Grounding traffic: The cocaine commodity chain and land grabbing in eastern Honduras

Kendra McSweeney, David J. Wrathall, Erik A. Nielsen, Zoe Pearson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

38 Scopus citations


This paper uses a global commodity chain (GCC) framework to explore the nexus of illicit economic activities and rural change. We unpack the micro-level economic processes by which a de facto land grab in eastern Honduras’ Moskitia region was catalyzed and accelerated by the region's ascendance as a global hub of cocaine transit (ca. 2008–2012). We show how ‘narco-brokers’ mobilized a long-standing economic infrastructure to harness land and labor in the service of moving drugs, and how these ‘mid-stream’ activities captured millions of dollars from the cocaine commodity chain. We detail the processes by which those dollars ultimately concentrated land among in situ and ex situ elites by profoundly distorting social relations around land governance, labor, food production, and—ultimately—land ownership. The result was widespread dispossession, land and resource privatization, increased food insecurity, community conflict, and increased social stratification. Lands transferred from resident smallholders to elites helped to (a) integrate the region horizontally into Honduras’ rentier-based cattle economy, and (b) improve the vertical integration of the pan-hemispheric cocaine trade through the speculation and profit- laundering services that the region's enclosure provided. This case highlights how economic coercions work synergistically with the more well-studied role of overt physical violence in frontier land grabs. We urge greater attention to the role of illicit capital in agrarian transformation globally. The study also points to the potential for transit spaces to shed much light on the workings of (illicit) global commodity chains and illicit economic geographies more broadly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)122-132
Number of pages11
StatePublished - Oct 2018


  • Agrarian change
  • Cocaine
  • Global commodity chain
  • Honduras
  • Illicit geographies
  • Land grabbing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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