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Anti-Militarism: Mountain labs turn Honduras from cocaine way station into producer

Jeff Ernst in Sonaguera

Increase in coca plantations could give rise to a new generation of drug traffickers, and refortify the clans of old

After an hour-long hike from the nearest road, a Honduran anti-narcotics inspector with a shotgun slung from his shoulder led the way into a mountainside clearing littered with wilting coca bushes his unit had uprooted in the days before.

Black irrigation hoses crisscrossed the roughly four-acre field down to the confluence of two creeks, where, under a canopy, lay the charred remains of a makeshift laboratory for processing the coca leaves into paste – the precursor of cocaine.

“This plantation was small,” said the inspector, sweat dripping down his brow. “We’ve found other ones that were 30 to 40 acres.”

After decades in which Honduras served as a bridge state along the cocaine highway from South America to the United States, coca plantations are now spreading across the country like an invasive plant whose seeds are carried in the wind.

In 2021, authorities eradicated a record amount of coca plants. This year, hardly a week has gone by without the discovery of another plantation, and authorities are already on the verge of shattering last year’s record.

Cocaine production in Honduras is still in its infancy and unlikely to ever come close to the levels of the biggest three cocaine producers: Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. But if left unchecked, it could give rise to a new generation of drug traffickers, and refortify clans of old, much like the shifting of drug routes from the Caribbean to Central America did at the turn of the century.

“If we aren’t careful, we could be flooded,” said an anti-narcotics official. “We don’t want to end up like Colombia.”

The surge in domestic cocaine production comes as the former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández faces trial in the United States, where prosecutors accuse Hernández, who left office after two terms in January, of running the country as a “narco-state”.

The department of Colón, where the plantation visited by the Guardian was located, has been damned by geography: flatlands deforested by cattle ranchers provided the perfect landing strip for planes, and miles upon miles of remote, Caribbean coastline the ideal docking point for boats, packed to the brim with cocaine.

But in recent years, many drug trafficking routes have shifted away from Honduras. The once-ubiquitous sound of planes or go-fast boats buzzing along the coast at night is much less common. Today, it’s the mountainous terrain of the department’s interior that bears the curse.

Authorities began discovering coca plantations on mountainsides in the far eastern reaches of Colón in 2020. The traffickers seek out remote, desolate places, often within natural reserves.

Anti-narcotics agents have been forced to hike as many as eight hours to arrive at a coca plantation, placing them at risk of an ambush and giving anyone there a chance to escape into the jungle. One remote plantation even had a wifi antenna installed so that workers could be warned of an impending raid in an area without cellphone service.

Arrests have been few and far between, and the Colombian agronomists who oversee the coca production, and “cooks” who process the leaves into paste, have evaded capture entirely. “In Colón, there are many Colombians working on the plantations,” said the inspector. “[The narcos] take good care of the cooks because their operations depend on them.”

Nonetheless, authorities told the Guardian they have gathered sufficient intelligence to determine that a mix of family drug clans new and old are behind the plantations. The most prominent example is the Montes-Bobadilla family, which has allegedly trafficked cocaine for decades. On 15 May, the family matriarch was captured and one of her sons killed just two weeks after the department of justice offered a reward for information leading to their arrest.

During the cocaine gold rush that followed a 2009 military coup, the Montes-Bobadilla family allegedly operated one of the largest cocaine warehouses in the country, receiving shipments in their home town of Limón before passing them on to other clans who transported the drugs to Guatemala and beyond.

Authorities noted that traffickers began experimenting with coca plants in Honduras about a decade ago, but that the discovery of plantations was sporadic until the past couple of years. There was so much cocaine flowing freely through the country in that past that there wasn’t much reason to adjust tactics. But increased interdiction efforts and the disruption of trafficking networks finally forced some to make the change.

“Each generation perfects its methods, improves its tactics,” said the official. The coca plantations present less risk and the potential for higher reward. A kilo of cocaine is currently worth about $13,000 in Honduras, according to authorities. A trafficker typically earns between $500 and $1,500 a kilo passed on to the next group in the chain. But a kilo produced domestically could net a profit of over $10,000.

At the plantation visited by the Guardian, red, coffee-bean-like seeds adorned the wilting bushes and the leaves had a yellow-green tint, indicating that they were ready to be harvested, which is done roughly every three months. The coca plants were about half a meter tall, suggesting they had been harvested at least once before. At other plantations, agents have discovered fully mature bushes standing 2.5m tall or more, suggesting that they were at least a couple years old and had already been harvested many times.

Yields per acre vary widely, but even a small plantation like this one could come to generate annual profits in the hundreds of thousands of dollars – a tidy sum in a country where the vast majority of the population earns only a couple of hundred dollars per month.

The resilience of certain drug clans and the surge of coca plantations make plain the Whac-A-Mole nature of the war on drugs: arrest one drug lord and the next in line steps up. Close one drug route and another one opens. Block one method and the traffickers devise a new one. Even extraditing a former president doesn’t stop the flow of drugs.

“They’re always one step ahead of the police,” said the inspector. “The reality is that the drugs will always be here.”