Sun | Dec 4, 2016

Mexican opium farmers expand plots to supply US heroin boom

Published:Tuesday | February 3, 2015 | 12:00 AM
Poppy flowers grow in the mountains of the Sierra Madre del Sur in Guerrero state, Mexico.

Red and purple blossoms with fat, opium-filled bulbs blanket the remote creek sides and gorges of the Filo Mayor mountains in the southern state of Guerrero.

The multibillion-dollar Mexican opium trade starts here, with poppy farmers so poor they live in wood-plank, tin-roofed shacks with no indoor plumbing.

Mexican farmers from three villages interviewed by The Associated Press are feeding a growing addiction in the United States, where heroin use has spread from back alleys to the cul-de-sacs of suburbia.

The heroin trade is a losing prospect for everyone except the Mexican cartels, who have found a new way to make money in the face of falling cocaine consumption and marijuana legalisation in the United States. Once smaller-scale producers of low-grade black tar, Mexican drug traffickers are now refining opium paste into high-grade white heroin and flooding the world's largest market for illegal drugs, using the distribution routes they built for marijuana and cocaine.

It is a business that even the farmers don't like. In a rare interview with reporters, the villagers told The Associated Press that it's too difficult to ship farm products on roads so rough and close to the sky that cars are in constant danger of tumbling off the single-lane dirt roads that zig-zag up to the fields. They say the small plastic-wrapped bricks of gummy opium paste are the only thing that will guarantee them a cash income.

"Almost everyone thinks the people in these mountains are bad people, and that's not true," said Humberto Nava Reyna, the head of the Supreme Council of the Towns of the Filo Mayor, a group that promotes development projects in the mountains. "They can't stop planting poppies as long as there is demand, and the government doesn't provide any help."

Villagers granted the AP access to their farms and agreed to interviews only if they were not identified, fearing it could draw attention from government drug eradicators or vengeful traffickers.

NO LOCAL USERS

Residents say there are no local users. They hate the taste of the bitter paste, which they sometimes rub into their gums to sooth an aching tooth.

It all goes for export, a lucrative business mostly run by the Sinaloa Cartel.

According to the DEA's 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexico produces nearly half of the heroin found in the United States, up from 39 per cent in 2008. While Afganistan is by far the world's largest producer, it largely sends to markets in Europe and Asia.

Mexican government seizures of opium and eradication of poppy plantations have skyrocketed in recent years. The trends are consistent: Opium paste seizures in Mexico were up 500 per cent between 2013 and 2014; poppy field eradications were up 47 per cent; and seizures of the processed drug increased 42 per cent. Along the US border they are three times what they were in 2009.

- AP