By Mike McDonald
ANTIGUA, Guatemala (Reuters) - Guatemala is considering subsidizing alternative crops for poppy farmers in order to curb the production of narcotics and raise funds for social programs, a senior government official said on Tuesday.
The government could offer seeds for potatoes, corn and peas to farmers who grow poppies in northwestern Guatemala along the border with Mexico, where powerful drug cartels buy the plants and convert them into heroin, said Eunice Mendizabal, anti-narcotics deputy minister.
The Central American nation, with tight budget constraints, spends close to $2 million annually eliminating poppy plants. It is struggling to contain cartels that use the isthmus as a transit point to ship drugs to the United States.
"Every time we perform an operation to eradicate poppies, that area becomes more conflictive," Mendizabal told Reuters at a conference to discuss alternatives to the drug war.
"The idea is to bring together all the commissions (studying drug alternatives) and see if we can subsidize alternative crops," said Mendizabal, who added that the government has studied subsidy programs in other countries.
Guatemalan President Otto Perez said in April that the government could present a plan at the end of 2014 to legalize and tax the production of marijuana and of poppies for medicinal use in order to wrest control of the country from organized crime and fund social spending.
Opium poppies are used to make opium and heroin, as well as pharmaceutical drugs such as morphine and codeine.
The plan is part of a broader shift across Latin America away from the huge financial and social costs of the U.S.-backed war on drugs.
Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla told Reuters this month Guatemala was considering taxing the sale of opium poppies to help fund drug prevention programs.
(Editing by David Alire Garcia, Simon Gardner and Dan Grebler)