How does your garden grow? The Tuxtla Gutiérrez Cocaine Experiment

Originally Published by the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Available Here.

The find was unexpected and troubling. On September 9th, in the small Mexican town of Tuxtla Gutiérrez—located in Chiapas state—authorities uncovered the first evidence of large-scale efforts to grow coca in the country. Acting on the tip, members of the Mexican security services raided a property and found over 1,600 coca plants. The plantation was reportedly closely connected to a series of arrests in the nearby city of Tapachula, which involved the seizure of 180 kilos of coca leaf—the organic precursor for cocaine. The plantation in Tuxtla Gutiérrez is reportedly Mexico’s first evidence of coca growing in the country, and presents key questions: why in Mexico, why now, and where is this likely to lead?

The modern cocaine business is rooted in coca growth in South America—primarily in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia. Once grown, coca is transformed—step-by-step—into cocaine. Several hundred tons of dried coca leaves are required for the production of a single ton of cocaine, requiring mass cultivation—and thus a large production area—to cater to the cocaine consumer markets in North America, Europe, and increasingly East Asia. In the modern era of cocaine, this cultivation has occurred almost exclusively in the South American nations listed above. However, this monopoly on production is rooted in social, political, and (illicit) economic rational, not horticultural necessities.

In the early 20th century the Dutch and Japanese developed thriving coca plantations in East Asia, while the British and French experimented with its growth in their African colonies and in other areas around the world. World War II and the gradual prohibition of cocaine that followed curtailed coca’s industrial-scale production in these disparate areas of the world. Only in South America—where the shrub was first domesticated and still home to a thriving indigenous market in coca (though not cocaine)—did growing continue. Efforts by South American states to eradicate production have had little success, and have more often than not resulted in alienated farmers and empowered insurgents. Until now, drug trafficking organizations have had little impetus to relocate production outside of the Andean region.

While only its creators know the rational for developing the plantation in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, an examination of the current situation in Central American transport countries and the Caribbean provide hints. First, violence and instability in Central America has worsened over the last several years. Drug trafficking organizations are popularly viewed as thriving in—and actively seeking to create—chaotic situations and failing states, however this is only true to a degree. For both licit and illicit businesses, societal chaos and the absence of state services impede financial and logistical planning, and generally increase the cost of doing business. While illicit businesses may have tools—such as paramilitary protection units—that enable them to weather chaotic situations better than most, such situations are far from ideal for them. In Central America street gangs, tumbadores (groups specializing in the theft of narcotic shipments), and local drug trafficking groups have gained power in recent years, increasing the risks—and hence the cost—that Mexican DTOs face in transporting narcotics through the area.

Apart from Central America, the other main route between South American cocaine production zones and North American markets is through the Caribbean—a route that was heavily favored in the 1970s and 1980s, before being largely abandoned due to aggressive U.S. maritime and air interdiction efforts. There have been some attempts to reinvigorate trafficking through this area, though U.S. military and law enforcement focus on the area make smuggling efforts complicated and risky. There are few easy—and economical—transport options for Mexican cocaine traffickers in the present day. Attempts to grow the drug in Mexico may thus be an experiment in shortening their supply chain, decreasing their exposure to chaos in Central America and U.S. interdiction efforts in the Caribbean. An additional benefit for Mexican cartels is that domestic production of coca cuts Colombian DTOs out of the equation, and increasing their own profits.

As an experiment, the Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation may have succeeded even though it was uncovered. Over 1,600 plants were grown, existing long enough for at least 180 kilograms of coca leaf to be harvested. The problem with the Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation was, mainly, that the effort took place in Tuxtla Gutiérez. While Mexico’s security services have been buffeted by the drug trafficking wars of the 2000s, they are far better trained, well equipped, and more numerous than their counterparts in Central America. Had the Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation been created on the other side of the Mexico-Guatemala border—a few kilometers from the town—it is far less likely the endeavor would have been uncovered. This raises the question of whether other coca production experiments are occurring in Guatemala or other Central American countries? If so, already weakened Central American countries could face a significant new and extremely dangerous threat.

The Tuxtla Gutiérrez plantation also raises risks outside of Mexico and Central America. The increasing popularity of cocaine in Europe and East Asia have forced DTOs to develop long cocaine supply chains that stretch through often unstable areas of the world and are highly vulnerable to disruption and interdiction. If drug trafficking organizations are experimenting in growing coca closer to one consumption market, it raises the possibility they similarly may try to create plantations closer to their other major markets. As the coca producers of the early 20th century demonstrated, there is little horticultural bar to developing coca production in Asia and Africa. It remains to be seen whether the Tuxtla Gutiérrez experiment is the beginning of a new trend, and if so where it will focus and what the ramifications will be.