Guatemala joins ranks of cocaine producers as plantations and labs emerge

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala is no longer just a transit point for traffickers seeking to smuggle cocaine north towards the United States, authorities said on Thursday after security officials discovered several coca plantations and processing laboratories.

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The finds underscored concerns that cocaine production is moving beyond Andean nations, where the leaf has traditionally been grown, and closer to its main market, the United States.

The discoveries of coca plantations and laboratories in different locations prompted Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart to admit Guatemala was now a cocaine-producing nation.

Until recently, the crop was almost exclusively cultivated in lower terrain in the eastern slopes of the Andes or the highlands of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia before being transported north.

The discoveries came after the government gave emergency powers to the military in eastern Guatemala in response to the murder of three soldiers earlier this month. At the time, the government said the soldiers were ambushed by drug traffickers.

The plantations are in remote stretches of the municipalities of Livingston on the Caribbean coast and El Estor, which sits on a lake popular with tourists and is where the soldiers were killed.

“The plantations were located in a mountainous area, which took three hours to get to on foot,” police spokesman Jorge Aguilar told Reuters.

The military said it found two other plantations with both plants and seeds between San Luis Peten and Chahal in eastern Guatemala.

Aguilar said he did not know how much territory the plantations covered. Last year, Reuters reported that a one hectare “trial” plantation containing 75,000 coca plants had been found in Guatemala.

The new plantations contain 17 times as many bushes.

Authorities declined to comment on which criminal groups they believed were involved.

Since the state of emergency was announced, 342 people have been detained and 57 motorcycles, 38 other vehicles and 52 firearms seized, while two cocaine-processing labs were destroyed, police said in a statement.

Guatemala has long been a major transit country for cocaine, and traffickers have exercised influence over political parties and in some cases territorial control.

Despite support from the United States and some success in intercepting drug shipments at sea, Guatemala has made little progress in controlling trafficking.

“Following the discovery of these narco-laboratories and the different fields with the coca plants, Guatemala now becomes a cocaine producer and that puts Guatemala in a totally different situation with respect to regional security,” Degenhart said.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City; Writing by Anthony Esposito and Stefanie Eschenbacher; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Grant McCool and Cynthia Osterman