Mexico’s Ongoing Opium War: Genesis of the Poppy Problem

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Mexico has cemented itself in recent history as the world’s largest provider of illegal heroin to the United States, contributing to the northern country’s opioid crisis and exacerbating the southern country’s issues with narcotrafficking. As conversation increases more and more about Mexico’s potential decriminalization of opium production, it’s important now more than ever to understand how the country got to this point in the first place.

Opium production began in Mexico during the 1940’s in an effort to help supply the United States’ demand for black tar heroin. Mexico’s contributions only accounted for 5 percent of the market at the time, a far cry from the modern figures of Mexico’s 90 percent dominance of the illegal industry.

The industry expanded in the 1960’s and 1970’s, though it experienced a drop off in demand toward the end of the 70’s, following the increase of popularity of cocaine.

However, a perfect storm of events in the 1990’s pushed Mexico into the large-scale opium producer it is today. First, the introduction of North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 decreased cross-border tariffs between the United States and Mexico, leading to a boom in U.S. agricultural exports to Mexico that drove down the price of local Mexican farmers crops so low that 1.3 million farm workers went out of work over the course of the following decade, leaving them to turn to the only profitable crops available: opium and marijuana.

The United States’ decriminalization and recreationalization of marijuana throughout the 2000’s reduced the demand for lower-quality Mexican produced cannabis, pushing the farmers further and further into opium production. And as the opioid crisis in the United States made prescription opiates more and more difficult to obtain, the demand for illegally sourced heroin and other opiates increased considerably, with Mexico ready to fill in the gap in supply, claiming a 90 percent stake in the U.S. heroin market by 2017.

The large majority of Mexico’s opium production is concentrated in what is referred to as “the golden triangle,” where the states of Durango, Chihuahua and Sinaloa meet, though the product’s lucrativeness has seen the plant’s growth expand heavily into Nayarit and the mountains of Guerrero. These areas are notoriously hard to access due to the lack of road infrastructure throughout the rural regions, leaving locals to produce, for the most part, as they please. Many farmers reportedly plant their opium alongside corn crops so that the illegal opium fields cannot be identified from the air.

Before opium, local farmers in these regions would travel during the country’s dry season to other areas of the country to work seasonal jobs. Now, rural farm workers are enticed by the opportunity to grow opium during Mexico’s wet season and marijuana during the dry season, allowing them to stay in their homes, alongside their family, year-round.

While the majority of the profits from these fields allegedly go to the cartels and their middlemen, growing opium is still a much more lucrative business to locals than producing traditional crops. According to a report published in the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development (JIED), one hectare of opium production can produce four to five kilograms of opium per season to the tune of 200,000 pesos in profit for its farmer, per hectare, at the peak of demand in 2017.

In Guerrero, which allegedly produces 60 percent of the country’s illegal opium crop, the opium growth outstrips profit of other crops in the region by about 2.5 billion pesos a year, according to the JIED report. 

However, the introduction of the lab-made, cheaply produced fentanyl into the U.S. drug market made the demand for Mexican opium decrease drastically from 2017 to 2018, reportedly by 63 percent in the year alone, taking farmer’s profits from 20,000 pesos per kilo down to as low as 6,000 pesos per kilo.

“The gringos now have this new stuff,” a local opium farmer was quoted as saying in the JIED report. “They don’t like heroin any more, that’s why we don’t sell.”

Mexico’s military has also put forth aerial campaigns to eradicate illegal poppy fields and are credited with destroying up to 29,000 hectares of opium fields in 2019, though farmers’ quick replanting made the eradication efforts effectively useless in denting the U.S. heroin supply.

Now, with a purported supply of over 30,400 hectares of illegal opium fields in the country and a sharp decline in international demand for the product, the question arises: Where does Mexico go next in its fight against opium?

…March 12, 2021

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