Honduran and Guatemalan authorities are eradicating record amounts of coca plants, further evidence of the coca's expansion beyond the traditional coca-growing region of the Andes and auguring more security challenges ahead.
Honduran armed forces uprooted 945,000 coca bushes on a property in Limones, a town in the Olancho Department, they announced in a March 12 press release. The seizure was equivalent to the total number of coca bushes confiscated in 2020 and 2021 combined.
The operation added to the country's record total of 6.5 million coca bushes eradicated in 2022, demolishing its 2021 total of 531,000 bushes, Proceso Digital reported.
Guatemalan police conducted similar anti-coca initiatives, destroying 887,000 bushes in various operations, they announced in a March 12 update. These operations expanded upon the country's record coca seizures in 2022, which numbered over four million bushes.
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While hundreds of thousands of bushes eradicated certainly catches the eye, coca cultivation in Guatemala and Honduras remains in its infancy. Guatemala's seizure of over four million coca bushes in 2022 amounted to only about 29 hectares, according to numbers provided to InSight Crime by the country's anti-narcotics police. And Honduras's record 2022 eradication campaign only covered 140 hectares in the first nine months of the year, according to the US State Department's latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.
Hectare eradication in the double and triple digits pales in comparison to the major cultivators of the Andes. In Colombia, the world's largest coca producer, an estimated 204,000 hectares are dedicated to the crop, and authorities eradicated nearly 69,000 hectares in 2022.
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Despite record coca eradication in Guatemala and Honduras, they are not major cocaine producers. Still, continually escalating coca seizures in a variety of nations are a testament to the crop's ability to survive outside its Andean homeland.
Cultivation of the coca leaf is the first step in the production of cocaine hydrochloride, the powder form of the drug that is trafficked to consumer markets. Even with fledgling coca cultivation operations, Guatemala and Honduras do not appear to produce any of the final product.
Guatemalan authorities have emphasized that, while the country produces marginal amounts of coca paste -- a refined version of coca leaf that is then used to make cocaine -- in unsophisticated labs, there is little evidence to support cocaine hydrochloride production within Guatemala.
Honduras, on the other hand, has shown minimal cocaine production capabilities, with rudimentary labs capable of producing small amounts of cocaine.
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While they have limited cocaine production ability, increasing coca cultivation in traditionally non-producing countries could be a sign of bigger things to come. Even when occurring at low levels, cultivation is exceedingly difficult to stop once it has taken root. Guatemala serves as a prime example, where eradication efforts have so far failed to disrupt coca's growing entrenchment, according to Alan Ajiatas, sub-director of the Attorney General's Office anti-narcotics branch.
"So far, the findings and the eradicated areas have not altered the panorama of coca bush behavior," he told InSight Crime.
Also worrisome is coca's emergence in a wide variety of countries, providing ample opportunities for new production. In addition to Honduras and Guatemala, Venezuela and Mexico have shown signs of fledgling coca cultivation.
In Venezuela, an InSight Crime investigation uncovered how coca crops, as well as cocaine hydrochloride labs, are becoming widespread. In Mexico, coca has taken hold in areas where poppy and marijuana crops have historically thrived.
For anti-narcotics authorities around the region, the danger posed by up-and-coming coca producers is palpable. The US State Department has recognized this in its latest report, dubbing coca production in Honduras and Venezuela "troublesome."
Although non-traditional coca producers remain far off the US State Department's 1,000-hectare designation to be considered a major producer, coca's entrenchment in multiple countries and the futility of eradication efforts in the Andes bode ill for the future.