Mex­ico ‘gar­dens’ feed drug de­mand

Opium pop­pies of­fer small grow­ers a living and car­tels a lu­cra­tive busi­ness

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Deb­o­rah Bonello Bonello is a spe­cial cor­re­spon­dent. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mex­ico City bureau con­trib­uted to this re­port.

CHILPANCINGO, Mex­ico — Mario moves quickly and eas­ily down the steep forested hill. Af­ter a 30-minute de­scent the tree cover clears, and the sun shines down onto the hid­den red and pur­ple f low­ers dot­ting the hill­sides in the Filo Mayor moun­tains.

Pro­duc­ers here in Mex­ico’s Guer­rero state call their clan­des­tine poppy plots “gar­dens.” What they raise there is highly mar­ketable, and il­licit.

Many of the flow­ers have no pe­tals; they are sim­ply plump, gray­ing bulbs full of opium, ready for slic­ing.

It was Mario’s fa­ther who taught him how to pro­duce and cul­ti­vate pop­pies, a crop grown in Guer­rero since the 1970s. Af­ter three years in At­lanta work­ing in con­struc­tion, Mario, who asked that his full name not be used in dis­cussing his trade, came home 10 years ago to be with his fam­ily. But his job op­por­tu­ni­ties were limited.

“There’s no other source of work here,” he says.

Small “gar­dens” such as th­ese feed the grow­ing ap­petite for heroin across the north­ern bor­der. The bulk of the drug sold in the United States now comes from Mex­ico, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est as­sess­ment from the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Heroin seizures at the U.S. bor­der with Mex­ico have more than dou­bled in the last five years, and Mex­i­can car­tels are now the dom­i­nant play­ers in the heroin busi­ness on the streets of Chicago and Philadel­phia and have greatly ex­panded their pres­ence in New York City

Yet de­spite the huge de­mand for their plants, the 30 pro­duc­ers in a small ru­ral com­mu­nity in­ter­viewed re­cently ap­pear far from wealthy. They’re just get­ting by, they say, living in rudi­men­tary wooden houses with cor­ru­gated metal roofs.

Mario also grows chiles and peaches and works as a car­pen­ter to earn enough to feed his wife and three chil­dren. Poppy grow­ers like him, he says, are be­ing squeezed from both sides.

“Be­fore we had free­dom, free­dom to sell where we liked and to whom we liked,” he says. “Not any­more.”

Now the buy­ers, work­ing for or with the vi­o­lent car­tels that op­er­ate here, dic­tate the price of opium paste, Mario says.

“They keep their eye on you; if you pro­duce pop­pies, then you have to sell it to them,” he says. “They pay you what they want. Ev­ery­thing is un­der their con­trol. The gov­ern­ment as well; they come and de­stroy the crops.”

The frag­men­ta­tion of drug car­tels in Mex­ico and the in­creas­ing pres­sure that crime net­works face from both the au­thor­i­ties and one an­other have made the poppy busi­ness more lu­cra­tive — for the car­tels, at least — as well as more com­pet­i­tive and vi­o­lent.

In Guer­rero, one of Mex­ico’s most vi­o­lence-rid­den states, pro­duc­tion and trans­porta­tion of il­licit crops — mar­i­juana is also pro­duced here — have served to cor­rupt lo­cal gov­ern­ment and state se­cu­rity forces to such an ex­tent that many res­i­dents see or­ga­nized crime and the gov­ern­ment as the same thing.

“Or­ga­nized crime has taken con­trol of the state and its in­sti­tu­tions,” says Jorge Cha­bat, a pro­fes­sor at Mex­ico’s Cen­ter for Eco­nomic Re­search and Teach­ing. “The real peo­ple in charge are the crim­i­nals.”

Con­se­quently, vi­o­lence has spun out of con­trol.

In Septem­ber, 43 col­lege stu­dents went miss­ing in the city of Iguala in Guer­rero af­ter lo­cal po­lice re­port­edly opened fire on their school bus. The stu­dents were de­tained by those po­lice­men af­ter the in­ci­dent and haven’t been seen since. Fed­eral of­fi­cials say the young peo­ple were handed over to a lo­cal drug gang and ex­e­cuted.

About 100 bod­ies have been pulled out of clan­des­tine graves in the hills sur­round­ing the city since then, but only one of the miss­ing stu­dents has been iden­ti­fied among the re­mains.

Last month, at least 16 peo­ple dis­ap­peared in Chi­lapa, here in Guer­rero, af­ter armed men be­lieved to be car­tel mem­bers seized con­trol of the town for five days from a ri­val car­tel. Sol­diers and po­lice present in Chi­lapa did noth­ing as young men were rounded up and de­tained. They re­main miss­ing.

Vi­o­lence in­ten­si­fied in Guer­rero be­fore the midterm elec­tions Sun­day. The Chi­lapa siege came a cou­ple of weeks af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of a may­oral can­di­date. Ulises Fabian Quiroz was am­bushed May 1 on a high­way and shot in the head.

Mario says he was jumped by mem­bers of a drug gang two years ago. Some­times, he says, the com­mu­nity lives un­der a de facto cur­few. Only the drug traf­fick­ers move around at night. The poppy grow­ers live in fear of be­ing killed.

The gov­ern­ment is mov­ing in as well. Farm­ers who spoke to The Times say Mex­i­can marines de­stroyed thou­sands of plants dur­ing a raid early last month.

Mex­ico’s at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice didn’t con­firm the raid, but it did say that au­thor­i­ties de­stroyed nearly 30,000 acres of poppy crops in the first half of last year, nearly as much as they cut down dur­ing the whole of 2013

Mex­i­can au­thor­i­ties seized about 570 pounds of opium paste dur­ing 2014, a 42% in­crease from 2013.

The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment has been work­ing with the United Na­tions Of­fice on Drugs and Crime for two years to bet­ter doc­u­ment the ex­tent of il­licit poppy cul­ti­va­tion. It is also con­sid­er­ing mea­sures other than erad­i­ca­tion, ac­cord­ing to An­to­nio Mazz­itelli, the U.N. agency’s Mex­ico rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

“It’s about cre­at­ing an eco­nomic and so­cial cy­cle that al­lows th­ese com­mu­ni­ties to im­prove their lives,” he says. “Or­ga­nized crime is a prob­lem, but so is the lack of so­cial and eco­nomic devel­op­ment.”

Says Cha­bat, the pro­fes­sor, “Each per­son does what they need to do to sur­vive.”

Farm­ers such as Mario say that there is lit­tle gov­ern­ment sup­port for poor, ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties like his, and that prom­ises to fund projects and cre­ate jobs have come to noth­ing.

The pro­duc­tion cy­cle for pop­pies is very short — three months from sow­ing to har­vest — so many farm­ers use their il­licit pro­ceeds to fund legal crops.

Mario says that his chile and peach crops, which jos­tle for space next to the pop­pies on the moun­tain­side, have started to reap bet­ter re­wards.

This will be his last har­vest be­fore he hands his gar­den over to a part­ner, he says, ex­press­ing weari­ness of be­ing pushed around by the car­tels.

“That way I won’t have prob­lems with any­one else. I’ll be my own boss and won’t have to an­swer to any­one.”

But many here can’t af­ford to put poppy grow­ing be­hind them.

“Un­less they cre­ate other sources of work,” Mario says, “I don’t think that pop­pies will ever dis­ap­pear here.”

Deb­o­rah Bonello For The Times

OPIUM POPPY

grow­ers in Guer­rero state face pres­sure from drug car­tels and the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment.

Pe­dro Pardo AFP/Getty Images

SOL­DIERS pre­pare to erad­i­cate opium crops in 2013. Farm­ers in Guer­rero say a raid oc­curred last month.

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