A radical increase in coca eradication in Guatemala has raised questions about the country’s potential role as a cocaine producer, though criminal groups appear to be stuck on crude experiments.
Guatemalan authorities destroyed a record total of over 4 million coca plants in 2022, more than double the 1.7 million crops eradicated the previous year, according to statistics provided by the national police’s anti-drug agency (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica – SGAIA).
The trend has continued in 2023, with authorities eliminating over 1.2 million coca crops since the start of year, more than a quarter of the 2022 haul, according to SGAIA data.
“We can say there’s a rise [in cultivation],” said Helver Beltetón, head of the SGAIA. “It’s a concern.”
Guatemalan authorities also dismantled five laboratories used to produce coca base in 2022, according to Alan Ajiatas, sub-director of the Attorney General’s Office anti-narcotics branch. Coca base is a paste made during the first stage of cocaine production.
But authorities are yet to find any labs capable of producing cocaine hydrochloride, or powder cocaine, Ajiatas told InSight Crime.
The country’s counter-narcotics agencies have become well-accustomed to discovering coca plantations and clandestine laboratories on Guatemalan soil. Police first discovered coca plants in Guatemala during a 2018 raid on a farm in the northern Cobán province. Cultivation has since spread rapidly, with the bulk of crops and production efforts now concentrated in the northern provinces of Izabal, Alta Verapaz, and Petén.
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Despite some speculation as to whether Guatemala is now a cocaine-producing country, there are still no signs that production has moved beyond basic trials.
Coca cultivation in Guatemala is scarcely comparable to that in South America’s major cocaine producers. The coca farms eradicated by Guatemalan authorities in 2022 equated to just 27 hectares, a slither of the 69,000 hectares reportedly destroyed in Colombia, the world’s largest cocaine producer.
“Because of the [small] quantities we’ve found, we believe that [criminal groups] are in an experimental phase,” Beltetón said. “We don’t consider ourselves a producer country for coca paste.”
He added the clandestine laboratories discovered by authorities contained only basic equipment capable of producing “minimal quantities” of coca base.
Authorities have only once found equipment potentially intended to produce cocaine hydrochloride at a laboratory in the Izabal province in 2019. But the complex was intercepted before it became operational, according to Ajiatas.
Both Ajiatas and Beltetón suspect Mexican drug rings are behind the trials. For these groups, establishing a source of coca paste in neighboring Guatemala could streamline production by eliminating the need to seek partners in South America.
“The closer the production phases…the more efficient in terms of logistics and costs,” Ajiatas said.
But this remains a hunch, with counter-narcotics investigations yet to unearth concrete evidence of any Mexican group’s involvement in the suspected cocaine trials, Ajiatas told InSight Crime.
He added the absence of cocaine hydrochloride laboratories in Guatemala has led anti-narcotics investigators to believe that the coca paste is being taken to Mexico for processing, but this remains unconfirmed.
Aside from investigating the culprits, Guatemalan authorities are ramping up land and air patrols in an effort to reverse the expansion of coca plantations in the country. But regional precedent suggests the country faces an uphill struggle.
Years of aggressive coca eradication in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia have failed to root out widespread cultivation, while countries such as Honduras and Venezuela are now struggling with nascent coca cultivation.
“The operations are constant,” Beltetón told InSight Crime. “If we allow these structures to invade and control these provinces, it’s going to cause us a lot of problems.”