What poppy fever left behind in San Marcos



In Ixchiguán, Tajumulco and Sibinal, the word ‘poppy’ is met with silence. Most people are uncertain or uncomfortable talking about this plant. Despite its colorful petals and the bucolic image of fields tinted red, in Western Guatemala this flower is directly tied to drug trafficking.

Secrecy is one of the consequences left in the wake of the poppy wave. It’s part of the social code in these communities: a way to protect themselves from the stigma and sanctions associated with planting an illegal crop. Yet there are people who are ready to tell the story.

Ocote was able to speak with 16 people who planted poppies or experienced the poppy boom, as well as researchers and analysts who are close to the region and witnessed what happened. It reviewed government documents, reports, and data obtained through public information requests, and also visited the area.

From Colombia to Guatemala: The arrival of the poppy

Inhabitants of the region told us the story. In the decade between 1980 and 1990 two Colombians arrived in Tajumulco with poppy seeds. They settled in the mountains and planted their seeds. The seeds, it is said, took off. They began producing, selling to buyers of whom little is known. People don’t speak their names and pay little attention to the final destination of their product.

The poppy is a plant from which a white juice is extracted. This is opium. It’s used to make medical products, like morphine. But it is also used to make illegal products, like heroin. Because of this, it is illegal in countries like Guatemala, though it is legal in at least 15 countries like Spain, Australia, and Turkey.

Tajumulco has a diverse climate. One of its zones is sunny, humid, and warm. Another part of the town, known as the altiplano, is intensely cold and is scarcely sunny thanks to the nearly perpetual fog. During most of the year, days are gray and cloudy. This cold region is where the story of the poppy began.

Back then, people in Tajumulco made their living growing potatoes and herding sheep. Leaving their community to sell products was complicated. The road was in poor condition, vehicles were scarce, and transportation was expensive. They had to travel 33 kilometers to the market in the Departmental capital just to sell for meager prices.
They saw the recently-arrived Colombians did not suffer like they did. Poppy buyers arrived in their own vehicles and came right to their land to pay for and pick up their harvest. Word soon got out that their earnings were better.
A group of farmers from Tajumulco asked the Colombians to teach them to plant poppies like they did. They agreed. They shared knowledge, seeds, and buyers’ contact information. Thus, the Tajumulco range filled with poppies
When the poppy arrived in Guatemala, there was no problem with the State, despite the fact that they were prohibited. It was the roughest period of the Civil War. Authorities were not going to pay special attention to a small group of farmers in the mountains along the Mexican border.

People who tell this story either don’t remember or don’t know what happened to the Colombians, but they confirm that the popularity of the poppy grew. Poppies came out of the mountains and began growing in the fields near the municipal seat. Poppy fever was spreading to neighboring communities. It came to Ixchiguán, and then Sibinal. It even spread to the sides of the highways. The landscape was red.

More recently, in San Marcos, poppy growing has become popular in other towns like Tacaná, Tejutla, and Concepción Tutuapa.

The love affair with poppies reached its peak in the first decade of the 2000s

In February 2018, Guatemala, Mexico, and Colombia were the top three producers of opium in Latin America. This was reported in the report Amapola, opio y heroína, la producción de Colombia y México, by the Transnational Institute (TNI).

The police and army did not delay in coming to the communities to uproot the poppy plants. Over the last eight years, San Marcos has been the top poppy-eradicating Department in all of Guatemala.

Ocote asked for information on the eradication of poppies in the last decade, with town-by- town detail. The Ministry of the Interior responded that the Guatemalan Joint Antidrug Information Center does not have any records from before 2015—only from 2016-2023. Its data isn’t broken down by towns, either. “The Center does not have these records” was the response. No reason was given.

Data obtained through public information requests revealed that from January 2016 to March 2023, the Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Defense, Department of Justice, and the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs eradicated 505,308,083 poppy plants in San Marcos. The Government of Guatemala valued those plants at Q12,647,701,990.74 (US$1,579,508,263.00) total, or Q25 (US$3.12) each.

When asked at the end of 2023, the Ministry of the Interior didn’t respond to questions about how these plants in particular were eradicated. “It is impossible to provide any information considered confidential,l” said its response.
According to farmers, the government’s figures are exaggerated. They say that yes, the poppy put food on the table. They were able to stop restricting their meals and could eat three times per day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They replaced their adobe houses with houses made of blocks with terraced roofs or new siding. They bought land, vehicles, and cell phones. And yes, they also bought weapons. But they insist that the poppy didn’t make them rich for life. At best, they say, they were able to save up enough to emigrate when production decreased.

According to public information, 2017 was the year in which the most plants were eradicated in San Marcos. Government data agrees with the story of farmers and inhabitants, who tell us that the eradication efforts in that year were a hard hit.

But this was not the main cause of the fall of the poppy. The fatal blow was the drop in price and lack of buyers. In 2-19, the fall of opium was seen in other producing countries, like Mexico.

The drop in price Farmers from

Sibinal remember that poppies became popular in this region in 2012. They stopped being planted in 2018. Everyone agrees: the cause was the drop in price. Every ounce of sap went from being sold for Q200 to Q25 (if they were lucky). Buyers stopped coming. Neighbors didn’t have anyone to sell to.

One of the facts that affected the poppy market in San Marcos was the capture of farmer Cornelio Esteban Chilel, known as the Poppy King. This took place in 2015.

That year, InSight Crime reported that Chilel controlled the poppy industry in Tajumulco, Ixchiguán and Sibinal. He also had ties with Mexican cartels and Otto Herrera, who came to be one of the most wanted drug traffickers in the world. Inhabitants of these lands remember Chilel as a farmer who grew to hold a comfortable position, economically speaking.

In Tajumulco, we spoke with a resident who stopped growing poppies in 2016, when prices began to drop. He doesn’t want us to publish his name for safety reasons.

He looked for another job but was unsuccessful. He borrowed money and with the Q130,000 he was able to gather, paid a coyote and migrated to the US. When he could no longer stand being so far from his home and family, he came back. Now he runs a business. “Most farmers who stopped growing poppies went to the US or pooled their resources and sent their kids. The poppy harvest helped poor people a lot, and that’s why they went all-in with it. It gave them money,” he explained.

He confirmed that in Tajumulco, the price of poppies dropped significantly and there were no longer any buyers. Demand decreased and the industry was consolidated under a few powerful people who had contact with buyers. Small farmers had to quit. “It’s like owning the warehouse of a store. They control it and have higher level contacts.
They know the gig. There’s still a poppy industry in the area I imagine, but less than before,” he concluded.

During the poppy boom, even children were put to work in Tajumulco. Our farmer says that, after farmers scratched the pods (the heads of the flower) to extract their opium, children’s fingers were perfect for extracting the sap, as their soft skin kept the poppy milk from sticking. Children could earn Q100 per day. “People see the poppy industry as illegal because the State says it’s illegal, but there are those who see it as legitimate because they can survive off of it,” says the anthropologist Rigoberto Quemé. He adds that the poppy industry is defended by growers and non- growers who know that poppy farmers spend their resources in their communities.

The series “What Poppy Fever Left Behind,” of which this article is a part, was produced
by Ocote thanks to a grant from the Fondo para Investigaciones y Nuevas Narrativas sobre
Drogas (4 th edition) from the Fundación Gabo in alliance with Open Society Foundations (OSF) and the guidance and mentorship of journalist Guillermo Garat.