Between July and August 2018, the Interagency Task Force (IATF) Tecún Umán, comprising Guatemalan Army and Police personnel, took part in a mega operation to eradicate nearly 10 million poppy plants in 23 communities of the northeast department of San Marcos, Guatemala. Authorities estimated the blow to coffers of transnational criminal organizations to be valued at $33 million.
“More than 800 people—service members, police, and special prosecutors—participated in the operation. We started with reconnaissance tasks in the area and then deployed all units,” said Guatemalan Army Colonel Óscar Pérez Figueroa, press director at the Ministry of Defense. “The operation lasted three days, and we destroyed 324 crops.”
IATF Tecún Umán is an elite unit whose objective along its 147-km area of operations along the border with Mexico is to combat narcotrafficking, smuggling rings, and other transnational organized criminal activities. “The force consists of 1,509 troops in three squadrons trained in combat tactics, reconnaissance, security, and drug interdiction operations,” Col. Pérez said. “The group started operations in July 2013, and since then deployed its J8 vehicles, donated by U.S Southern Command, on a daily basis.”
The vehicles are used regularly in the fight against drug cartels, human trafficking, and transnational criminal organizations. Their agility and maneuverability in irregular and hard-to-reach border areas are essential to the success of military patrols.
In February, authorities carried out the first poppy eradication operation of 2018. “We deployed our units in Tejutla and Tajumulco municipalities in San Marcos, destroying more than 31 million plants in 864 crops of about 610,000 square meters,” said Col. Pérez. Authorities estimate the value of the destroyed poppy crops at more than $105 million.
In 2017, IATF Tecún Umán carried out 2,870 operations, including search, patrols, reconnaissance, raid, and unit support. One of the most notable outcomes was the seizure of more than 650 kilograms of cocaine in San Marcos department, which a phone tip made possible. Authorities got word that narcotraffickers attempted to move cocaine to groups in Mexico linked to the Sinaloa Cartel.
Additional operations Guatemala incorporated the use of drones to eradicate poppy crops, as the flights help identify access routes to crop areas. “We include technology in these operations, because the terrain the different eradication groups need to reach is difficult to access, and it’s hard to know the condition of roads, if there are blockages or barricades,” said Feremka Godínez, director of the Central American School for Canine Training at the Guatemalan National Civil Police, which backs the operations.
U.S. Southern Command donated the drones in late 2017. The technology was first used in February and March 2018. At that time, authorities destroyed 30 million poppy plants. They also eradicated 3 million marijuana plants.
IATF Tecún Umán counters smuggling in blind spots on the border with Mexico, and destroys illicit airstrips criminal organizations use to receive and deliver illegal goods. “The border is very porous; we already blocked several illegal border crossings and destroyed clandestine airstrips where a lot of smuggling was taking place. We halted people and groups transporting all kinds of illegal cargo,” Col. Pérez said.
The poppy triangle
Poppy cultivation increased in Guatemala since 2003, and now reaches dozens of villages in Sibinal, Ixchiguán, and Tajumulco municipalities, located along the border with Mexico. The area is known as the poppy triangle.
The geographical characteristics and weather conditions of those municipalities facilitate the production of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum). Sap is extracted from its fruit to produce opium, which is used to make drugs such as morphine and heroin. A farmer can extract up to 8 kg of opium per hectare, while narcotraffickers can produce up to 1 kg of morphine or heroin with every 10 kg of opium.
Farmers grow opium among vegetables and fruits. The opium is then sold to narcotraffickers, who take it to clandestine labs to use as a raw material in drug production. IATF Tecún Umán attacks the production cycle head on to prevent Guatemalans from falling prey to narcotrafficking.