes and forded cold streams. They followed the tracks of the drone pilots and breathed in the dust of the earth that rose as they rode in the back of the trucks that sped along the dirt roads.

But after scouring town after town, they found only small scattered patches of poppies, a fraction of the region’s crop in previous years.

As soldiers fanned out around Ixchiguán, an area of ​​remote villages populated by speakers of Mam, a Mayan language, Ludvin López, a police commander, said the land used to be “covered in poppies.” But that was before opium prices fell from $64 an ounce to about $9.60, he said.

That fruitless search for opium poppies in Guatemala over several days in March showed a seismic shift in Latin American drug trafficking.

In the United States, the world’s largest market for illicit drugs, fentanyl has largely displaced heroin due to the ease and low cost with which Mexican cartels can produce this synthetic opiate in laboratories improvised with chemicals from China. Fentanyl is so potent that it can be smuggled in small quantities hidden in vehicles, another advantage over heroin.

As a consequence, the demand for poppy has plummeted.

In Guatemala, poppy farmers are losing primary income from what was their only cash crop, causing many people living in poverty-stricken areas to migrate to the United States. At the same time, local and international authorities fear that Guatemala will become a new trading center for chemicals used to make fentanyl.

Drug raids on the US-Mexico border also show the decline of heroin. In fiscal year 2023, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations seized 680 kilograms of heroin, down from nearly 2,450 kilograms in 2021.

Fentanyl seizures in the same period more than doubled: they went from 4,989 kilos to approximately 12,246.

Even as fentanyl devastates the heroin trade and counternarcotics priorities shift, U.S. officials say U.S. support for poppy eradication efforts, while limited, remains necessary in Guatemala to counter the reach of the cartels. Mexicans who produce heroin.

But now the top priority in Guatemala is the fight against synthetic drugs and the detection of chemical precursors used to make fentanyl, said a State Department official who was not authorized to be identified discussing anti-drug strategies.

But soldiers trampling small orchards in remote villages searched for opium poppies. When they found some poppies, in plots no larger than a hopscotch area, they got to work with machetes to cut the plants. They did the same with some cannabis plants, the cultivation of which remains illegal in Guatemala.

There were several signs of US support for the mission, and for Guatemala’s anti-narcotics efforts in general. Some police officers in the mission belonged to units supported by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and periodically undergo polygraph and drug tests. The soldiers traveled in off-road vehicles donated by the United States.

The State Department declined to provide a detailed breakdown of U.S. counterdrug funding. But overall, the country has recently received between $10 million and $20 million a year in U.S. military and police aid, according to Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group.

It is roughly the same amount of aid as a decade ago. Overall, Guatemala is among the largest recipients of US foreign aid in Latin America.

An observer from the State Department, which has funded everything from border police training to an elite anti-gang unit in Guatemala, also accompanied the mission. He declined to comment, saying he was not authorized to speak to reporters.

As the soldiers’ efforts were mostly unsuccessful, they spent some of their time cracking jokes as they gathered around their trucks. Trying to spread aid, some distributed items from their food packages to people in remote places; others gave cheap plastic toys to the children.

However, in an exceptionally poor region where each mature poppy plant is worth about 25 quetzales (about $3.20), some people were outraged by the soldiers’ presence. Some refused to speak to anyone in the convoy, which they saw as eliminating one of their only sources of income.

Ana Leticia Morales, 26, a mother of two who speaks Mam and makes a living selling smuggled gasoline that arrives from Mexico, said that there were almost no poppies left in that area. But, she claimed, the soldiers kept coming, “not to help us, but to make things worse.”

Tensions over eradication efforts have flared for decades in Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country. The opium poppy, which was traditionally grown in mountainous regions stretching from Turkey to Pakistan, began to be planted decades ago in Guatemala, as well as in some regions of Mexico and Colombia.

Mexican cartels relied on Guatemalan farmers to grow the poppies and then turn them into opium gum. They then smuggled it across the border into Mexico, where cartels transformed the rubber into heroin.

The United States initially responded by spraying herbicides from airplanes in Guatemala, but suspended that strategy after flight crews experienced intense firefights. That paved the way for the land operations that are practiced today.

The emergence of fentanyl in the last decade as a cheaper and much more profitable source of income for cartels has disrupted the poppy trade in Mexico and produced spillover effects in Central America. Now, the cartels don’t have to worry about torrential rains, which can destroy crops. They also don’t have to worry about eradication operations.

In Guatemala, eradication operations destroyed around 813 hectares of opium poppies in 2017, compared to around 2.8 in 2023, Guatemalan government figures show.

The decline speaks to Mexico’s ease of using chemicals imported from China to produce fentanyl in small, studio-sized laboratories, making it ideal for it to be manufactured in urban settings.

“It is easier to produce a synthetic opioid in a laboratory than to rely on cultivation in remote mountains,” said Rigoberto Quemé, an anthropologist from the poppy-growing region of Guatemala. “The authorities are attacking the weakest link in the production chain,” he added, referring to eradication efforts. “But instead of disappearing, drug trafficking continues to grow exponentially.”

Guatemala, in fact, remains a crucial nexus for the smuggling of another illicit drug: cocaine. The country is also becoming a growing location for coca, the plant used to make cocaine.

Anti-drug authorities in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States are concerned that Sinaloa and Jalisco Nueva Generación, the two Mexican cartels that are vying for control of the routes already used to smuggle cocaine and opium gum from Guatemala, could use the same routes. routes to transport chemical precursors of fentanyl to Mexico.

Last year, Guatemalan authorities arrested Ana Gabriela Rubio Zea, a businesswoman known for flaunting her wealth on social media, in connection with a plan to import chemicals from China to manufacture fentanyl for the Mexican Sinaloa cartel. .

Rubio Zea, who managed a boutique luxury clothing store in the elite Cayalá neighborhood of Guatemala City, was extradited to the United States last July to face charges of distributing fentanyl and money laundering that could lead to life in prison. In January, Mexican authorities arrested Jason Antonio Yang López, a Guatemalan businessman who was subject to sanctions by the US Treasury Department for importing fentanyl chemical precursors.

Guatemala’s new president, Bernardo Arévalo, is strengthening ties with the United States in an attempt to respond to fentanyl trafficking. At a ceremony in March attended by U.S. officials, his administration declared it was trying to improve the means to combat the trade in precursor chemicals in Guatemala.

But those efforts mean little to farmers facing disappearing demand for poppies, on the one hand, and eradication programs, on the other.

Regino García, a Mam leader from San Antonio Ixchiguán, said poppy prices began to fall in 2017, eventually plummeting from 18,000 quetzales (US$2,310) to 2,000 quetzales (about US$256) per kilo.

“Previously, planting poppies helped people a lot,” García said. And he added that the sharp drop in poppy prices caused so much economic damage that “before the money ran out, people left for the United States.”

Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.

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