How drug production is spreading into Central America, Europe, and beyond


Drug traffickers are transforming the traditional map of the cocaine trade, with cultivation spreading north to Central America and processing labs moving across the Atlantic to Europe. This shift is evident in intercepted calls between suspected traffickers discussing a major cocaine sale involving product from Guatemala, marking a departure from the historical reliance on Colombia, Peru, or Bolivia.

Increased demand in Europe, Asia, and Africa has prompted the movement of labs out of Colombia. Advanced shipping techniques, including camouflage methods using textiles, make it harder to track shipments.

Coca cultivation is expanding in Central America, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Belize. Colombians, historically dominant in the trade, are exporting their expertise to these regions. Economic incentives, such as higher prices and reduced transport costs, are driving cultivation northward.

The cocaine trade is becoming less cartelized, with dissident FARC groups holding onto their shares. International groups, such as Albanians and Serbians, are gaining a foothold.

As demand rises, labs are emerging in Europe, including a significant one in the Netherlands run by a Colombian trafficker. The sophisticated labs benefit from the expertise of Colombian producers and favorable conditions in the EU for obtaining chemical precursors.

The expansion of cultivation areas leads to violence and displacement in affected communities. Locals often cooperate with drug trafficking groups due to economic incentives and safety concerns.

The expansion of cultivation areas leads to violence and displacement in affected communities. Locals often cooperate with drug trafficking groups due to economic incentives and safety concerns.

Shipping methods have become more sophisticated, with cocaine hidden in legal products. This involves mixing cocaine into materials like plastics or liquids, making it challenging to detect. The trend is driven by cost considerations and attempts to mitigate risks.

In February last year, Colombian police intercepted a call from a suspected drug trafficker in Bogotá arranging a major cocaine sale for a buyer in Mexico. There was plenty available, the man bragged, with product on hand in Denver, Miami, and across the Caribbean.

Just a half decade earlier, the drugs would have almost certainly been sourced from Colombia or the nearby Andean regions of Peru or Bolivia. But times had changed. This coca, the man said, had been grown in Guatemala — a country over 2,000 kilometers to the northwest which has historically served mostly as a pitstop for traffickers.

The coca “gave good results,” the man told a person who appears to be a business associate, according to a transcript of the police wiretap. He had, he said, “a hundred boxes of high-end white shoes” — code for kilograms of cocaine — and “cooks” ready to start work in Guatemala and Mexico.

The conversation, obtained by reporters as part of a massive leak of files from the Colombian prosecutor’s office, provides more evidence of a momentous but still little-studied trend reshaping the global cocaine trade: The relocation of production out of its traditional Andean heartlands and into Central America.

The development has been driven by several factors, notably the fragmentation of groups that controlled the trade. After a 2016 peace deal, the disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) opened up cocaine production to both new and established gangs, who have experimented with techniques and supply chains. The Bogotá man’s conversations, for instance, were captured during an investigation into one FARC splinter group.

The 2016 peace deal and disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) led to the opening up of cocaine production to new and established gangs, contributing to the relocation trend.

To better understand the trend, OCCRP and its partners analyzed leaked investigative documents, which they corroborated with court records, expert interviews, and on-the-ground reporting in five countries.

Data obtained from Guatemala’s Interior Ministry through freedom of information requests shows that coca cultivation has skyrocketed since the country reported finding its first coca plantation in May 2018. Similar expansions are underway in neighboring Honduras and Mexico, data from those countries shows, while Belize reported what appeared to be its first known coca plantation in December 2022.

Reporters found that, far from losing out, Colombians — who have historically controlled huge portions of the trade — are exporting their expertise and fashioning a niche for themselves in new operations in Central America and beyond.

The investigation gives new insight into how the processing of cocaine is relocating as well. As demand has surged in Europe, Asia, and Africa, labs have started to move out of Colombia and across the Atlantic. Dozens of new sites are found each year in Western Europe. One such lab in the Netherlands, run by a Colombian trafficker known as the “Heroin King of New Jersey”, could produce up to 200 kilograms of cocaine a day.

The emergence of labs in Europe and elsewhere has been facilitated by innovative shipping techniques — including sophisticated methods that camouflage liquid cocaine in textiles and other materials — which make shipments harder to track.

Drug trafficking has undergone a “moment of innovation” in recent years, ranging “from how to improve the networks, to how to use better tools and social media to purchase in large quantities,” Leonardo Correa, the coordinator of the United Nations’ Integrated Illicit Crop Monitoring System (SIMCI), told OCCRP.

When the FARC disarmed, groups of dissidents chose to hold on to their portions of the drug trade. Meanwhile, other international groups, such as Albanians and Serbians, have increasingly gained a foothold in the trade.

The result is that the cocaine trade has become “increasingly less cartelized”, Laurent Laniel, an analyst at the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction, said.

“More people are involved, which creates more opportunities for contacts, and more ideas of trafficking routes and smuggling methods”, Laniel said.

Along coca cultivation’s new frontiers, the plant’s arrival risks further waves of violence afflicting many communities that have already suffered heavily at the hands of trafficking gangs and state authorities for decades.

Cocaine history

After Europeans began extracting the cocaine alkaloid from coca leaves in the 19th Century, the drug’s popularity exploded, appearing in over-the-counter goods such as sore throat remedies and Coca-Cola.

A century ago, the Netherlands was the world’s largest producer of cocaine. After the US banned the drug in the first half of the 20th Century, cocaine was trafficked from legal laboratories in Europe via Colombia and Honduras.

The rest of the world followed the US in prohibiting cocaine. But the drug’s continued popularity opened up an opportunity for organized crime to meet market demand — and make billions in the process.

Since prohibition, cocaine production has historically been concentrated in just three Andean countries — Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia — where the plant is considered sacred by some indigenous communities.

Peru was once the epicenter of illicit production, until US-led anti-narcotics policies pushed Colombian traffickers to cut down on risk by cultivating the plant at home. Increased seizures in the “war on drugs” later pushed them to bounce shipments to the US overland via Mexico and Central America.

Since then, the trade has given rise to powerful criminal groups, who often work in league with state officials. In 2022, for instance, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was extradited to the US, where authorities accused him of providing protection to a drug trafficker who was running a cocaine lab in the country. His trial is set to begin next year.

Nestled among dense forests and coffee plantations in Mexico’s verdant Costa Grande region, the village of El Porvenir at first looks abandoned. With barely a dozen houses, its few streets were empty and its basketball court left to rust in the sun when reporters visited this spring.

But this quiet village sits on one of the many front lines of the cocaine trade’s dynamic expansion.

Local communities have grown cannabis and opium poppy in the region for decades, alongside other crops such as coconuts and mangoes. But after the collapse of coffee prices in the 1990s, illegal crops became one of the few profitable options left. Today, with opium prices also plummeting as US consumers shift to using fentanyl, many are turning to coca.

“It’s the new economy: the diversification of illicit crops”, Arturo García Jiménez, a local community leader, told OCCRP’s partner El Universal.

Of the 171 coca plantations destroyed in Mexico between 2020 and May 2023, all but 13 were in the Costa Grande region in Guerrero state, according to Mexican military data. The vast majority of those were located in “ejidos” — communally owned farming areas like El Porvenir.

Drug trafficking groups in the region operate according to the Latin American expression “the bribe or the bullet” — that is, cooperate or die. Previous academic research and reporting shows how such groups often intimidate prominent community members, such as doctors and teachers, before dropping mutilated bodies on roadsides and carrying out murders and kidnappings of those who refuse to submit, or pay their “tax”.

For many locals, it’s safer to simply work with these gangs, García said. As the area’s sole buyers of illicit produce, crime groups can dictate which crops they want and how much they will pay for them.

He told OCCRP that, several years ago, a trio of Colombians arrived in the region. He believes that they brought the coca plant with them, which has now proliferated, and bought the leaves back from farmers.

“They’re technicians. They didn’t care about yield or quality”, García told OCCRP. “What they wanted was to produce and produce”.

The coca trade follows a trail of killings and forced displacement as groups vie for territorial control. In March, the commissioner of Corrales, an ejido 15 kilometers north of El Porvenir, told the Mexican newspaper Milenio that the entire population of one community had fled after an unnamed criminal group kidnapped and “disappeared” three people.

Milenio identified Corrales as one of many local ejidos that have fallen under the control of the crime syndicate La Familia Michoacana, infamous for carrying out execution-style killings and beheadings. Shortly after residents fled, the Mexican military destroyed nearly a hectare of coca in the ejido, according to the data obtained by OCCRP.

In El Porvenir, the military came looking for coca in September last year. A local coffee grower recalled how the village “filled up with soldiers,” and drones flew overhead during the raids. Yet after the soldiers left, she said, farmers simply moved their plants further up the mountain.

“Coca cultivation is here to stay”, García said. “What’s destroyed by the military is symbolic compared to the territory cultivated”.


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