Guatemalan soldiers eradicating poppy crops in San Marcos

Guatemala's interior minister has announced plans for a crop substitution program for poppy farmers, suggesting the government will take a more integrated approach to fighting the country's production of the plant, which is used to manufacture heroin.

The plan, titled "Substitute Cultivation" (Cultivo Substituto), will target regions such as the mountainous province of San Marcos, on the Mexican border, which is the the epicenter of the country's opium poppy trade, reported Prensa Libre. The announcement comes just days after the start of a major eradication operation in San Marcos.

Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla added that the government has detected the presence of Mexican groups who pay farmers to use part of their land to grow poppy in areas with little police presence.

InSight Crime Analysis

According to the US State Department, Guatemala is the second-largest producer of poppy in Latin America, with some 1,000 hectares cultivated in 2011. Compared to the region's largest producer, Mexico, which has an estimated 15,000 hectares of illicit poppy under cultivation, the poppy trade in Guatemala is minor, but there are concerns that production is growing. According to a 2011 International Crisis Group report, "Guatemala: Drug Trafficking and Violence," poppy farmers in Guatemala are able to harvest more poppy plants per hectare than growers in other countries.

Poppy grown in San Marcos is typically shipped over the border to Mexico, where it is processed into heroin and then trafficked to the United States. The government claimed to have destroyed over $300 million worth of poppy crops in San Marcos in a single week in May 2012, part of $1.3 billion worth of drug crops destroyed in the first half of that year.

Recently the Guatemalan government has turned to a militarized strategy to confront the drug trade and organized crime in poppy producing regions. Earlier this year, Guatemala announced the deployment of the newly created Mountain Special Operations Brigade to San Marcos in an attempt to combat the poppy trade in the province. The decision to deploy the new elite military unit follows the withdrawal of the National Police from more than half the province's municipalities, and the announcement of the creation of a new military base there.

The planned crop substitution program demonstrates the government at least recognizes the need to implement an integrated drug strategy that does not focus on eradication alone.

President Otto Perez has also indicated he is considering a more radical approach to poppy cultivation. Speaking at a press conference at the World Economic Forum earlier in January,  Perez raised the possibility of legalizing poppy cultivation in northern Guatemala for legitimate uses.

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