Things That Matter

Guatemalans Are Fleeing Drug Violence Flourishing Because Of This Dangerous Flower

The global drug trade is a complex network of producers, distributors and consumers. Consumers are generally stable and located mostly in affluent countries like the United States and affluent Western European nations like Great Britain, France and Spain. Producers and distributors, however, often change according to geopolitical events such as the Cold War or the War on Terror, or local shifts in government.

For years, the main producers of opium poppy in the world were located in South America and the Middle East. But as armed conflict affected big producers such as Colombia and Afghanistan, criminal organizations, including the Mexican drug cartels, looked elsewhere for growing fields.

Guatemala, just South of Mexico and home to a warm climate ideal for the crop, became one of the regional epicenters for opium poppy production. 

Credit: Digital Military Magazine

Violence in localities such as the  Ixchiguan and Tajumulco municipalities in the department of San Marcos have experienced unparalleled levels of violence in recent years, mainly because of fights between rival Mexican cartels. “There are signs Mexican citizens are participating. Poppy is produced, harvested and cultivated here … it is [then] transported to Mexico where it is processed and then sent to the United States,” said Guatemala’s Interior Minister Francisco Rivas to VOA News in 2017. This has led to an increased presence of the Guatemalan military in the Mexican border. 

Guatemalan farmers were struggling, so they turned to poppy flowers to survive.

Credit: PlantID

The Mexican cartels pressured farmers to produce poppy flowers. Farmers who used to survive by harvesting potatoes, oats and other products didn’t ask many questions, and some were told that the plant was to make “medicine”. This has happened elsewhere in Latin America: in the Mexican state of Guerrero, for example, the lack of government support has led farmers to raise poppies. President Lopez Obrador has even called for an amnesty for farmers who have been pressured by the cartels. 

But then the government, under pressure from the United States, destroyed their poppy fields: extreme poverty ensued.

When the government destroyed the poppy crops during the last decade, Guatemalan farmers, most of them of indigenous heritage, had no other crop to replace poppy. They basically were left without their main means of income. Violence has ensued (gang activity is, in most cases, product of economic strife and social alienation). Citizens see no other way out other than crossing the Mexican border in the hope of getting to Los Estates. 

“Amapola”, of course, is the red flower used to produce heroin.

Heroin is made from the milky fluid that seeps from cuts in the poppy seed pod. This liquid turns into a dark, brownish gum that is then processed into heroin. 

With a bleak future ahead of them and no crops, Guatemalans are fleeing the country in record numbers.

Credit: USA Today

As USA Today reports, the situation for Guatemalans is beyond challenging and leaving the country is now a matter of survival: “People are fleeing widespread government corruption, poverty and violence. Six in 10 Guatemalans live in poverty, and more than 50% of the country’s poor are indigenous people, according to the World Bank. Twenty percent of Guatemala’s population lives in extreme poverty.

Indigenous communities are most affected by poverty, with 79% living in poverty, on less than $5.50 a day, and 40% living in extreme poverty, on less than $1.90 a day”. Just think about it: your Starbucks coffee costs about double the daily income of thousands of people. 

Over 250,000 Guatemalans have been apprehended by the U.S. Border Patrol since 2016.

Credit: Unsplash

According to the United States Customs and Border Protection, unaccompanied minors, family members and single adults from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have tried to cross the Mexico-US border in record numbers since 2016. They are fleeing corruption, State abuse and gang violence product of the drug trade. The situation in Central America has been chaotic since the 1980s, when the two opposing sides in the Cold War, the US and the then Soviet Union, used the region as an ideological and sometimes military battleground. 

Guatemala has attempted to legalize marijuana and opium poppy, but efforts have fallen short.


Guatemalan authorities have attempted to legalize the drug. In 2015 then president Otto Perez broke ranks with the United States and presented a plan to legalize poppy production. In 2014 he told Reuters: “we’re exploring … is the legalization of the poppy plantations on the border with Mexico, so they’re controlled and sold for medicinal ends. These two things could be steps taken on a legal basis”.

These efforts, as we now know, went nowhere. However, the debate  over the legalization of certain substances is ongoing and could perhaps offer an alternative solution for curbing violence. But would legalization work? The eternal and perhaps unsolvable dilemma. 

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