After the killing of three naval officers in an eastern coastal region dominated by organized crime, Guatemala's government has enforced martial law -- and in turn drawn attention to the country becoming a cocaine producer.
The three officers were murdered on September 3 in the village of Semuy 1 in El Estor, Izabal, by a group that the government says is linked to drug trafficking, Prensa Libre reported. The following day, President Jimmy Morales declared states of siege in 22 municipalities, a move ratified by the Congress.
While official versions of the events have been put in doubt, the government has offered the rationale that the state of siege has revealed coca cultivation and cocaine production. On September 19, Guatemala Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart even went so far as to say Guatemala had gone from being a drug transit country to a cocaine producing country.
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Just 11 days later, Defense Minister Luis Ralda said that since the state of siege was enacted, the army seized 1.5 million coca plants and close to 223,000 marijuana plants, in addition to locating and destroying four cocaine-producing laboratories with the production capacity of between 300 and 500 kilograms daily, according to a statement by the pro-government Guatemalan News Agency.
Most of the coca crops have been located in the mountainous region of Izabal department, on the Atlantic Coast of Guatemala where El Estor is located.
Drug trafficking routes extend from Honduras’ Atlantic Coast, one of the most active Central American cocaine corridors of the last decade, into Izabal along Guatemala’s border with Honduras. Drugs passing through routes in the Caribbean also flow into the country’s main port, Puerto Barrios.
In the wake of the killings in El Estor, President Morales has claimed that indigenous community organizations in the area are involved with the drug trade, although he offered no evidence to support this. For decades, the region has been a focal point for social turmoil related to the local indigenous population’s opposition to mining projects and other extractive industries. These differences have led to the arrests and murders of community leaders and journalists.
InSight Crime Analysis
Though the Guatemalan government has not been forthright about what happened in El Estor, its statements following the killings have exposed that the country is not only one of the principal transit hubs for drug trafficking in Central America, but that it is now also home to cocaine production.
If what Minister Ralda says is true, the four dismantled drug laboratories in Izabal would have had the capacity to produce between 20 and 30 tons of cocaine every 40 days, on par with what InSight Crime investigations have seen in laboratories in Colombia.
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The price of a kilogram of cocaine in Guatemala was about $13,000 in 2017, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Using this as a guide, the combined monthly output of these four laboratories would have been valued at around $325 million.
(Trace of maritime and air drug trafficking routes in 2017. Source: DAN-PNC El Salvador)
Some 45 percent of motorboats transporting cocaine from South America stop in Guatemala, according to information from the Anti-Drug Trafficking Division of El Salvador's National Police (División Antinarcotráfico de la Policía de El Salvador - DAN) obtained by InSight Crime. The DAN largely obtains its information from trips detected by radar tracking devices belonging to the US Navy that are installed in El Salvador’s international airport and monitor all of Central America.
During the administration of President Morales, which will end in January, combating drug trafficking was practically absent from the national security agenda. Morales instead focused instead ousting the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), a UN-backed anti-corruption body that was investigating Morales along with other elite politicians and businessmen.
Morales even used resources donated by the United States for anti-drug efforts, such as J-8 armored jeeps, to harass his political adversaries.
The situation that Degenhart and Ralda describe today, of Guatemala as a possible cocaine producer, has been years in the making in the country’s poorly policed mountains and coastal region. The events that occurred in the village of Semuy 2 in El Estor have done more than shine a light on coca crops.