Flaming Tortillas



By Melissa Pitts

September 8, 2013 at 1:42pm MST

Caroline Kellems of Godoy coffee producers and roasters in Guatemala writes about the untold side of the effects of narcotrafficking and coffee. She shares the struggles people in her industry face and the cost it has on coffee producers and farmers.

Since coming to Guatemala in 1985, I’ve become many things: a Peace Corps Volunteer,a development worker, a coffee farmer, the manager of a coffee roasting and exporting company, and a published author. I’ve seen many changes in this beautiful country. In the past 25 years the population has doubled, poverty has increased and so has enormous wealth. Much of that wealth ill-conceived.

When I arrived, the thirty-five-year civil war still raged. Since the peace accords were signed in 1996, I’ve seen the rise of narco traffic and organized crime become a major epidemic. No one is immune to its influence; the tentacles threaten to strangle the very government that loosely holds together this richly diverse country.

Guatemala,like most Central American countries, is perfect terrain for drug traffickers,serving as a bridge between the South American producers and North American consumers. Drug violence has filtered down from Mexico as corrupt politicians and police are unable or unwilling to cope. Political campaigns are funded by drug money, so no reasonable politician would dare oppose them. The narcos, as they are called here, are better armed, better financed and better informed than local law enforcers.

All organized crime eventually diversifies for its own survival. In the case of narcotrafficking, much of the diversification is done for money laundering purposes, but also because criminal activity will do whatever it takes to make money.

Middlemen,locally known as coyotes, use coffee to launder dirty money, offering higher prices to farmers, then selling to exporters at a lower price, leading to a destabilization of the internal coffee market. As roasters, we use not only the coffee we produce, but buy directly from known farms and, like other small buyers, have had trouble finding enough coffee at a reasonable price.With the exceptionally high prices of coffee this year, this problem has become even worse.  

All social sectors in this society are affected. Everyone lives with the day to day violence imposed by organized crime. Extortion, kidnapping, carjacking, and murder are so common people have hardened themselves to their repercussions. According to official statistics, in this small country, eighteen murders a day occur on average and only four percent of crimes are ever brought to justice. Every citizen ofthis country has been touched by violence, either personally or through a love done. Because there is no working justice system, people have stopped expecting it.

Running a company in this kind of atmosphere requires creativity. Instead of loading up large quantities of coffee after harvest from the farm to send to the ware house in Guatemala City, we prefer to take frequent trips with smaller quantities not to attract attention. We lock our business with padlocks during the day and make sales by slipping coffee through a hole in the wire gate. Only known clients are allowed into our buildings. Because of frequent extortion attempts we no longer identify ourselves when answering the phone. We no longer have a sign showing our phone number and business hours or even the company name. It just isn’t worth the trouble it attracts.

Caroline Kellems

Author of The Coffee Diary

published September2010



Owner and Manager

Godoys de Guatemala, S.A.

Coffee producers andr oasters in Guatemala