Guatemala Captures ‘Poppy King’

Authorities in Guatemala have captured a man described as the country’s most wanted fugitive, known as the “Poppy King” for his reported prolific opium poppy production. However, it is unclear how — and if — this will affect the region’s increasingly profitable heroin networks. 

On May 13, Guatemalan authorities arrested Cornelio Esteban Chilel in the western city of Quetzaltenango, ending an eight-year manhunt that began when the “Poppy King” escaped from jail in 2007, reported Siglo 21. Chilel is accused of homicide and arson among other crimes. However, authorities are also reportedly planning to present drug trafficking charges against him as well.

According to government investigations, Chilel controlled poppy cultivation in the western towns of Tajumulco, Ixchiguan, and Sibinal, which make up what is known as the “opium triangle.” Chilel bought poppy seeds from Mexican cartels and sent the plants back across the border once they were ready to be processed into heroin, according to Prensa Libre

In addition to Mexican cartels, Chilel reportedly had contacts with prominent Guatemalan traffickers and was part of Otto Herrera’s drug trafficking network, according to authorities. Herrera — once considered among the world’s most wanted drug traffickers — was released by the United States in 2013, following his extradition from Colombia in 2008.

InSight Crime Analysis

While it certainly appears that Chilel was a major figure in Guatemala’s opium poppy industry, it will be difficult for authorities to know just how much his arrest may impact the country’s opium production. Producing such estimates is notoriously difficult, meaning it will be next to impossible to compare cultivation trends before and after Chilel’s arrest. Increased eradication suggests Guatemalan poppy production may be reaching record levels; however, this is a highly imperfect calculus for measuring crop cultivation. 

 SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

This confusion over poppy production contributes to the difficulty in deciphering who is feeding the surging US consumer market for heroin. It appears that Mexican criminal groups are increasingly switching from cultivating marijuana to growing and processing poppy in order to keep up with shifting market demands. Indeed, Mexico’s heroin production potential is estimated (pdf) to be thirty times higher than that of Colombia. Nonetheless, a 2014 report (pdf) by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) found that more than half of all heroin seized by US authorities in 2012 came from South America, the vast majority of which originated in Colombia.