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SANTIAGO, Chile – The numbers are staggering.
In the six years since Chile’s Investigative Police (PDI) launched Plan Cannabis, which aims to combat and eradicate marijuana crops, authorities have increased their seizure numbers 36 times over.
From January to March 2012, the PDI seized 96,919 marijuana plants – the equivalent of more than 48 tons of processed marijuana – a year after eradicating 79,834 plants. In 2006, the plan’s first year, 2,683 plants were confiscated.
Plan Cannabis’ success is rooted in joint raids by government and law enforcement agents on marijuana-growing hotspots, Commissioner Erick Menay, head of the PDI’s Department of Planning and Control, said.
“This increase is also due to the fact that in recent years, the plantations have relocated and multiplied, mainly in the central region of the country, and particularly in remote areas that are difficult for drug enforcement officials to reach,” he said.
The marijuana seized in the first three months of the year had a street value of US$96.5 million, Menay added.
PDI officers conduct year-round raids, with the majority of seizures taking place from January to March, which is prime growing season.
This year, the plan focused on the areas between the Coquimbo region, in the north-central part of the country, and in the south-central Maule region, which are particularly suitable for marijuana cultivation.
Maule, which is about 160 miles south of the nation’s capital of Santiago, has the most marijuana plantations nationwide and is home to 39% of all marijuana plants seized, followed by the Valparaíso region (31%), about 75 miles west of Santiago. The O’Higgins region, which is 53 miles south of Santiago, is third at 18%, followed by Coquimbo (12%), according to the PDI.
Marijuana plantations are prevalent in these regions because they have warm climates, plenty of water and massive amounts of flora that allow farmers to hide their illicit crops in fields surrounded by terrain that poses problems to vehicles.
The PDI uses its two helicopters to conduct flyovers, allowing agents to spot marijuana plantations that would have previously gone undetected.
“This has accelerated the location and extraction processes, improving the plan’s scope,” Menay said.
The helicopters have enabled counter-narcotics agents to locate marijuana plantations in rural areas, specifically ones between Coquimbo and Maule regions, which were targeted by the National Drug Enforcement Agency when it outlined Plan Cannabis’ goals for 2012, PDI Inspector General Juan Baeza said.
“Between 2006 and 2011, we seized more than 200,000 plants,” he said. “Now, we’re seeing excellent results from this most recent season, which motivates us to keep fighting.”
Suspects found on marijuana plantations during raids are taken into custody and face prison time based on their past criminal records, the amount of the seizure and the judge’s discretion.
The confiscated marijuana plants are incinerated in the presence of authorities and members of the media.
“This is a social problem,” said Menay referring to drug consumption in Chile. “This is why we will continue taking the necessary steps to control, reduce and educate people about drugs. We want to discourage demand and seek to promote a healthy lifestyle. We must continue our work and deal with both the supply side and the demand for drugs.”