Drug criminals are redrawing the map of the cocaine trade. Cultivation spreads to Central America. Local farmers are forced to grow coca – for economic reasons, or after threats.
In February 2022, Colombian police intercepted a call from a drug trafficker in Bogota who was arranging a major cocaine deal for a buyer in Mexico. There was plenty available, the man bragged. There was stock in the American cities of Denver, Miami and the Caribbean.
Just half a decade earlier, the drugs would almost certainly have come from Colombia, Peru or Bolivia. But times have changed. This coca, the man said, had been grown in Guatemala – a country more than 2,000 kilometers to the northwest.
The coca was of “good quality,” the man told his business partner, according to a transcript of the police tap. He said he had “a hundred boxes of expensive white shoes” – code for kilos of cocaine – and “cooks” ready to go to work in Guatemala and Mexico.
The conversation, which is part of the NarcoFilesprovides evidence for an important but still understudied trend transforming the global cocaine trade: the movement of coca cultivation from traditional heartlands of the Andes to Central America.
Fragmented drug landscape
This development is the result of various factors. It mainly revolves around the fragmentation of the groups that controlled the coke trade. In 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement with the Colombian government. The subsequent disarmament of the FARC opened up cocaine production to new and established gangs. For example, the man’s phone conversation in Bogota was recorded during an investigation into a FARC splinter group.
To better understand the trend, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and its partners, including Knack, leaked documents that they checked against court reports, interviews with experts and on-the-ground reporting in five countries.
For example, data shows that coca cultivation in Guatemala has increased explosively since the country discovered its first coca plantation in May 2018. Similar developments are underway in the neighboring countries of Honduras and Mexico.
Colombians, who traditionally control large parts of the cocaine trade, have not allowed themselves to be sidelined. On the contrary, they export their expertise to Central America. Along the new frontiers of coca cultivation, the arrival of the coca plant threatens to cause a new wave of violence. The local population has suffered from smuggling gangs for decades.
The new frontiers of cocaine
Hidden among dense forests and coffee plantations in the green Costa Grande region of Mexico, the village of El Porvenir seems deserted at first glance. It has barely a dozen houses, the few streets are empty. But this quiet village is on one of the front lines of the new cocaine trade.
Local communities have been growing opium poppies (the basis of heroin) in the region for decades, along with coffee, coconuts and mangoes. But after the collapse of coffee prices in the 1990s, illegal crops became one of the few profitable options left. With opium prices also falling as American consumers switch to using fentanyl, many are switching to coca.
“It’s the new economy: the diversification of illegal crops,” said Arturo García Jiménez, a local village leader. Between 2020 and May 2023, 171 coca plantations were destroyed in Mexico. All but 13 were in the Costa Grande region of Guerrero state, according to Mexican military data. The vast majority of these were in ‘ejidos’ – communally owned agricultural areas, such as El Porvenir.
Drug criminals in the region operate according to the Latin American expression “kickback or the bullet” – that is, cooperate or die. Previous academic research and reports show how such groups operate. First, prominent members of the community, such as doctors and teachers, are intimidated. Then mutilated bodies are placed on the side of the road. Ultimately, they resort to murders and kidnappings of people who refuse to submit or pay their ‘taxes’.
For many locals, it is safer to simply work with the gangs, García said. As the only buyers of illegal produce in the area, the crime gangs can dictate what crops they want and how much they are willing to pay for them. García said that a few years ago a trio of Colombians arrived in the region. He suspects that they brought the coca plant, which quickly proliferated, and bought the leaves back from farmers.
The coca trade follows a trail of murders and forced relocations as gangs fight over territory. In March, the population of a village in Corrales, an ejido 15 kilometers north of El Porvenir, fled after the criminal group La Familia Michoacana kidnapped three people.
La Familia Michoacana is notorious for carrying out executions and beheadings. Shortly after the residents fled, the Mexican army destroyed almost an hectare of coca in the ejido.
The soldiers came to look for coca in El Porvenir in September 2022. A local coffee grower remembers how the village ‘filled up with soldiers’ and how drones flew overhead during the raids. But after the soldiers left, she said, the farmers simply moved their plants further up the mountain.
“Coca cultivation will continue,” García said. “What is destroyed by the military is futile compared to the area being cultivated.”
The ‘balloon effect’
The farmers in El Porvenir moving their coca plantations are an example of what academics call the ‘balloon effect’. If you cut off cocaine production in one place, it moves to another, like air in a balloon. Crush one criminal group, and another takes its place.
A similar dynamic is partly driving production to Central America. At the time of the peace deal with the Colombian FARC, the rebel group controlled an estimated 40 percent of the world’s total cocaine trade. But instead of reducing production, splitting up the FARC created a more competitive, diverse and compartmentalized “free market,” as the UN drug agency described it.
“There is a kind of void in the Colombian cocaine market that has an impact far beyond Colombia,” said Leonardo Correa, coordinator of the UN body Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System (SIMCI). “The areas and routes controlled by the FARC were disrupted. This made it possible to do the same elsewhere.’
Economic incentives also helped push cultivation north. Correa said a kilogram of cocaine sold for 1,590 euros in Colombia could fetch up to 14,000 euros by the time it reaches Central America. By producing cocaine closer to the – in this case American – end user, smugglers can benefit from higher prices while avoiding transportation and other costs. In addition, it reduces the risk of their product being seized during transport.
Countries that once served primarily as transit sites are now becoming producers in their own right, with cultivation often concentrated along established smuggling routes in remote areas or other places where government is virtually absent.
For example, cocaine production in Honduras grew rapidly after the 2009 military coup in the Colón and Olancho regions, key points on the drug’s traditional route north. In Guatemala, all but two of the 217 coca plantations found between 2018 and the end of 2022 were in the sparsely populated northeast – particularly in the Izabal region, long known as a base for local smugglers.
Sometimes the illegal crops are introduced secretly. Alan Ajiatas, deputy head of the Guatemalan Public Prosecution Service against Narcoactivity, said his office is investigating cases where the crop was introduced to farmers without telling them it was coca.
“They said, ‘It’s a product that will be useful to you, and we will pay you so much for the result,'” Ajiatas said. “So the people started sowing without knowing what it was.”
These new Central American growers are not yet at the same level as the producers in the Andes. The UN drug agency estimates that 230,000 hectares of coca were planted in Colombia alone last year.
By the end of last year, Guatemalan authorities had destroyed only about 110 hectares of the crop, Mexico about 39 hectares. But production is steadily expanding.
Will these countries also increasingly experience the destructive power of gang violence and the battle over the cocaine trade that has gripped Colombia for decades? Time will tell.
This is a shortened version of the OCCRP article that you can read here. With thanks to Jonny Wrate (OCCRP), David Espino (El Universal), Jody García (Plaza Pública), Angélica Medinilla (Agencia Ocote), Enrique García (Ojoconmipisto), Víctor Méndez (Narcodiario), Arthur Debruyne, Yelle Tieleman (Follow the Money), and Juanita Vélez.
This article is part of NarcoFiles: The New Criminal Order, an international journalistic investigation into global organized crime, its innovations, its tentacles and those who fight them. The project, led by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) in collaboration with Centro Latinoamericano de Investigación Periodística (CLIP), began with a leak of emails from the Colombian Public Prosecutor’s Office that were shared with Knack, The time and more than 40 other media outlets around the world. Journalists researched and checked the material, along with hundreds of other documents, databases and interviews.