Assessing the Illegal Proliferation of the Coca Plant

This article first appeared on the RUSI website.

On 9 September, Mexican authorities located 1,639 healthy coca plants growing on a plot of land close to the Guatemalan border.  It represents the first coca plantation ever to be discovered on Mexican soil, and was followed by media speculation that Mexico might supplant Colombia as the lead nation of the cocaine trade.

The Chiapas discovery does represent an interesting new development from a trafficking perspective. At present, Mexican cartels profit by smuggling Colombian-manufactured cocaine into the United States.  In return, the Mexican cartels receive a percentage of its final sale price in the US. This arrangement ensures a steady income, yet is unsatisfactory for the Mexican cartels as the vast majority of profit still goes to the Colombian organisations. If coca cultivation were expanded across Mexico it could allow Mexican cartels to produce their own cocaine, giving them control over the supply chain and eliminating their costly reliance on Colombian suppliers.

This prospect is unlikely to unfold any time soon. Firstly, considering that it takes 450-600kg of coca leaves to produce just 1kg of refined cocaine, the Chiapas plantation is nowhere near large enough to yield exportable quantities. It is more likely the plantation is a probing initiative to determine whether cultivation is feasible for Mexican cartels or not. Secondly, Colombian cartels still maintain an effective monopoly over the expertise required to produce cocaine. This is why, despite Peru now producing more coca leaf than Colombia , the chemical conversion of cocaine paste into cocaine hydrochloride remains a Colombian area of expertise. To produce their own cocaine, Mexican cartels would need to vastly increase the total acreage of land currently set aside for coca growth, construct hundreds of laboratories, and import expert chemists to staff them. None of these are immediate possibilities.

Advances in Agronomical Knowledge

The Chiapas discovery is perhaps more significant from an agronomical perspective. The coca plant is conventionally considered most productive in dry soil between 1000m and 1,200m in elevation. In Chiapas, however, the plants were found growing in semi-tropical conditions at an elevation of just 320m. The Mexican authorities are yet to release figures confirming the cocaine alkaloid concentration in the plants’ leaves, but if it is high then the Chiapas plantation will represent a leap forward in terms of criminal groups’ knowledge of narcotic plant engineering.

Mexican cartels would be building on a historical precedent which has seen high-yield coca grown on a far larger scale and much further afield than Central America. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, cocaine used to be legally exported around the world for use as a surgical anaesthetic. Various colonial powers competed to grow the most potent coca in their territories around the world. By far the most successful at this were the Dutch. From 1912 to the end of the 1920s (excepting the war years), Dutch-administered coca plantations in Indonesia exported more coca than Peru and Bolivia combined. Moreover, Indonesian coca leaves offered a higher concentration of cocaine alkaloid than those grown in South America. Attempting to replicate the Dutch success were the British in Sri Lanka, the Germans in Cameroon, and later the Japanese in Taiwan.

A return to globalised coca growth?

What these examples reveal is that with the necessary willpower and expertise, high-yield coca cultivation can occur outside of its current ranges in South America.

Nowadays history seems to be repeating itself, with enterprising cultivators once again growing high-yield coca further and further away from the Andes Mountains. In March 2012, for example, the Ecuadorian army discovered  a four-hectare coca plantation in Cuyabeno National Park, deep within the Amazon Basin. Across the border in Peru, coca plantations are being discovered increasingly far away traditional mountainous cultivation areas. In 2012, a UN report revealed 4,450 hectares of coca growing in the Amazon provinces of Cajamarca, Amazonas and Loreto. Coca cultivation was previously considered impossible in the Amazon Basin because of the intense heat and the permanent damp. Panama and Venezuela have also reported the discovery of coca plantations thriving outside of their traditional range. What these discoveries prove is that the volition and expertise required to grow coca remain strong within criminal groups across South and Central America.

The Chiapas discovery is undoubtedly a significant one. However, it is far from the first example of high-yield coca being successfully cultivated outside of its natural range. Nor is it likely to be the last. Indeed, with agronomical expertise available for hire and law enforcement becoming ever more effective in the Americas, it is quite possible that criminal groups in other continents may begin their own coca growing initiatives. West Africa appears especially vulnerable in this regard:  It is already an established transhipment point for en route to Europe, meaning that West African criminal groups would only have to produce their own cocaine in order to dispose of their South American suppliers and inordinately boost their profits.  Furthermore, there is no institutional knowledge within West African police forces of how to detect clandestine coca plantations.

Just as we’ve seen with trafficking routes shifting in response to effective law enforcement strategies, intensive eradication programmes in the Andes may foster a shift in coca cultivation and production to areas where it was never previously considered possible. Law enforcement authorities must therefore remain alert to the possibility that coca cultivation, like marijuana and the opium poppy, may well become a global phenomenon in years to come.