"Locked up in a federal prison in Durango, Mexico, is a short, slight, frightened farmer with a pencil mustache and an ugly growth on the side of his neck. I was allowed to interview him, and I'll never forget his face. Nor will I forget that this small bewildered man is at the same time villain and victim in the growing efforts of the Mexican government to find and destroy the sources of the burgeoning drug traffic from Mexico to the United States.
As a villain, this farmer had been growing — deep in the wilds of the mountains of central Mexico — illegal fields of amapola, the poppy from which opium and heroin are extracted. As the victim, he is simply — and sometimes unknowingly — the tool of the rich and powerful traffickers in narcotics who set the farmer up in their illicit business and then let him take the heat if he is caught. If the farmer chooses, instead, to implicate the trafficker or decline the job, he has been told that his family will be executed. That is not an empty threat."
I wrote these lines 43 years ago for the American Medical Assn.'s national magazine, Today's Health. I bring them up now to illustrate how long the U.S. and Mexican governments have been fighting a losing war together against drug trafficking. And how relatively little attention seems to be paid today in shutting down the place where the drugs originate: the guy who grows them. The AMA tried for more than a year before it got permission in 1967 from the Mexican government to send a reporter down for a first-hand look at the effectiveness of a fleet of helicopters — flown by American-trained Mexican pilots — that the U.S. had lent Mexico to cut the legs from under the rapidly spreading harvesting of amapola. I was the reporter assigned to that story, along with photographer Shel Hershorn.
We started in Mexico City, where we were briefed by the man who then headed the Mexican Federal Police. From there we were sent north to Culiacan, a city of 100,000 about a thousand miles south of the U.S. border. There, the Mexican agent directing the field campaign — a genial, heavy-set Stanford graduate named Evarardo Rios — held forth. He rattled off some impressive success numbers, compiled on bar charts, then explained how these achievements had come about — which is why we were there.
The campaign was based on a simple premise: The drug traffickers couldn't do business without a product to sell. Therefore the most vulnerable place to attack would be the poppy fields where the raw material was grown. And because the planting took place in some of the most rugged terrain in Mexico, the campaign turned into a cat-and-mouse game where the rules changed almost daily.
The traffickers would recruit farmers, often with threats, to plant and harvest amapola seeds with which they would supply them. The farmers would then walk into the rugged country, sometimes for several weeks, looking for a plot of land both harvestable and hidden from detection from the air. The farmers would build a lean-to they would live in while they planted and harvested the amapola. Then they would walk back with the plants to be paid by threats and a pittance to repeat the process at the next planting season.
Meanwhile, Mexican authorities were engaged in a search-and-burn program. The helicopters would patrol the wilderness looking for patches of green that would mark a poppy field. When they found one they would radio the location to troops on the ground who would seek out and burn the field.
This is how we were briefed, along with maps and photographs. Then it was time to see for ourselves.
After an hour's trip into the interior of Durango in a Cessna, we transferred to a helicopter piloted by a Mexican Air Force lieutenant named Juan Rojas, who spoke the last English we would hear for the next 10 days. For the first three of those days we searched out poppy fields while Hershorn took countless pictures. Then, at the end of the third day, the program changed.
Rojas picked up a mirrored signal from the ground and put down on a tiny plateau. A half-dozen Mexican soldiers materialized and there was animated talk with our pilot. Then Rojas pitched two blanket rolls and water canteens from the helicopter and motioned for us to take them. Then, to our consternation, he got back in the copter and took off. I had been thinking at day's end about a cold beer back in Culiacan. Instead, I found myself in loafers and a T-shirt facing a night in a jungle with a bunch of soldiers and no means of communication. And Hershorn was even more burdened with his precious cameras.
I'll never forget the next seven days. We found and burned a half-dozen poppy fields, got shot at by an angry farmer who saw a month of work go up in smoke, put down for the night in villages whose only contact with the outside world was a doctor who made his rounds on horseback, learned how to bridge the language barrier by creating a language of our own, mostly to ask when our ride was coming back. The soldiers thought our concern was hilarious and greeted it with shrugs and fits of laughter, while Hershorn and I sweated in the humid days and shivered in the frozen nights, even though we were privileged to sleep in village shanties along with the lieutenant and two sergeants, our only concession to caste.
In the week before our ride returned we created a civilization of our own that communicated beyond search and destroy by speaking in laughter and shared discomfort and danger. And we also got what we went after. The program we observed was working, and maybe offers a lesson worth examining today.
But whatever the lesson, it has always seemed capsuled for me in the sad, bewildered acceptance of the farmer facing prison so his family might live.
JOSEPH N. BELL lives in Newport Beach. His column runs Thursdays.