Mex­ico army faces gru­el­ing bat­tle against opium pop­pies

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

The sol­diers ripped the opium pop­pies with their hands and tossed them in four bon­fires, clear­ing a hill in Mex­ico’s lush north­west­ern moun­tains in less than two hours. But their work in the heart of the coun­try’s “Golden Tri­an­gle,” a tri-state re­gion of heroin and mar­i­juana pro­duc­tion, was far from over.

Af­ter the troops de­stroyed the 0.5-hectare field on Thurs­day, Lieu­tenant Juan Pablo Her­nan­dez Zem­poal­te­catl pointed to an­other one on a steep hill past a row of pine trees, and more down the Sierra Madre Oc­ci­den­tal moun­tain range. His 18-man unit has de­stroyed 39 fields amount­ing to 15 hectares since they set up camp two weeks ago fol­low­ing a day-and-ahalf trek up hills in­fested with snakes and ven­omous spi­ders.

Her­nan­dez es­ti­mates that his unit faces 20 more days of gru­el­ing work to clear the re­mote area while spend­ing chilly nights in small tents in the wild. But once they’ve de­stroyed all the bulbs, Her­nan­dez ex­pects farm­ers to quickly plant new seeds to re­place what they just lost. It takes only three months for pop­pies to grow. “It’s tiresome to see so many pop­pies ev­ery day,” the fresh-faced, 24-year-old com­man­der said as he trekked back to­ward the unit’s tent camp.

As Mex­ico marks on Sun­day 10 years since the govern­ment de­ployed troops to crack down on drug car­tels, the army faces an up­hill bat­tle in its four-decade-old struggle to erad­i­cate a grow­ing opium poppy pro­duc­tion. The pop­pies are grown by lo­cal farm­ers, who ex­tract opium gum from bulbs and sell it to gangs such as the Si­naloa drug car­tel, which trans­forms the raw ma­te­rial into heroin. “Ev­ery time we de­stroy a field ... the lo­cals come back to plant af­ter our per­son­nel has left the area,” said Colonel Cipri­ano Cruz Quiroz, chief of staff of a spe­cial nar­cotics erad­i­ca­tion unit based in Badi­raguato, Si­naloa state. “They don’t see us in a good light but they tol­er­ate us. They have their work and we have ours. They plant and we de­stroy,” said Cruz, whose base is in the home­town of im­pris­oned Si­naloa car­tel king­pin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guz­man. Opium pop­pies are mostly grown in the south­ern state of Guer­rero and the Golden Tri­an­gle-which strad­dles the states of Si­naloa, Du­rango and Chi­huahua. Farm­ers in the Golden Tri­an­gle started to grow more pop­pies than mar­i­juana since sev­eral US states be­gan to le­gal­ize pot con­sump­tion in 2012, Cruz said. Car­tels used to pay the farm­ers around $60 per kilo of mar­i­juana, but the price has now dropped by half, he said. The price of a kilo of opium gum has jumped from around $980-$1200 to $1,765. The half-hectare field de­stroyed by Her­nan­dez’s unit could have pro­duced half a kilo of brown­ish gum, enough to make three ki­los of heroin. The farm­ers slice the bulbs with a ra­zor blade, al­low­ing the sticky gum to trickle out overnight to be col­lected the next day. The raw ma­te­rial is then sold in a sort of “mar­ket day,” Cruz said.

In June, Mex­ico’s govern­ment and the United Na­tions Of­fice on Drugs and Crime (UN­ODC) re­leased the first es­ti­mate of opium poppy cul­ti­va­tion, with aerial and satel­lite im­ages find­ing 24,800 hectares across Mex­ico be­tween 20142015. A sec­ond anal­y­sis is un­der­way to make a year-on-year com­par­i­son. But army fig­ures show poppy erad­i­ca­tion na­tion­wide in­creased from 14,613 hectares in 2013 to 26,249 in 2015. It stood at 19,848 hectares in the first 11 months of this year. In the Golden Tri­an­gle, 9,078 hectares were de­stroyed in 2015 and 6,145 this year, far more than mar­i­juana.

A US Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion re­port says heroin seizures more than dou­bled to 2,524 ki­los at the US-Mex­ico bor­der be­tween 2010-2015. The govern­ment has stepped up erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts, in­creas­ing fu­mi­ga­tion flights in the Golden Tri­an­gle to four mis­sions in 2016, each last­ing 20 to 25 days, com­pared to three op­er­a­tions last year.

The re­gion’s spe­cial unit was cre­ated in July 2014 to fo­cus solely on plant erad­i­ca­tion. Re­con­nais­sance flights or satel­lite im­ages spot the fields. When fu­mi­ga­tion flights are not avail­able, sol­diers do the work by hand.

Small teams like the one led by Lieu­tenant Her­nan­dez spend three months in the moun­tains look­ing for mar­i­juana or opium pop­pies. They set up 10 tents be­tween trees, brav­ing chilly nights and spend­ing the day de­stroy­ing plants. But they never ar­rest grow­ers, who ei­ther flee or deny own­ing the fields.

— AFP

SI­NALOA: A Mex­i­can sol­dier pulls up poppy flow­ers as part of the army’s struggle to erad­i­cate grow­ing opium pro­duc­tion, in the com­mu­nity of Su­ru­tato.

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