Why you should care
The country is staring at an opium bust that could make its poor even poorer and further drive up violence and migration.
Juan remembers the first time he went to a poppy field as a young child with his dad. His father was taught how to farm the crop by Juan’s grandfather. Now Juan’s in his mid-50s, and his son has taken charge of the hectare of poppy plants that the family manages, an hour’s drive by all-terrain vehicle from their village in the mountains of Culiacán, Sinaloa.
Two or three times a year, the paste harvested from these plants is bought by middlemen working with the Sinaloa cartel that used to be run by Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. They process it into heroin and send it north to the U.S. to feed the demand from addicts. But a changing tide in the drug trade is threatening what — ethics aside — is a tradition and way of life for humble farmers across Mexico.
A rise in the production of — and demand for — synthetic drugs such as methamphetamine and increasingly the deadly opioid fentanyl is damaging the market for drug crops farmers. Both can be made from precursors imported from China (or, in the case of fentanyl, simply imported ready-made from China) and then processed in clandestine kitchens before being sent north. This cuts out the pesky process of farming and harvesting for criminal organizations, which are driven by demand, profit and little else.
That means that huge swaths of rural Mexico are about to get even poorer than they already are. Between 1995 and 2015, Mexican authorities found and destroyed opium in 18 of Mexico’s 32 states, including places with no real tradition of drug production like Coahuila, Veracruz, Hidalgo and Puebla. Overall, opium was found in 34 percent of the total municipalities in the country, according to a report by the country’s defense secretary.
Mexico’s opium crop was valued at $1 billion in 2017, more than beans ($846 million), wheat ($687 million) or cotton ($636 million), according to a study by the Network of Researchers in International Affairs, or Noria. That amount was also more than the entire value of agricultural output in 26 of Mexico’s states, the research showed.
It’s still selling, but at a very low price.
Juan, poppy farmer
But in 2018, opium farmers earned $364 million or less, estimates Romain Le Cour Grandmaison, co-founder of Noria. That’s a decrease of earnings in the poorest areas of Mexico by as much as 63 percent. According to Juan and others working in the drug trade in Sinaloa, the price of a kilo of opium paste has crashed from $1,840 to $500.
“It’s still selling, but at a very low price,” says Juan, who requested that his last name not be disclosed.
For sure, there are other factors also feeding this crisis for Mexican farmers. An oversupply of poppy is helping push down the price too. In late 2018, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, in coordination with the Mexican government, declared that the country’s area under poppy cultivation had grown by more than 20 percent in a year, from 25,200 hectares in 2015-16 to 30,600 in 2016-17. The White House has a higher estimate, claiming poppy cultivation reached a record high of 44,100 hectares in 2017.
But that the value of the opium crop has crashed only more recently suggests it is more the switch to — and greater demand for — synthetics, rather than oversupply, that is pushing down the price. In late January, U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents made their largest-ever seizure of fentanyl — 254 pounds — from a truck at the border with Mexico. They also found 395 pounds of methamphetamine on the truck. In New York City, fentanyl seizures increased tenfold between 2016 and 2017, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Since the introduction of NAFTA, says Le Cour Grandmaison, rural Mexicans have counted on migration to the U.S. and the cultivation of illicit crops as their safety net. Migration has already taken a hit because of the Trump administration’s clamp-down. Among drugs, the legalization of marijuana across states in the U.S. has knocked the life out of the marijuana market for Campesinos like Juan. He still has a marijuana field, but says there’s barely any demand now — no one has tried to buy it for a long time; at best, he hears, it is selling for around $11 a pound. Now, with the blow to opium, Mexico’s farm economy could be set to enter a still deeper crisis.
“The economic consequences of this crisis are stark and somber,” says Le Cour Grandmaison. “The Mexican opium crisis looks like it might ruin the poorest areas of rural Mexico for good.”
Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, popularly known as AMLO, has always placed himself as a champion of the poor. Juan says that nearly his whole remote village — which for decades favored the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for some 70 years, until 2000 — voted for AMLO’s National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) party in last year’s presidential election, which he won in a landslide. But what can he and his new administration do to replace the lost income of these impoverished farmers and prevent them from seeking out other illicit means by which to survive?
Crop substitution, job creation and even a legal poppy industry are all either in progress or on the table for potentially remedying the socio-economic impact of Mexico’s heroin bust. But none of these proposals promises to be a stand-alone solution. In Colombia, crop substitution has had limited success in a post-FARC world, and the South American nation is producing more coca — the base ingredient for cocaine — than ever in its history. Calculations by Noria suggest that even if Mexico could create a legal poppy industry serving the country’s pharmaceutical companies and hospitals, there would be too much supply.
As worrying as the socio-economic toll on communities is the possibility that the heroin bust could generate more violence in a country where homicides are already at a record high. Criminal groups, focusing more on synthetic drugs, could also seek to diversify further into other criminal economies such as extortion, illegal mining and logging.
Juan feels he has no other options but to carry on planting poppies, and says he will do it for as long as he can sell the crop. “We don’t want luxury; this is just about feeding our families. It’s about survival.” But if the current trend continues, poppy may not be enough even for that.