How Fentanyl Laid Waste to Guatemala’s Time-Worn Opium Trade

The convoy rolled out of the military base before dawn into the mist-shrouded mountains straddling Guatemala’s border with Mexico. Its mission: destroy opium poppies used to make heroin.

Armed with rifles and machetes, the caravan’s nearly 300 soldiers and police officers from elite counternarcotics units scaled steep hillsides and waded through bone-chilling streams. They chased leads from drone pilots and inhaled dust as they rode in the back of pickup trucks barreling down washboard dirt roads.

But after scouring village after village, they found only tiny plots of poppies here and there — a fraction of the region’s cultivation in previous years.

“The land here used to be covered in poppies,” said Ludvin López, a police commander, as soldiers fanned out around Ixchiguán, an area of remote hamlets populated by speakers of Mam, a Mayan language. But that was before opium prices plunged from $64 an ounce to about $9.60, he added.

The largely fruitless search for opium poppies in Guatemala over several days in March laid bare a seismic shift in Latin America’s drug trade.

In the United States, the world’s largest market for illicit drugs, fentanyl has largely displaced heroin because of how cheaply and easily Mexican cartels can produce the synthetic opioid in makeshift labs using chemicals from China. Fentanyl is so potent that it can be smuggled in small quantities hidden in vehicles, another advantage over heroin.

As a result, demand for opium poppies has plunged.

In Guatemala, poppy farmers are losing their primary income from what had been their only cash crop, forcing many in already poverty-stricken areas to migrate to the United States. At the same time, local and international authorities fear that Guatemala could emerge as a new hub for trading in the chemicals used to make fentanyl.

Drug busts along the United States-Mexico border also showcase heroin’s decline. In the 2023 fiscal year, U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Field Operations seized 1,500 pounds of heroin, down from 5,400 pounds in 2021.

Seizures of fentanyl in the same period more than doubled to 27,000 pounds, up from about 11,000 pounds.

Even as fentanyl lays waste to the heroin trade and counternarcotics priorities shift, American authorities say that U.S. support for poppy eradication efforts, though limited, is still needed in Guatemala to counter the reach of Mexican cartels that produce heroin.

Still, the highest priority in Guatemala now is combating synthetic drugs and the detection of precursor chemicals used to make fentanyl, said a State Department official who was not authorized to be identified discussing drug interdiction strategies.

But the soldiers stomping through small vegetable gardens in remote villages were after opium poppies. Finding a few poppies, in patches no bigger than a hopscotch area, they went to work with machetes, chopping the plants. They did the same to the occasional cannabis plant, which remains illegal to grow in Guatemala.

Multiple signs of United States support for the mission — and for Guatemala’s counternarcotics efforts in general — were on display. Some police officers on the mission belonged to units supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and undergo regular polygraph and drug testing. Soldiers traveled in four-wheel-drive vehicles donated by the United States.

The State Department declined to provide a detailed breakdown of U.S. counternarcotics funding. But altogether, the country has recently received about $10 million to $20 million a year in military and police aid from the United States, according to Adam Isacson, the director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America, a research group.

That is roughly the same amount of such aid as a decade ago; overall, Guatemala ranks among the largest recipients of United States foreign assistance in Latin America.

An observer from the State Department, which has funded everything in Guatemala from training border police to an elite anti-gang unit, also accompanied the mission. He declined to comment, saying he wasn’t authorized to speak with journalists.

Since the soldiers’ efforts were mostly fruitless, they spent some of their time cracking jokes while mingling around their pickup trucks. Trying to spread good will, some distributed items from their food packets to villagers; others gave away cheap plastic toys to children.

Still, in an exceptionally poor region where each mature opium poppy plant is worth about 25 quetzals (about $3.20), some villagers clearly seethed at the soldiers’ presence. Some refused to talk to anyone in the convoy, which they viewed as removing one of their only sources of income.

“We hardly have any poppies left around here anymore,” said Ana Leticia Morales, 26, a Mam-speaking mother of two who makes a living selling gasoline smuggled from Mexico. “But the soldiers still come, not to help us, but to make things worse.”

Tensions around eradication efforts have flared for decades in Guatemala, Central America’s most populous country. Opium poppies, which were traditionally grown in mountainous regions stretching from Turkey to Pakistan, began appearing decades ago in Guatemala, as well as in parts of Mexico and Colombia.

Mexican cartels relied on Guatemalan farmers to grow the poppies and then turn them into opium gum. Smuggled across the border into Mexico, the cartels would transform the gum into heroin.

The United States initially responded by spraying herbicides from planes in Guatemala, but suspended those efforts after flight crews came under concentrated gunfire. This opened the way for the ground operations practiced today.

Fentanyl’s emergence over the last decade as a cheaper and much more profitable source of income for the cartels upended the poppy trade in Mexico while producing spillover effects in Central America. Now, the cartels don’t need to worry about heavy rains, which can destroy harvests. They also don’t need to worry about eradication operations.

Eradicators in Guatemala destroyed about 2,011 acres of opium poppies in 2017 compared with just seven acres in 2023, Guatemalan government figures show.

The decline speaks to the ease in Mexico of using chemicals imported from China to produce fentanyl in small labs about the size of a studio apartment, making it ideal for being manufactured in urban settings.

“It’s easier to produce a synthetic opioid in a laboratory than relying on a crop grown in remote mountains,” said Rigoberto Quemé, an anthropologist from the poppy-growing region of Guatemala. “The authorities are attacking the weakest link in the production chain,” he added, referring to eradication efforts. “But instead of disappearing, drug trafficking is still growing exponentially.”

Guatemala, in fact, remains a crucial smuggling nexus for yet another illicit drug — cocaine. The country is also emerging as a place where coca, the plant used to make cocaine, is grown.

Counternarcotics officials in Guatemala, Mexico and the United States worry that Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation, the two Mexican cartels vying for control of the routes already used for smuggling cocaine and opium gum from Guatemala, could use those same passages for transporting fentanyl chemical precursors into Mexico.

The Guatemalan authorities last year arrested Ana Gabriela Rubio Zea, an entrepreneur known for flaunting her wealth on social media, in connection to a scheme to import chemicals from China to manufacture fentanyl for Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

Ms. Rubio Zea, who ran an upscale clothing boutique in the elite stronghold of Cayalá in Guatemala City, was extradited to the United States last July to face fentanyl distribution and money laundering charges that could result in life in prison. The Mexican authorities followed that move with an arrest in January of Jason Antonio Yang López, a Guatemalan businessman subjected to sanctions by the U.S. Treasury for importing fentanyl precursor chemicals.

Guatemala’s new president, Bernardo Arévalo, is strengthening ties with the United States in a bid to respond to the fentanyl trade. In a ceremony in March attended by American officials, his government said it was trying to improve ways to combat the trade in precursor chemicals in Guatemala.

But such efforts mean little for villagers confronting fading demand for poppies on the one hand, and eradication programs on the other.

Regino García, a Mam leader from San Antonio Ixchiguán, said poppy prices began tumbling in 2017, eventually crashing to 2,000 quetzals ($256) per kilo from 18,000 quetzals ($2,310).

“Poppies used to help a lot of people make ends meet,” Mr. García said. Now, he said, the steep decline in poppy prices inflicted so much economic pain that “before the money runs out, people depart for the United States.”

Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.

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