In Mexico, illicit poppy ‘gardens’ feed U.S. demand for heroin

Small opium poppy "gardens" in Guerrero, Mexico, offer farmers a livelihood in an area where there is no other source of work.
Small opium poppy “gardens” in Guerrero, Mexico, offer farmers a livelihood in an area where there is no other source of work.
(Deborah Bonello / For The Times)
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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 flowers 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 has 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 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.”

Bonello is a special correspondent. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.

Bonello is a special correspondent. Cecilia Sanchez of The Times’ Mexico City bureau contributed to this report.