The Scandinavian Tobacco Groups factory lies behind a high wall that is topped with razor wire. Its huge pair of metal doors swings open, exposing bales and bales of tobacco lining the inside of the warehouse. The operation is the domain of José Olivas Benavídez, whose father, Fidel, started the factory after relocating to Honduras from Nicaragua. The family and its partners, the Toraño cigar company, sold the factory, then known as Latin Cigars de Honduras, to new European owners last year, but José Olivas continues to work as the factory manager under the new ownership. Olivas is a soft-spoken, unassuming man. He strolls past the tobacco bales, explaining the ancestry of each plant; some are from Honduras, while others are from Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic or Connecticut or Sumatra. Beyond the warehouse, rows of workers stretch tobacco leaves that are to be made into wrappers. The workers are almost exclusively female. Women work harder, Olivas explains, and they have better eyes. That quality becomes important later on in the process, when employees must sort through piles of cigars to ensure that all in a box look precisely the same. It takes a keen eye to distinguish between the wrappers, which may vary in color by only a few subtle shades. For men -- who suffer from color blindness far more than women do and who, according to Olivas, are generally not as good at differentiating color in any case -- the task would be Herculean.
Beyond the wrapper room, workers wielding thin hoses spray water on rows of pressed and stretched tobacco leaves in order to help them retain some of their elasticity and to humidify them for the fermentation process that rids the plants of their natural ammonia odor. In another cramped room, workers swat fistfuls of tobacco leaves in the air, trying to remove the excess water so the leaves can be stacked into pilones (carefully layered piles) to ferment.
Out on the main floor, approximately 50 rows of cigar rollers sit at counters, working tirelessly. Each one receives a premeasured pile of tobacco leaves that should produce a certain number of cigars. Supervisors watch each line of workers, and the overall supervisor -- a woman in a white polo shirt with a short cigar dangling from her lips -- keeps tabs on the whole floor. The room is hot and muggy. Once again, almost all the workers here are female. The two lone male rollers are the only ones of the scores of workers in the room, aside from the overall supervisor, who smoke as they work.
Creating each cigar takes only a few seconds. A buncher lays out a binder leaf, inserts the prescribed amount of tobacco, rolls it up, and then puts the tightly packed tube of tobacco into a mold. The molds are pressed for 30 to 45 minutes. Then, two boys take the nearly finished cigars and place them into a machine that tests whether they are smokable. Most of the tested smokes are placed in a tray, signaling that they are fit for packaging and later consumption, but a few are cast aside. This extra step assures that a clogged or poorly rolled cigar almost never makes it into a store. Finally, the cigars are sent to the final roller, who puts the filler in a tobacco wrapper and applies an all-natural odorless gum to one end of the cigar before sealing it. That end will one day be lopped off by a cigar cutter.