Last week marked a troubling first in the long and sordid history of the Mexican drug world. There was no bloodshed, corruption, torture, or any of the grisly hallmarks of the country's ongoing narco war. There was only a plant, or rather many plants — a field of small shrubs with green oval-shaped leaves and bright red berries. For the first time ever in Mexico, the authorities discovered a coca plantation.
Until now, coca — the raw plant material used to manufacture cocaine — has been grown almost exclusively in the Andes. But there is virtually nothing to stop Mexican drug cartels from cultivating the plant domestically, and experts say it's actually surprising that it has taken this long for the crop to migrate north from South America. Now that the shift has seemingly begun, the consequences could be profound.
The coca crop in Mexico was located in Chiapas state in the southwest corner of the country, not far from the border with Guatemala. According to the Mexican newspaper Reforma, 1,639 plants were found on approximately 1,250 square meters of land (about one-third of an acre) near the tiny municipality of Tuxtla Chico. The crops were destroyed by the Mexican military and border police, and three suspects were detained at a nearby residence where unprocessed coca leaves were also found.
Both the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and a Mexican military commander confirmed to VICE News that the discovery of coca crops was a first for Mexico. But that's not to say the find comes as any sort of shock. Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project and a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, says conditions in Mexico have long been ripe for coca production.
"My only question is why it took so long," Tree told VICE News. "It's got cheap labor, remote land, and good climate. Add corruption, crushing poverty, and poor infrastructure for other types of commerce and you've got a perfect storm."
The Mexican crop was actually quite small by South American standards. It takes between 450 and 600 kilograms of coca leaves to produce one kilogram of cocaine, depending on the variety of coca that is being used, so the patch discovered in Mexico would hardly be enough to manufacture any significant quantity of finished product. But its mere existence shows that the country's drug cartels are working to cut out the Colombian middlemen who supply them with what is perhaps their most lucrative product.
Put in pure business terms, Mexican cartels are vertically integrated around most other commodities they distribute. They grow pot and poppies — mostly in the so-called Golden Triangle region of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango — and produce meth by the ton in domestic labs stocked with chemicals from Asia. Cocaine is only a part of their business because the lengthy border with the United States is the most efficient way to bring to market goods produced in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia by other criminal organizations. Mexico's cocaine trade didn't truly flourish until a US crackdown on Colombian cartels and their smuggling routes through the Caribbean redirected the flow of the product from sea to land and enabled Mexican organized crime to assert its dominance over much of the supply chain.
Once mere couriers for the Colombian cartels and now the wholesalers, Mexico's drug gangs seem to have turned their ambitions to the biggest prize of all.
"We can assume that some groups of Mexican drug traffickers are trying to see if they can develop coca cultivations in different territories than the traditional ones, so they can dominate the only rung on the cocaine production ladder that they still don't dominate, which is the cultivation end," Antonio Mazzitelli, a representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Mexico and Central America, told VICE News.
Jeremy McDermott, co-director of InSight Crime, an independent research group that tracks organized crime in Latin America, told VICE News that the recent discovery seems to reflect recent trends in the underworld. As Colombia's mafias have increased cocaine distribution to Europe and burgeoning domestic markets in Brazil and Argentina, the finite supply of the drug and growing demand has forced the Mexican narcos to seek out new sources. McDermott cited the case of suspected Sinaloa Cartel members who were caught recently in Peru and linked to a seizure of nearly eight tons of cocaine.
"It's clear the Mexicans are keen to get their hands on more product," McDermott said. "It would be a game-changer if — and it's a very big if — the Mexicans were able to produce their own coca and therefore their own cocaine."
There are more than 200 varieties of coca plant, but only 17 lend themselves to cocaine production and just four are commonly cultivated. Like any other plant, coca grows differently depending on climate, altitude, soil, and other factors. Coca grown on the slopes of the Andes generally contains more cocaine alkaloids (the chemical compound that delivers the buzz) than the stuff from low-lying areas.
Coca has grown for thousands of years in the Andes and is still an important part of the culture there. Cocaine wasn't discovered until 1859, and the ensuing medicinal and recreational demand spawned plantations around the globe. In the early 1900s, Dutch-controlled Indonesia briefly surpassed Peru as the world's leading coca supplier. Tree said the plant was also grown in Sri Lanka, Japan, and even Hawaii. Today, virtually all of the world's cocaine originates in the Andean nations. But it doesn't necessarily have to be that way.
"Any Colombian peasant coca farmer can be brought in to show Mexicans how to grow it," Tree said. "Even videos would work. Then it's just a matter of fine-tuning the adaptation to local soil and climate conditions. I suspect this may have been a test plot or trial run, but that's speculative. They might even innovate new efficiencies. It makes sense for traffickers to spread cultivation to Mexico. Coca isn't as recognizable as cannabis or poppy — it looks like a generic bush or ficus."
Prior to the rise of Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel in the 1980s, coca was actually not common in Colombia. It was introduced as a way to streamline the cocaine supply chain, and it changed everything. The struggle for control of the remote coca plantations and clandestine jungle laboratories that process the leaves into powder spawned paramilitary groups, warring drug gangs, and a decades-long conflict that has only recently simmered down. It's impossible to predict whether the introduction of coca to Mexico would have the same destabilizing effect.
McDermott explained that it has taken years of tinkering to optimize the plant for the tropical Colombian climate, and recent advances have allowed Colombian farmers to increase their yield from two or three crops per year to five or six with an alkaloid content higher than before.
"The Colombians have been playing with the coca, crossbreeding it with Peruvian strains," McDermott said. "I would be interested to see if the Mexicans are doing the same thing and have found a strain that takes to the conditions in Chiapas."
Chiapas is generally regarded as territory of Los Zetas, a gang known more for savagery - they acted as the enforcement wing of the Gulf Cartel before breaking with their former employers in 2010 - than agricultural ingenuity. They have also been weakened by the loss of top leaders and a prolonged campaign against them by the Mexican government and rival cartels.
"I don't know if the Zetas have the know-how to be able to crossbreed strains," McDermott said. "This would not be something that would not be done by some knuckle-dragging thug. This would have an agronomist involved."
Nevertheless, as a gang founded by deserters from the Mexican army, the Zetas are renowned for their efficiency and technical expertise. They also have an extraordinary international reach,so procuring a helping hand from producers in Colombia or elsewhere would not prove too troublesome.
Mexican cartels already have the knowledge and resources to process the dried coca leaves into cocaine. According to a 2013 report from the intelligence company Stratfor, the cartels run processing facilities in Honduras and Guatemala that turn coca paste smuggled from Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia into finished product. The refining of coca paste was previously the domain of Colombians, but police there have reportedly cracked down on the labs and restricted the availability of the requisite precursor chemicals. Even with the crackdown, the Department of Justice still estimates that 95.5 percent of cocaine seized in the US originates in Colombian labs.
Tree made the point that aerial eradication of coca crops by the Colombian government, paid for by more than $5 billion in US taxpayer money through the Plan Colombia program, has done virtually nothing beyond spur an increase of coca production in Peru. The enormous profits generated by the drug trade — Mexican cartels buy kilos of coke wholesale for around $2,000 in South America and sell them for $24,000 or more in the United States — means that there will always be a will and a way to manufacture the drug.
"Forced eradication is an exercise in futility," Tree said. "There simply too much poverty, demand, and ungoverned territory on this planet. Combine that with the astronomical 'price support' offered by drug prohibition and we've accomplished what the alchemists couldn't do: We turned minimally processed agricultural commodities into gold. Cocaine should cost pennies per dose, but the risk premium created by our ever escalating drug war gives us the modern alchemy."
Tree also speculated that, even if the US were to somehow stamp out coca in Latin America, it wouldn't take long to appear elsewhere.
"I suspect sub-Saharan Africa could be next," Tree said. "Lots of cheap labor and ungoverned territory."
The discovery of one small field of coca in Mexico is not going to change anything overnight, but it could certainly be a harbinger of things to come. Gaining further control over the cocaine supply chain would make the country's drug cartels even more rich and powerful, a nightmare scenario for both the US and Mexican governments.
It is important to make the distinction that last week's find was the "first known" coca crop in Mexican history. The implication, of course, is that other fields could already be growing elsewhere in the country, perhaps on a much larger scale. After all, if campesinos in the isolated corners Sierra Madre can tend massive plantations of pot and poppies without interference from the government, what's to stop them from sowing another lucrative illicit crop in their fields?
VICE News' Hannah Strange and Rafael Castillo contributed to this report.
Follow Keegan Hamilton on Twitter: @keegan_hamilton