Guatemalan Poppy Farmers Suffer as Fentanyl Overtakes Heroin in the US

A Guatemalan Army service member participates in a poppy crop eradication operation in the municipalities of Ixchiguán and Tajumulco, July 3, 2022. (Photo: Guatemalan Army/ Twitter)

Many Americans are concerned that over 150 of their fellow citizens overdose on fentanyl every day, but do they ever stop to think about how this shift to fentanyl negatively affects the lives of opium and cocaine growers in Latin America? This seems to be the question being asked by human rights groups, and as always, the blame and the cost are put on the United States.

Fentanyl makes better business sense for the Mexican cartels compared to opium. It can be easily manufactured using chemicals sourced from China. Highly potent and compact, fentanyl is easy to transport and distribute. Unlike opium, its production is not affected by weather conditions, making it a more reliable option. Additionally, fentanyl labs can avoid detection and eradication efforts, unlike poppy farms, which are easily spotted by authorities using drones.

The decrease in demand for opium has resulted in a drastic drop in prices. Opium, which previously fetched $64 an ounce, is now trading for $9.60 an ounce. According to a Guatemalan poppy grower interviewed by the New York Times, “Poppies used to help a lot of people make ends meet.” The report further states, “Now.. the steep decline in poppy prices inflicted so much economic pain that ‘before the money runs out, people depart for the United States.’”

Apparently, the price of coca leaves used to manufacture cocaine is also declining, affecting 200,000 Colombian households that depend on the drug to make a living. Rights groups are focused on these people, missing the larger point that Latin American governments should be taking care of their people and that they should never have reached a point where a large percentage of the population is dependent on the drug trade.

According to the Congressional Research Service, “criminality related to drug trafficking has replaced political and regional conflicts as the primary source of citizen insecurity in the Americas.” Now, a drop in drug prices is adding to the hardship.

Across Latin America, governments fail to address their own economic and social problems or curb crime, often blaming the US instead. Some advocate for the legalization of hard drugs, mistakenly believing it will solve all their issues. They argue that drug legalization in the US will lower prices, weakening cartels and reducing violence in Latin America.

However, evidence from marijuana legalization and hard drug decriminalization in parts of the US shows increased drug use and overdoses. Moreover, because legal drugs are taxed, tested, and certified, illegal drugs remain cheaper, and the criminal gang-controlled illegal drug market persists unchanged.

Meanwhile, from Mexico to Colombia, corruption among law enforcement, courts, and politicians is facilitating the drug trade. Legalizing drugs in the US or Latin America will not resolve these countries’ issues.

Even with the decline in drug prices, opium continues to be cultivated in the poorest, mountainous region of Guatemala, where mature plants are processed into gum. This gum is then transported across the border to Mexico, where cartels refine it into heroin for distribution in the United States. And the US continues funding drug eradication programs because local governments are either unable or unwilling to control the cartels.

Since the 1970s, the US has allocated billions of dollars to Latin American governments to combat drug production and smuggling. American taxpayers fund the provision of weapons, training, equipment, and vehicles to local security forces. In Guatemala alone, the US is granting $10 to $20 million annually in aid to the military and law enforcement. With this funding, Guatemala succeeded in eradicating 7 acres of opium farms in 2023, down from over 2,000 acres in 2017.

The US was also financing aerial spraying of herbicides in drug-growing regions. However, human rights groups sent a letter to President Biden, urging him to cease funding these programs. They argued that such actions convey “a message of cruelty and callousness with which the United States should no longer be associated.”

The villagers in Guatemala are complaining that spraying and other eradication efforts are stripping away their livelihoods. Lucky for them, Guatemala still acts as a transit country for cocaine smuggled from the Andes and for fentanyl precursor chemicals from China. Given that the US is footing the bill for everything else, it’s surprising that no one has suggested having the US finance a retraining program for displaced opium farmers, teaching them to smuggle other drugs into the United States.

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