Chiquimula is a transit point and hub for drug trafficking. It also has marijuana production and a vibrant contraband and illegal mining market.
This criminal economy is facilitated by corruption within local political institutions and departmental security forces, whose members play a leading role in the narcotics trade. State actors also work with low-profile drug trafficking clans to move cocaine through the department.
In addition, criminal groups take advantage of lax customs controls and the numerous unsupervised crossings along Chiquimula’s border with Honduras and El Salvador to smuggle migrants, contraband and arms.
Cartel de Ipala: The drug cartel operates in the departments of Chiquimula and Zacapa. The Guatemala Attorney General’s Office has investigated current mayor of Ipala, Esduin Javier Javier — also known as Tres Kiebres — for being a leader of the group, but he has not been charged with a crime.
Arms Trafficking: During police operations in the department, authorities have seized various types of firearms, including pistols, shotguns and rifles. There are active drug clans in Chiquimula with purported access to illegal firearms. In addition, owners of livestock companies purportedly acquire AK-47 rifles to protect their land. Illicit firearms are allegedly smuggled through the department in cattle trucks, as part of an overland arms trafficking route from Nicaragua to Mexico. This suggests the existence of at least a moderate illicit arms trade in Chiquimula.
Cocaine: Chiquimula is considered the most important entry point for cocaine smuggled into Guatemala from neighboring Honduras and El Salvador, making it one of the more lucrative illicit activities in the department. For several decades, drug trafficking groups have operated with relative impunity, working with corrupt municipal and national politicians to transport cocaine to Guatemala’s border with Mexico. Those authorities are now the protagonists of the cocaine trade, along with other low-profile groups that maintain close ties to the department’s mayors and congressional representatives. In recent years, maritime entry points in Pacific Coast departments like San Marcos, Retalhuleu and Escuintla have been targeted by authorities, possibly pushing drug traffickers into using the traditional overland smuggling routes that begin on Chiquimula’s eastern border with Honduras.
Cannabis: The value of cannabis crops eradicated by Guatemalan authorities in Chiquimula in 2019 is an estimated $1.6 million, based on price and seizure data provided by the country’s anti–narcotics police. The total amount of cannabis cultivation is likely much higher, as crop seizures typically only represent a small portion of total cannabis cultivation. In fact, in 2017, Chiquimula was among the six Guatemalan departments with the highest rates of cannabis eradication. In addition, multiple crop seizures have been made in the Camotán and Jocotán municipalities. There is also a local consumption market for marijuana; small-time local gangs are the main players in this trade. In all, marijuana appears to be a mid-size market for Chiquimula.
Environmental Crime: There are indications that illegal pine extraction occurs in the Jocotán and Camotán municipalities, allegedly perpetrated by a private company that does not possess the correct permits. Indigenous groups have complained about illegal logging in areas where they claim ancestral land ownership but where private companies and other actors have sought to use that land for licit and illicit purposes, such as mining, logging and drug trafficking. Drug traffickers appear to be involved in timber trafficking schemes in Chiquimula. Timber is purportedly transported to the El Progreso department, where other groups take over the distribution chain, but overall, the trade appears small in comparison to other criminal economies.
Heroin (opiates): There are no indications of a significant opiate trade in Chiquimula. The last heroin seizure was made in 2016, when a woman was arrested while transporting an unknown quantity of heroin through the department, bound for the US.
Human Trafficking: Criminal groups engage in sex and labor trafficking in Chiquimula, though cases are rarely reported. The areas bordering Honduras and El Salvador are hotspots for human trafficking. We estimate that the recruitment of sex trafficking victims in Chiquimula is significant, reaching into the millions of dollars. There are also a large number of undocumented migrants passing through the department, who are vulnerable to trafficking networks.
Human Smuggling: In 2019, nearly 2,000 Guatemalan migrants were returned to Chiquimula from the US, a percentage of those who made the trip. Given the price of hiring a smuggler from the area (roughly $10,000), this appears to be a very lucrative criminal economy, reaching into the tens of millions of dollars. The Esquipulas municipality appears to be the main entry point for migrants smuggled into Guatemala. In total, there are three border checkpoints used to traffic migrants into the department from Honduras and El Salvador, along with long stretches of unmonitored border, which can be used to sneak migrants into the country.
Mineral Resources: There are indications that illegal mineral extraction takes place within legal mining operations in the Camotán municipality. Some companies appear to be operating mines without some of the necessary permits and possibly extracting minerals illegally, including jade. However, there is little indication that these alleged operations generate significant criminal revenues in the department.
Extortion: The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 street gangs do not have a meaningful presence in Chiquimula. However, small-scale extortion rackets are operated by individuals, some of whom pretend to be gang members. These extortionists demand a small fee from corner shops in the Chiquimula and Esquipulas municipalities. Bus drivers have been killed for refusing to pay extortion fees. Extortion rackets are also controlled by prisoners who work with contacts on the inside of prison and family members on the outside to extract fees from individuals. Colombian nationals have also allegedly set up loan sharking businesses, known as “gota a gota” (drop-by-drop).
Money Laundering: Petrol stations and shops on certain highways, as well as construction companies, have reportedly been used to launder drug money. Buying land and cattle is another common tactic employed by drug traffickers to launder money.
Sources: This profile is based in two field trips to Chiquimula and research in Guatemala City where InSight Crime interviewed congressmen, representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, national authorities in charge of prosecuting human trafficking and exploitation, police, non-governmental organizations supporting migrants, the human rights ombudsman, representatives of indigenous communities, and local journalists, most of whom requested anonymity. InSight Crime also drew from information provided by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Guatemalan anti-narcotics police (Subdirección General de Análisis de Información Antinarcótica – SGAIA), the Guatemala National Security Council, the National Statistics Institute of Guatemala, the Ministry of Economy, Diálogos, and local press.
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