Central America: Fertile Ground for Cocaine Production

Dardo Justino Rodríguez


In early February of this year, as part of “Operation Cazador,” agents from Honduras’s National Anti-Drug Police Directorate (DNPA) and Special Operations Forces (COE), operating under the supervision of a judge with national jurisdiction, seized a coca plantation in the northern part of the country. The operation, which took place in a rural area in the department of Colón, captured over 13,000 coca plants along with items used to make cocaine paste.

The notion that Central America serves merely as a thoroughfare for South American drugs headed to consumer markets farther north is coming under increased scrutiny. While the region continues to be used to receive and dispatch cocaine shipments from the south, the fact is that, for some years now, countries like Guatemala and Honduras have slowly started to produce the drug themselves.

Honduran soldiers stand guard over 15 tons of cocaine seized in Patagallina, in the municipality of Santa Rita, Yoro, Honduras. The drugs were discovered in an underground bunker used as a manufacturing laboratory. Photo: AFP/STR
Honduran soldiers stand guard over 15 tons of cocaine seized in Patagallina, in the municipality of Santa Rita, Yoro, Honduras. The drugs were discovered in an underground bunker used as a manufacturing laboratory. Photo: AFP/STR

Central America is one of the most violent regions in the world. As if this were not enough, since the middle of the last decade, security forces have begun discovering several coca plantations in isolated and sparsely populated areas in Guatemala and Honduras. And some speculate that experimental coca cultivation is taking place in El Salvador and Nicaragua as well, but that the plantations have simply yet to be discovered.

For decades, the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have played a significant role in the trafficking of drugs from the south. The region’s vast, isolated, and almost inaccessible areas, such as La Mosquitia in eastern Honduras, have provided fertile ground for such activity. Extensive coastlines, combined with naval forces that often lack the operational capacity to adequately control them, have also made the region susceptible to trafficking.

In 2018, illegal drug cultivation in the Northern Triangle was thought to be no more than a blip on the map — a few hectares in Honduras, if anything. Now, however, large-scale operations are being discovered, including plantations with laboratories, greenhouses, and the technology to produce more and higher quality cocaine. While this development is worrying, production in the region has yet to reach statistically significant figures.

In May 2018, Guatemalan security forces operating on a “tip” penetrated a remote and nearly inaccessible area of Guatemala’s Alta Verapaz Department, a hot, humid and mountainous territory in the north-central part of the country. The territory is similar to the Andes region of the west Amazon Basin, an area that produces the best coca crops in the world. The covert operation led to the discovery of the first known coca plantation in the country.

That same year, police in Honduras discovered three plantations, one of which was roughly 50 acres in size. These discoveries were an early indication that the cartels had begun seeking production alternatives closer to the world’s largest consumer market: the United States. The shorter distance between Guatemala or Honduras and the United States, when compared to that of Peru, Bolivia, or Colombia, significantly reduces the risks involved in transportation, and simplifies the costly and complex logistics required to move many tons of cocaine from South America to the United States.

Since 2017, multiple coca plantations have been discovered in Honduras’s northern departments of Yoro, Olancho, and Colón. The first plantation was found in April 2017, in a mountainous zone of Esquipulas del Norte, in the department of Olancho. Authorities seized some 84,000 square meters of farmland along with a narco-laboratory that had been operating for some time prior to its discovery. In 2019, authorities found several acres of coca leaf in cultivation along the country's Caribbean coastline in the department of Colón. This is the department with the most known acres under cultivation thus far.

Despite the increase in coca cultivation evidenced by these recent crop seizures, some analysts believe that the operations face virtually insurmountable limitations. One such limitation is that Honduras is a small country and coca cultivation requires clearing large swaths of land so that plants receive enough sunlight, which would make the operations easily visible from the air. Police authorities, however, claim that if the plantations were interspersed and smaller in size, they might not be so easy to spot, and land clearings could even be mistaken for cattle ranching operations. 

Although the region may not offer the most ideal conditions for coca cultivation, given the context of the Northern Triangle, the growing trend of the phenomenon is troubling. The region is characterized by weak institutions, high levels of corruption, security forces and other armed groups susceptible to the “incentives” of drug trafficking, and societies immersed in violence as a result of both common and organized crime.

These societies continue to suffer the effects of persistent economic crises, which have led to mass displacement and migration. These conditions also provide fertile ground for coca cultivation, as it becomes a survival alternative for marginalized families living in rural areas, among the hills, forests, and jungles, with little to no law enforcement presence.

Dardo Justino Rodríguez is an independent analyst, journalist, advisor, and consultant for international organizations and agencies. He is the national director of Presagio Consulting Honduras.

*Translated by Max Granger is a multimedia organization committed to publishing critical and accurate information about Latin America.

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