There is a troubling trend in Guatemala that is very hard to measure: opium poppy production, which provides the raw material for heroin.

Over the last few years, Guatemalan authorities have eradicated about 1000 hectares of poppy. And over the last few years, the United States has announced it is troubled by this trend. But we get little more hard information and are left to ponder just how bad the situation is.

True to form, Guatemalan authorities last week eradicated 130 hectares in the Mexican-border province of San Marcos, the Associated Press reported. This comes after the United States Department of State published the latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report earlier this month, which noted “increasing prevalence and organization of poppy cultivation” in Guatemala.

Just what exactly this means, we do not know. Most of the poppy is processed in Mexico, and shipped to the United States. Heroin seizures in Guatemala were a paltry 21 kilograms in 2010 and 950 grams in 2009, hardly sparkling signs of success or an indication as to the scale of the problem.

Guatemala may be the second largest producer in the region now, above Colombia but well behind Mexico, which has its own problems measuring production. The vast majority of Guatemala's production is concentrated in the mountainous border province of San Marcos. It is allegedly controlled by Juan Alberto Ortiz Lopez, alias ‘Juan Chamale,’ who works closely with the region’s largest producer of heroin, the Sinaloa Cartel.

Yet it’s hard to know exactly how much is being produced. Looking at the amount eradicated gives us an indication but not our answer.

Guatemala eradicated 918 hectares last year, compared to 536 hectares in 2008, and 1,344 hectares in 2009. Meanwhile, Colombian authorities eradicated approximately 545 hectares of poppy in 2010, compared to 148 hectares in 2008. Using just these numbers, our conclusion would be that Guatemala has more poppy.

But there’s more to the calculus. The amount of heroin eradicated does not take into account government willingness or accuracy in its reports. On this scale, Colombia scores much better than Guatemala. What’s more, there are more outside sources measuring production in Colombia than in Guatemala.

So when the Colombians say they eradicated more poppy, the reading is that they are putting more effort into the job (and we have more information to double check them). When the Guatemalans say it, the belief is that there is simply more poppy to be eradicated.

There are also trends. The trend in Colombia is down. The State Department said that poppy cultivation in Colombia hit a low in 2009, with a recorded 1,100 hectares. That number is down from the reported 2,300 hectares in 2006. Also, between 2000 and 2006, the United States government estimates that Colombian poppy production fell about 50 percent.

The trend in Guatemala is clearly up. We just can’t measure how much without more data.

The reasons why are more clear. Guatemala has a 900 kilometer border with Mexico and just eight official checkpoints. And San Marcos' key sea ports and sparsely patrolled sea lanes make it an attractive depot and staging area for the traffickers.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

The MS13 Moves (Again) to Expand on US East Coast

Local police and justice officials are convinced that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) has strengthened its presence along the East Coast of the United States. The alarm follows a recent spate of violence -- of the type not seen in a decade -- which included dismembered bodies and...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs. 

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

How the MS13 Tried (and Failed) to Create a Single Gang in the US

In July 2011, members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) attended a meeting organized in California by a criminal known as "Bad Boy." Among the invitees was José Juan Rodríguez Juárez, known as "Dreamer," who had gone to the meeting hoping to better understand what was beginning to...

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

The Fixer and El Salvador's Missed Opportunity

In the photograph, they are both smiling. In the foreground, on the left hand side, a man in a short-sleeved buttoned white shirt, jeans and a metal watch, holds a bottle of water in his right hand. He laughs heartily. He is Herbert Saca. On the right...

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Homicides in Guatemala: Conclusions and Recommendations

Olfato. It is a term used quite often in law enforcement and judicial circles in Central America (and other parts of the world as well). It refers to the sixth sense they have as they see a crime scene, investigate a murder or plow through the paperwork...

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The Prison Dilemma: Latin America’s Incubators of Organized Crime

The prison system in Latin America and the Caribbean has become a prime incubator for organized crime. This overview -- the first of six reports on prison systems that we produced after a year-long investigation -- traces the origins and maps the consequences of the problem, including...