SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras - Counter-narcotics agents in Honduras discovered a major cocaine-processing complex last month tucked in mountainous triple-canopy jungle near the border with Guatemala, a worrisome sign that Colombian drug lords are shifting their operations to the weaker countries of Central America.
The jungle complex was the first large drug-processing laboratory found north of South America's Andean region, and it signals a major change in the cocaine business. In the past, the industry has processed leaves from coca plant in hidden labs in Colombia, then shipped the cocaine to North America and Europe.
Now, however, some traffickers are shipping semi-refined coca paste, or cocaine base, to Honduras, where it goes through the final processing into white powder, police officials think.
"This is a red flag that Honduras is turning into a processing center," said Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, who led the raid March 9 by 200 agents to the hidden camp near remote coffee farms on Cerro Negro, a hill several hours to the west of this industrial city.
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The site sits close to a river that flows into the Caribbean. Alvarez said he thought that the drug group behind the laboratory was the Sinaloa Cartel, Mexico's most powerful trafficking organization, which has deep ties in Colombia and a growing presence in Central America.
The seizure stunned counter-drug officials from the Andes, through Central America and on up to Washington.
"The discovery … was so unusual the Colombian National Police actually dispatched an anti-narcotics officer to conduct an on-scene assessment," said Jay Bergman, Andean regional director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Colombian experts gave the Hondurans more bad news: The seized jungle lab almost certainly wasn't a one-time experiment by a major cartel.
"Based on their experience, they believe that there are more such labs in Honduras, and maybe Central America," Alvarez said.
The shift is the result of pressure on trafficking groups in Colombia, long the cocaine industry hub.
White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said law enforcement agencies seized and destroyed 251 cocaine-processing laboratories in Colombia last year. He described the Honduran facility as "very significant."
Counter-drug officials offered several possible motives for why traffickers would shift processing northward to Central America, including a Colombian crackdown on so-called precursor chemicals needed to turn coca leaves into cocaine powder.
The laboratory was discovered after farmers in the area reported that the quality of their water had declined recently. Authorities sent employees to discover the source of the problem. When they came back with photos, Alvarez recognized the installation as a cocaine laboratory, similar to one he had seen in Colombia.
When he led his counter-drug agents to the site, Alvarez said, he had an additional fear: that they'd also find plantations of coca. That didn't happen.
Finding coca plants would have indicated that the primary raw material for cocaine had adapted to Honduran conditions, placing the entire production process hundreds of miles closer to the United States and circumventing interdiction programs that have taken decades to establish.