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

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