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The dark heart of the Mexican drug trade

The dark heart of the Mexican drug trade

The billion-dollar heroin industry that stretches to the U.S. begins in an isolated region of southern Mexico.

By Paul Imison 

By the time the Army rolled into the tiny village of El Maribel, deep in the mountains of southern Mexico, the hundred or so inhabitants had ed. In this run-down hamlet, where the houses are nothing more than shacks built out of wood and corrugated iron, the surrounding silence betrays a dark secret: it is here that the trail of drug addiction and violence that leads from Mexico to the U.S. begins.

Growers know the difference in the color of the flowers matters and plan their harvest accordingly. White poppies grow best at high altitude. The red flowers are the most resistant yet yield less opium; the purple ones yield more but are delicate.

Outside the town, at the bottom of a hillside hidden by overhanging forest, the white, purple, and red hues of opium poppies streamed down the decline like a carpet of confetti amid the shrubbery.

“People see us coming along the highway and call ahead to warn the residents,” said Lieutenant Colonel Ruben Bautista Ramirez, who led the mission to eradicate the poppies as we made the trek from the town to the hillside under heavy military guard. “We can only arrest someone if we find them working the fields.”

According to Sub-Lieutenant Daniel Vargas, growers know that the difference in the color of the flowers matters and plan their harvest accordingly. White poppies grow best at high altitude. The red flowers are the most resistant yet yield less opium; the purple ones yield more but are delicate. The dry season, which lasts from October to April in Guerrero, allows for the best conditions.

“They are farmers, and they approach opium farming as they would any other crop,” he explained as we watched soldiers tear up and incinerate the crops, sending thick plumes of smoke into the air.

Amid an ongoing opioid epidemic north of the border, U.S. authorities estimates that as much as 90 percent of the heroin on American streets now originates in Mexico. Yet in many parts of impoverished Guerrero State, which lies on the country’s central Paci c coast, opium crops are the principle source of income for farmers. Growers extract a black gum from the ripened flowers which they sell by the kilo for around $800 to representatives of drug cartels who subsequently process the substance into heroin and traffic it via the border into the U.S., where pure white heroin can sell to dealers for up to $50,000 per kilo.

Guerrero is currently ground-zero of Mexico’s drug wars, home to massacres, disappearances, and both drug cartels and paramilitary-style community police groups. It has also been the country’s most violent state for five years running. In 2017, the Army destroyed 70,000 opium poppies in the region. By March this year, they had already eradicated nearly half that figure.

The Army utilizes two principal strategies to fight cultivation. Having detected the crops via satellite, targeted fights, or on foot, they either fumigate or incinerate the poppies depending on the unique geographical challenges present in the area.

Lt. Col. Ramirez admits many of the farmers who harvest the opium, most of whom live in extreme poverty, often have no other choice. “They are not the ones generating the violence,” he said. “But the trail of destruction that results in addiction and crime begins here in the mountains.”

Mexico has been waging a militarized war on drugs since 2007 when former president Felipe Calderon deployed unprecedented numbers of federal police and soldiers to combat the deadly organizations that run the narcotics industry. Over 100,000 people have died in gang-related violence in Mexico since that time, and the participation of the military has been controversial.

“This isn’t really our job,” said Lt. Col. Ramirez. “It should be civilian authorities in charge of eradication and of combating crime, but they aren’t sufficiently prepared and the trafficking groups are extremely dangerous.”

Heroin and opioid addiction are currently at epidemic levels in parts of the U.S. with 64,000 deaths from overdoses in 2016 alone. Mexican cartels, which also deal in marijuana, cocaine, and crystal meth, are sufficiently aware of changing trends in drug use that they adapt to new market demands, says security analyst Alejandro Hope.

“The cartels are sophisticated and they are in the business of maximizing proffits like any other pro t-making organization,” he explained in an interview.

According to Lt. Col. Ruben Ramirez, corruption “in all spheres of government” was also to blame.

“We are only reducing the supply, not eliminating it, but every plantation destroyed is a dent in the cartels’ business,” he explained.