Search and de­stroy — to­gether

U.S. gives Mex­ico high-tech tools and pays for re­search to get a han­dle on opium pro­duc­tion

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOSHUA PART­LOW

mex­ico city — In the past few opi­ate-soaked years, U.S. of­fi­cials say, nearly all the heroin cours­ing through Amer­i­can cities has come from one place: Mex­ico.

U.S. author­i­ties have ex­pressed alarm at what they call an ex­plo­sion of opium poppy in their south­ern neigh­bor. Echo­ing a fed­eral drug agency assess­ment, Pres­i­dent Trump has de­clared that “an as­ton­ish­ing 90 per­cent of the heroin in Amer­ica comes from south of the border” and cited that as one rea­son to build a gi­ant border wall.

Yet Mex­i­can and U.S. of­fi­cials have strug­gled in re­cent years to an­swer some ba­sic ques­tions about Mex­ico’s il­le­gal poppy crop: How much is ac­tu­ally be­ing grown? How much of it is the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment de­stroy­ing? And how much is be­ing turned into heroin?

Now the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is in­ten­si­fy­ing its ef­forts to help Mex­ico get a more de­tailed pic­ture of its poppy prob­lem. It has be­gun to sup­ply Mex­i­can author­i­ties with drones and ge­olo­ca­tion tech­nol­ogy and is fund­ing stud­ies to pin­point how much poppy is be­ing planted and how much heroin is pro­duced from it.

The new ini­tia­tives emerged from sev­eral high-level meet­ings be­tween Mex­i­can and U.S. of­fi­cials last year, as well as a trip in July by then-Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John F. Kelly, who flew to see poppy fields in Guer­rero state with Mex­i­can mil­i­tary lead­ers, ac­cord­ing to Mex­i­can and

U.S. of­fi­cials.

Trump’s harsh rhetoric about Mex­ico on il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion, trade and the wall could jeop­ar­dize that kind of se­cu­rity co­op­er­a­tion. On April 9, Pres­i­dent En­rique Peña Ni­eto’s of­fice said he had in­structed cab­i­net sec­re­taries to re­view their bi­lat­eral pro­grams with the United States, fol­low­ing a tense week in which Trump crit­i­cized Mex­ico about a car­a­van of mi­grants head­ing to­ward the U.S. border.

But on cer­tain is­sues, such as poppy, the two sides have al­ready qui­etly made progress. With Trump as pres­i­dent, “we thought that there would have been a chill­ing of relations,” said Juan Car­los Silva, chief of the an­tidrug di­vi­sion of Mex­ico’s fed­eral po­lice. “On the con­trary, we have grown closer.”

The Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion said in a re­port last year that Mex­ico sup­plies 93 per­cent of all heroin con­sumed in the United States, up from half of it in 2012 — even though it lags far be­hind Afghanistan and Burma as an opium poppy pro­ducer, ac­cord­ing to U.N. fig­ures.

The DEA also re­ported that pro­duc­tion more than tripled in Mex­ico be­tween 2013 and 2016, to 79,000 acres, in part be­cause of “re­duced poppy erad­i­ca­tion.”

But there is no con­sen­sus on those es­ti­mates, par­tic­u­larly the pro­duc­tion num­bers.

Mex­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cials deny that poppy pro­duc­tion has tripled and say they have in­creased erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts, de­ploy­ing more than 20,000 sol­diers on ground or ae­rial mis­sions.

The troops de­stroyed about 71,000 acres last year and are on pace this year to sur­pass that, the of­fi­cials said.

A decade ago, Mex­ico erad­i­cated 27,000 acres, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions.

There are sev­eral rea­sons for the dis­parate as­sess­ments.

Poppy, which is of­ten cul­ti­vated in re­mote moun­tain ar­eas, is harder to iden­tify from ae­rial im­agery than coca, the base in­gre­di­ent of co­caine. In Colom­bia, once a ma­jor source of U.S. heroin, it is of­ten grown in forests un­der cloud cover. In Mex­ico, where it is mainly grown in the western states of Guer­rero, Si­naloa and Du­rango, it can also be in­ter­spersed with other crops, such as peach trees, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to de­tect.

And since poppy has such a short grow­ing cy­cle — from seed to har­vest in just four months — in­ter­mit­tent pho­tog­ra­phy might miss cer­tain fields, ex­perts say.

“There are still a lot of ques­tion marks around the fig­ures,” said Martin Jelsma, di­rec­tor of the drug pro­gram at the Transna­tional In­sti­tute, a re­search or­ga­ni­za­tion based in Am­s­ter­dam, and the co-au­thor of a forth­com­ing study on Mex­i­can and Colom­bian poppy pro­duc­tion.

Equally chal­leng­ing, Jelsma said, is iden­ti­fy­ing the source coun­try of a heroin sam­ple. He doubts that the DEA can al­ways tell whether heroin is made from Mex­i­can or Colom­bian poppy, given that Mex­i­can drug traf­fick­ers in some cases have hired Colom­bians to teach heroin-pro­duc­tion tech­niques, so the prod­uct is sim­i­lar.

“There is a gross un­der­es­ti­mate of the poppy cul­ti­va­tion in Colom­bia,” he said.

Lawrence Payne, a DEA spokesman, ac­knowl­edged that it was hard for the agency’s sci­en­tists to dis­tin­guish be­tween heroin va­ri­eties when Mex­ico first adopted Colom­bian recipes but said lab­o­ra­tory meth­ods have been mod­i­fied to ad­dress the prob­lem.

DEA sci­en­tists can now de­ter­mine a sam­ple’s va­ri­ety and ori­gin “at the 95% con­fi­dence level,” Payne wrote.

For the past year, U.S. of­fi­cials have fo­cused on try­ing to help Mex­i­can author­i­ties es­tab­lish an ac­cu­rate pic­ture of how much poppy is be­ing grown and a sys­tem for ver­i­fy­ing the amount Mex­i­can se­cu­rity forces have de­stroyed.

“They’ve not had that in the past,” one U.S. of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of a lack of au­tho­riza­tion to com­ment pub­licly.

Un­til 2016, Mex­ico did not pro­vide ver­i­fi­able statis­tics on the size of its poppy crop. That year, work­ing with the U.N. Of­fice on Drugs and Crime, it pro­duced its first such re­port, re­ly­ing on ae­rial and satel­lite im­agery that found that about 61,000 acres of poppy was be­ing grown.

This sum­mer, Mex­ico and the U.N. agency are ex­pected to pub­lish up­dated in­for­ma­tion and the first es­ti­mates of “yield,” or how much poppy paste and heroin re­sult from the crop. The U.S. gov­ern­ment has helped fund that study, known as MEXK-54.

In ad­di­tion, U.S. author­i­ties have given the Mex­i­can mil­i­tary sev­eral drones to help iden­tify fields, ac­cord­ing to a se­nior Mex­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cial. They have also pro­vided hand­held equip­ment that uses GPS co­or­di­nates to lo­cate poppy fields that have been de­stroyed, then sends the data via satel­lite to the Mex­i­can at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice, the of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he was not au­tho­rized to speak pub­licly. The Mex­i­can army has the pri­mary re­spon­si­bil­ity for erad­i­ca­tion.

Mex­i­can mil­i­tary of­fi­cials de­scribe these as test “projects” that have not been for­mally adopted but say more in­for­ma­tion about the “new gad­gets” may be pub­lic soon.

Mex­ico has long been wary of al­low­ing U.S. se­cu­rity agen­cies too much ac­cess. That has made it hard for the United States to eval­u­ate the scope of poppy pro­duc­tion or ver­ify Mex­i­can erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts, said David W. Mur­ray, a se­nior fel­low at the Hud­son In­sti­tute and a for­mer chief sci­en­tist with the Of­fice of Na­tional Drug Con­trol Pol­icy dur­ing the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

“It’s just been a very dif­fi­cult thing to get full Mex­i­can co­op­er­a­tion be­cause of their con­cerns about their own sovereignty,” he said.

Mil­i­tary-to-mil­i­tary relations have im­proved in re­cent years, with Mex­ico tak­ing a more ac­tive role in hemi­spheric de­fense fo­rums. Even amid the ten­sions with the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, top Mex­i­can mil­i­tary lead­ers have met reg­u­larly with their U.S. coun­ter­parts.

In July, dur­ing Kelly’s visit to the Guer­rero opium fields, he watched Mex­i­can sol­diers up­root and burn crops.

“The Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment erad­i­cates a tremen­dous amount of opium,” Kelly said in an in­ter­view at the time. “In fact, I be­lieve some­thing on the or­der of about 90 per­cent of the pop­pies that are un­der cul­ti­va­tion they erad­i­cate. By con­trast, I think, Afghanistan erad­i­cates about 2 per­cent.

“The prob­lem, of course, is there’s five crops a year,” he added.

Af­ter that visit, the two coun­tries be­gan de­vel­op­ing new ways to work to­gether on the is­sue, in­clud­ing boost­ing the use of tech­nol­ogy.

“As a re­sult of that trip and those con­ver­sa­tions, these projects came about,” a Mex­i­can of­fi­cial said.

The DEA has added staff in Mex­ico to work on the opi­oid prob­lem. U.S. law en­force­ment of­fi­cials also said Mex­i­can author­i­ties ap­pear to be step­ping up ef­forts to com­bat it.

“I have seen, def­i­nitely, an in­crease in poppy field seizures,” one of­fi­cial said, speak­ing on the con­di­tion of anonymity to share can­did views.

Oth­ers, how­ever, re­main skep­ti­cal that Mex­i­can author­i­ties will do much more to curb opium poppy pro­duc­tion.

“No mat­ter how much money we pump into that, they’re still go­ing to do what they want to do,” a se­cond U.S. of­fi­cial said. “They might take all that equip­ment we throw at them and use it for some­thing else.”

Se­cu­rity ex­perts in both coun­tries ques­tion whether the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s drive against poppy will fare any bet­ter than pre­vi­ous at­tempts. Even though the U.S. gov­ern­ment spent decades dis­cour­ag­ing the flow of co­caine from Colom­bia, coca is again be­ing cul­ti­vated there at record lev­els.

“It’s un­de­ni­able there’s a stepped-up at­tempt to re­fo­cus ef­forts on this par­tic­u­lar prob­lem,” said Eric Ol­son, a Latin Amer­i­can se­cu­rity ex­pert at the Woodrow Wil­son Cen­ter in Washington. “I just don’t have a sense that there are any new ideas.”

In Mex­ico, some an­a­lysts played down the Peña Ni­eto gov­ern­ment’s con­tri­bu­tions to the anti-heroin fight dur­ing its five years in power, ar­gu­ing that lit­tle ef­fort has been made to de­velop pro­grams for al­ter­na­tive crops or main­tain se­cu­rity there as the car­tels wage war, driv­ing vi­o­lence to record lev­els last year.

Erad­i­cat­ing poppy, said Ale­jan­dro Hope, a se­cu­rity ex­pert and for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial, “has not been a pri­or­ity for this gov­ern­ment.”

“It’s just been a very dif­fi­cult thing to get full Mex­i­can co­op­er­a­tion be­cause of their con­cerns about their own sovereignty.”

David W. Mur­ray, a se­nior fel­low at the Hud­son In­sti­tute

PE­DRO PARDO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

RASHIDE FRIAS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

TOP: A community polic­ing group in Mex­ico’s Guer­rero state pa­trols the hills of Car­rizalillo. ABOVE: In Si­naloa state, pop­pies are tar­geted for con­fis­ca­tion dur­ing an op­er­a­tion last month.

PE­DRO PARDO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

A mem­ber of a Guer­rero community polic­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion pa­trols at an il­le­gal poppy field in He­liodoro Castillo, Mex­ico, last month. In July, then-Home­land Se­cu­rity Sec­re­tary John F. Kelly viewed poppy fields in Guer­rero state and con­ferred with Mex­i­can mil­i­tary lead­ers about iden­ti­fy­ing and de­stroy­ing such crops.

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