The rapid expansion of coca leaf plantations in Mexico’s southwestern state of Guerrero is the latest indication that criminal groups are experimenting with coca production in the mountainous area, which was once infamous for heroin poppy cultivation.

In the municipality of Atoyac de Álvarez, the area where most coca plants have been found in Guerrero, 70 coca-growing plots were discovered in 2022, up from just seven in 2021, General Rolando Solano Rivera told a press conference on December 13. No details were given as to the total quantity of coca seized.

Seven of these plantations as well as a drug processing laboratory were found in Atoyac de Álvarez between November 22 and December 4.

SEE ALSO: Mexico Finds ‘1st Coca Plantation’

The amount of coca being grown in Guerrero has increased rapidly. The first such discovery in the state occurred in February 2021, when authorities eradicated six fields of coca crops in Atoyac de Álvarez. At the time, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said criminal groups were “experimenting with coca cultivation.”

Guerrero, formerly known for its poppy production, the base ingredient for making heroin, has now become a hub of Mexico’s limited coca production. The 70 plantations eradicated this year make it the leader in coca cultivation, ahead of Chiapas, the southern state where coca fields were first discovered in 2014.

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Despite the increased discoveries, Mexico’s coca cultivation remains far from scalable. And there is no indication that the country will soon become a significant player in coca production.

But while coca cultivation levels remain low, the incremental increase and Guerrero’s history of illicit crop cultivation could eventually lead to trouble.

Guerrero’s remote mountains have proven fertile grounds for heroin and marijuana growers. Cultivators are increasingly trying to replicate this success with coca.

Much like poppy fields, the coca plantations are concentrated in the Atoyac and Tecpan mountains, in the Costa Grande region, some 700 meters above sea level, according to La Jornada. The fields are difficult to detect from helicopters, as the coca plants are camouflaged among bushes, Solano Rivera told the newspaper.

In coca production hubs like Colombia and Peru, coca leaves are grown at much lower altitudes, Arturo García Jiménez, a member of the community organization Coordinadora de Comisariados Ejidales y Comunales de Guerrero told Mexican newspaper El Sur. Nonetheless, Mexican farmers could be experimenting with new growing techniques to adapt the plants to higher altitudes.

SEE ALSO: Report Documents Guerrero’s Role as Mexico’s Poppy Capital

Many farmers across Guerrero have depended on illicit crops for their livelihoods. Poppy growers in Guerrero reaped massive profits for several decades when criminal groups convinced locals to harvest the plants, offered to buy all the production, and paid cash advances, InSight Crime previously reported.

Displaced by the rising demand for fentanyl, the heroin market has shrunk in the United States, and the price of poppies has declined, said García Jiménez. Farmers were left with fields of crops worth much less than before and with a generational loss of knowledge about farming traditional crops.

“People are in need; that is a reality. The entire population needs a livelihood,” Solano Rivera told El Sur. “Even though the government is helping to mitigate the needs of the population, there will be a population that does not have those needs covered and will surely engage in illegal activities.”

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