Authorities have discovered several marijuana plantations in a mountainous region of central Chile, revealing that the country is no longer just a major destination point for cannabis but a producer as well.
The latest marijuana farm bust occurred in mid-March, when some 8,600 plants, valued at almost $60 million, were seized in the province of Choapa, outside the coastal city of Coquimbo, La Tercera reported. Earlier in the month, authorities discovered some 4,000 plants in the town of Cabildo, south of Choapa.
The seizures were part of a program by Chile's police investigations unit (Policía de Investigaciones de Chile - PDI) to attack cannabis cultivation and trafficking. The largest discovery this year came in February, when authorities destroyed nearly 27,000 plants on a plantation south of Coquimbo. The farm housed encampments for growers, and the plants were valued at almost $10 million. Other notable discoveries included a January seizure of 7,400 plants valued at $4.75 million.
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Marijuana cultivation appears to be on the rise in Chile, according to the 2021 Narcotrafficking Observatory Report published by the Office of the Attorney General. Authorities seized 285,000 plants in 2020, nearly 50,000 more than in 2019, according to the report.
The plantations are often found on ravines and hillsides in areas north of the city of Valparaiso, where the climate is ideal for cannabis cultivation. A report by Chile outlet Meganoticias shows a farm with long irrigation tubes alongside rows of plants in black garbage bags filled with soil. Authorities set the plants ablaze, causing a massive plume of smoke.
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Marijuana cultivation on a large scale in Chile points toward domestic production becoming an alternative to importing cannabis to feed the country's lucrative local market.
Paraguayan and Bolivian groups have long smuggled illegal marijuana into Chile. Chile has also been a destination for potent marijuana trafficked from Colombia.
The smuggling of marijuana, however, became much more difficult after the shutting of land borders amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Some criminal groups shifted to maritime routes.
Local cannabis production also filled the void. Seizures of marijuana plants increased from 2019 to 2020, according to Chile's Attorney General's Office. The jump was the result of a "lack of supply of marijuana, especially that of Colombian origin," officials said.
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Prior to the pandemic, domestic production of marijuana comprised small local growers, according to a 2021 report by La Tercera. The plantations, by contrast, use commercial farming techniques to scale production.
Farms have included large pools to feed sophisticated irrigation systems, and plants are potted in fertilized soil, Felipe Molina, deputy commissioner of the PDI's Metropolitan Anti-narcotics Brigade, told La Tercera.
Chile is a lucrative market for marijuana. The rate of consumption doubled from 2008 to 2018, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) 2021 World Drug Report. A study from Fundación Eutopía, a Chilean nonprofit that advocates for progressive drug policy, estimated the country’s marijuana market to be worth $630 million in 2018. It has likely grown since then.
With such skyrocketing demand, Chilean growers will likely continue to pursue large-scale cultivation, despite the considerable risks.