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. Traditionally, 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 some 200 agents to the hidden camp near remote coffee farms on Cerro Negro, a hill several hours to the west of this industrial city.
The site sits close to a river that flows into the Caribbean Sea. 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.
"The determination was that the infrastructure of that cocaine laboratory was quite significant and that the chemicals seized at the lab could have produced approximately 8 metric tons of refined cocaine," he said.
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.
U.S. Ambassador to Honduras Hugo Llorens concurred.
"If you have one, you probably have more. This is a very worrisome signal that the trafficking groups feel that they can operate here relatively easily," Llorens said.
The shift is the result of ongoing pressure on trafficking groups in Colombia, the traditional hub of the cocaine industry.
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, the ingredients needed to turn coca leaves into cocaine powder.
"Logistically, it makes no sense . . . until you factor in the sustained and intense law enforcement pressures in Colombia," Bergman said.
It also cuts the risk, Alvarez said, noting that coca paste is less valuable than refined cocaine.
"For Colombian traffickers, it is more productive to send the paste in containers to Honduras because if the containers are intercepted, it is less money lost," he said.
Alvarez also said the move would allow traffickers to worry less about having the chemicals necessary to manufacture cocaine seized.
"While there are Honduran laws that control precursor chemicals, they aren't enforced," Alvarez said.
At the hidden camp, agents found containers and barrels of acetone, acetic acid and calcium chloride, among the chemicals needed for turning coca paste into refined cocaine.
Littered about the camp were microwave ovens, presses and filters. Two large air compressors sat off to the side. Abandoned sleeping quarters indicated that 12 people labored at the camp, Alvarez said.
Canned food and clothing found at a coffee plantation about half a mile from the site came from Colombia, more evidence of the lab's origin. Underground cables from the plantation's coffee bean roasting facility provided power to the jungle laboratory.
The camp had been abandoned when police arrived, and no arrests were made.
The huge police team "was like an elephant moving through the jungle. There was so much racket it gave them time to flee," Alvarez said.
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 that Colombian police had showed him during a visit there last fall.
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.
The coca shrub is native to the Andean region, and it grows best in somewhat moist climates at elevations of 4,500 to 6,000 feet. Although it's adapted to the plains of eastern Colombia, the Ene and Huallaga river valleys of Peru and the Chapare lowlands of Bolivia, it has yet to thrive elsewhere.
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 — the primary market for cocaine — and circumventing interdiction programs that have taken decades to establish.
Security analysts said that northern Central America, which has seen a surge in drug violence, provided little resistance to the activities of drug gangs looking for havens.
"Honduras and Guatemala certainly make sense as places to put labs," said Adam Isacson, a security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, an organization that promotes democracy and justice in the region. "Governance is weaker and corruption is greater than they are in Colombia. The deinstitutionalization and entry of Mexican groups are so great now that things that were previously unthinkable, like sophisticated labs, are now quite possible."