How fentanyl ruined Guatemala’s long-standing opium trade

The convoy left the military base before dawn and entered the fog-shrouded mountains that straddle the Guatemala-Mexico border. Its mission is to destroy opium poppies used to make heroin.

About 300 soldiers and police from the caravan’s elite anti-drug squad, armed with rifles and machetes, climbed steep hills and forded bone-chilling streams. They followed a lead from a drone pilot, climbed into the back of a pickup truck, and inhaled dust as they sped down a washboard dirt road.

However, after searching village after village, only small patches of poppies were found here and there, which was only a fraction of the amount previously cultivated in the area.

“The land here used to be covered with poppies,” said police commander Ludvin López. Soldiers were deployed around Ixiguan, a remote settlement inhabited by people who speak Maam, a Mayan language. But that was before opium prices plummeted from $64 an ounce to about $9.60, he added.

A multi-day search for opium poppies in Guatemala in March was largely fruitless, but revealed a major shift in Latin America’s drug trade.

In the United States, the world’s largest illicit drug market, fentanyl has largely replaced heroin because Mexican cartels can use chemicals from China to make synthetic opioids cheaply and easily. Fentanyl is so powerful that it can be smuggled in small quantities hidden in vehicles, another advantage over heroin.

As a result, demand for opium poppies plummeted.

In Guatemala, poppy farmers are losing their main income from their only cash crop, forcing many people from an already poverty-stricken region to migrate to the United States. At the same time, local and international authorities are concerned that Guatemala could become a new hub for trafficking in chemicals used to make fentanyl.

Drug busts along the U.S.-Mexico border also show a decline in heroin. In fiscal year 2023, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Office of Field Operations confiscated Heroin is 1,500 pounds, down from 5,400 pounds in 2021.

The amount of fentanyl seized during the same period more than doubled, from about 11,000 pounds to 27,000 pounds.

Although fentanyl has decimated the heroin trade and counter-drug priorities have shifted, the U.S. has responded to a limited poppy eradication effort in Guatemala to counter the power of Mexican cartels that produce heroin. U.S. officials say assistance is still needed.

Still, the top priority in Guatemala right now is fighting synthetic drugs and detecting precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, said a State Department official who declined to discuss drug interdiction strategies.

However, the soldiers trampling a small vegetable garden in a remote village were aiming for opium poppies. I found a few poppies the size of a hopscotch playground and used a machete to chop up the plants. They did the same with cannabis plants, which are still illegal to grow in Guatemala.

Multiple signs of U.S. support for this mission, and for Guatemala’s counternarcotics efforts in general, were on display. Some of the officers on duty are part of units supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and undergo regular polygraph and drug tests. The soldiers traveled in four-wheel-drive vehicles donated by the United States.

The State Department declined to provide a detailed breakdown of U.S. counternarcotics funding. But in recent years, the country has been receiving about $10 million to $20 million a year in military and police aid from the U.S., according to Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office’s Latin American Bureau, a research group. That’s what it means.

This is about the same amount of aid as 10 years ago. Overall, Guatemala ranks as the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid in Latin America.

Also on the mission were observers from the State Department, which funds everything in Guatemala from Border Patrol training to elite anti-gang units. He declined to comment, saying he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

The soldiers’ efforts were largely in vain, so they passed the time socializing and telling jokes around the pickup truck. Some distributed items from food bags to villagers in an attempt to spread goodwill. Some people handed out cheap plastic toys to children.

Still, in an exceptionally poor region where each mature opium poppy is worth about 25 quetzals (about $320), some villagers were clearly excited by the soldiers’ presence. Some refused to speak to anyone in the convoy, believing it would eliminate one of their only sources of income.

“There are almost no poppies left around here,” said Ana Leticia Morales, a 26-year-old mother of two who speaks Mamanian and makes a living selling gasoline smuggled from Mexico. Ta. “Yet the soldiers are coming not to help us, but to make things worse.”

Tensions have been high over eradication efforts in Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country, for decades. Opium poppies have traditionally been grown in mountainous regions stretching from Turkey to Pakistan, but over the past few decades they have also been found in parts of Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia.

Mexican cartels relied on Guatemalan farmers to grow poppies and process them into opium gum. Cartels turned the gum into heroin, which was smuggled across the border into Mexico.

The United States initially responded by spraying herbicides from Guatemalan planes, but halted that effort after the crew came under heavy fire. This paved the way for the ground operations practiced today.

Fentanyl has emerged over the past decade as a cheaper and far more profitable source of income for cartels. turned over Mexico’s poppy trade is having ripple effects in Central America. Now the cartels no longer have to worry about heavy rains affecting their crops. You also don’t have to worry about extermination work.

Eradication activists in Guatemala destroyed about 2,011 acres of opium poppies in 2017, but only 7 acres in 2023, according to Guatemalan government statistics.

This decline illustrates the ease with which Mexico can manufacture fentanyl in small labs, the size of a studio apartment, using chemicals imported from China, making it ideal for production in urban areas. There is.

“It’s easier to produce synthetic opioids in the lab than to rely on crops grown in remote mountains,” said Rigoberto Cheme, an anthropologist from Guatemala’s poppy-growing region. “Authorities are attacking the weakest link in the production chain,” he added, referring to eradication efforts. “But far from disappearing, drug trafficking is still increasing exponentially.”

In fact, Guatemala remains an important country Smuggling related About yet another illegal drug: cocaine. This country also Cocawhere the plants used to make cocaine are grown.

Anti-drug officials from Guatemala, Mexico and the United States say two Mexican cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, are vying for control of a route already used to smuggle cocaine and opium gum out of Guatemala. There are concerns that the same corridor could be used to transport precursors to Guatemala. Mexico.

Last year, Guatemalan authorities arrested Ana Gabriela Rubio Zea, an entrepreneur known for activities such as: show off Her wealth was exposed on social media in connection with a scheme to import chemicals from China to manufacture fentanyl for Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel.

Rubio Zea Ran The high-end clothing store in Cayala, home to Guatemala City’s elite, was extradited to the United States last July to face a possible life sentence on charges of fentanyl distribution and money laundering. Mexican authorities followed suit, arrest Guatemalan businessman Jason Antonio Yan López was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department in January for importing fentanyl precursor chemicals.

Guatemala’s new president, Bernardo Arevalo, is strengthening ties with the United States to address the fentanyl trade. At a ceremony in March attended by U.S. government officials, the U.S. government said it aims to: Improve How to combat Guatemala’s trade in precursor chemicals.

But such efforts mean little to villagers, who face a decline in demand for poppies on the one hand and eradication plans on the other.

Regino García, Mama Leader of San Antonio Ixiguan, said poppy prices started to plummet in 2017, eventually dropping from 18,000 quetzals ($2,310) to 2,000 quetzals ($256) per kilogram. he said.

“Poppies used to help many people make a living,” Garcia said. Now, he said, the plummeting price of poppies has hit the economy so hard that “people are leaving for the U.S. before they run out of money.”

Jody Garcia I contributed a report from Guatemala City.

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