How Fentanyl Laid Waste to Guatemala’s Time-Worn Opium Trade

The convoy rolled out of the military base before dawn into the mist-shrouded mountains straddling Guatemala’s border with Mexico. Its mission: destroy opium poppies used to make heroin.

Armed with rifles and machetes, the caravan’s nearly 300 soldiers and police officers from elite counternarcotics units scaled steep hillsides and waded through bone-chilling streams. They chased leads from drone pilots and inhaled dust as they rode in the back of pickup trucks barreling down washboard dirt roads.

But after scouring village after village, they found only tiny plots of poppies here and there — a fraction of the region’s cultivation in previous years.

“The land here used to be covered in poppies,” said Ludvin López, a police commander, as soldiers fanned out around Ixchiguán, an area of remote hamlets populated by speakers of Mam, a Mayan language. But that was before opium prices plunged from $64 an ounce to about $9.60, he added.

The largely fruitless search for opium poppies in Guatemala over several days in March laid bare a seismic shift in Latin America’s drug trade.

In the United States, the world’s largest market for illicit drugs, fentanyl has largely displaced heroin because of how cheaply and easily Mexican cartels can produce the synthetic opioid in makeshift labs using chemicals from China. Fentanyl is so potent that it can be smuggled in small quantities hidden in vehicles, another advantage over heroin.

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