InSight has long been skeptical of rumors concerning cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) labs operating in Central America. But this week Honduran officials said they had discovered one that rivaled those in Colombia. If true, it’s a game changer.
An estimated 400 tons of cocaine already pass through the Isthmus, nearly half of that through Honduras. Flown, driven or boated in, Honduras has long represented a soft-landing for traffickers and their powdered merchandise on the way to the United States.
Some of this product is siphoned off to pay local transporters and enforcers. This part of the powder is reprocessed, or cooked, into a hardened, more smokeable derivatives that are sold on the local market. But the vast majority of the powder simply continues north.
Now, Honduran officials say, they have found an HCl lab.
“It’s a first rate laboratory,” Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said. “It’s much bigger than the average size of what we’ve seen in Colombia.”
The lab has all the requisites, according to the El Heraldo report: a microwave, chemicals, scales, an electricity generator. The group was also apparently putting a stamp of a deer on their product.
The presence of an HCl lab means the calculus region wide may be changing. The assumption is that so much pressure is on the traffickers in Colombia and neighboring states that they are moving their raw material north.
That raw material is a gooey substance, or what is called coca paste, the result of a rudimentary process normally done in small-scale labs or 'kitchens', alongside the fields. This is what the smaller producers sell to the middlemen who bring it to the HCl labs.
These labs, which in Latin America appear to have gotten their start in Chile, shifted north toward Colombia in the 1970s. In the 1990s, coca production followed, as efforts to reduce production in Peru and Bolivia, as well as market forces, made for what has now been termed the “balloon effect” in coca fields.
In essence, both the production of coca the plant and the processing of coca the paste into cocaine hydrochloride were headquartered in Colombia. Now that appears to be shifting again.
In April, when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime comes out with its 2011 report, it is possible that Peru and not Colombia is the largest coca producer in the world.
The labs may be leaving Colombia as well. This has widespread implications beginning with price.
The price of cocaine in Colombia is roughly $2,000 per kilo of pure HCl. By the time it reaches the Guatemala - Mexico border, that price is closer to $7,000 (by the time it gets to the U.S. it’s closer to $20,000). Anyone who can eliminate that journey can eliminate much of that additional cost and pocket what's left.
The central focus should be on Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias ‘El Loco.’ Barrera uses Honduras as a drop off point for much of his cocaine, which he obtains from his partners the Rastrojos, the the Popular Revolutionary Antiterrorist Army of Colombia (Ejercito Revolucionario Popular Antiterrorista Colombiano - ERPAC), and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC).
Barrera has been under incredible pressure of late from rivals and the Colombian government, to the point where there were rumors of him negotiating his handover to U.S. authorities from his safe haven in Venezuela. Barrera also has a longtime partnership with the FARC, which has much more access to coca paste than his other partners.
The other possibilities are groups operating along the northern coast, specifically the Urabeños and Rastrojos, rivals who also work closely with the FARC in areas where there is substantial coca production.
Finally, we have to consider the possibility that this is a Mexican organization that is engineering the movement of coca paste from Colombia to Honduras, thereby eliminating middlemen in Colombia. The Tijuana, Juarez and Sinaloa Cartels all have relationships with the FARC and other groups that have access to large amounts of coca paste.