THE STORY BEHIND THE ‘BOOM’ OF MEXICAN HEROIN
BBC World, Mexico City
Aug 19, 2013
[Google translation, with some editing for clarity, from the Spanish original.]
In recent days a, question travels through government security offices and newsrooms of various media Mexico: why has violence increased in the mountainous areas of states like Sinaloa, Michoacan and Guerrero?
Among the responses appeared a word: heroin. In these regions are found the majority of the poppy production areas, from whose bulb a paste is extracted to manufacture it [heroin] and other drugs, such as opium and morphine. Also, most of the processing laboratories are there, as well as the transport routes to the US market, both by road and air. Specialists warn that at least three cartels want to control this region, although so far the balance tips in favor of the Sinaloa organization, led by, among others, Joaquin Guzman Loera, El Chapo. This seems to coincide with a fact that the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has repeated for several years: Mexico occupies an increasingly important role in international traffic heroin. In fact, the World Drug Report 2013 indicates that Mexican production of this drug is estimated to be 30 times that of Colombia, which for decades remained as the main exporter in the American continent. A fact that surprised many but that is part of the reality in the country, says the specialist Alberto Islas, director of security consultancy Risk-Evaluation. “México has always been a major producer of heroin. The UN is hardly aware, only with old data, because there is no governmental report to tell you how much poppy is planted there and how much has been eradicated in Mexico,” he affirms. That is to say, insists the analyst, the production of brown heroin, as is known among the cartels and drug consumers brewed in Mexico, can be even greater than that estimated by the UNODC.
HITLER, KOREA AND VIETNAM
The relationship between Mexican and paste poppy is old, for the first records of this flower growing in the mountains of Sinaloa, northwest of the country, are from the end of 19th-century. Specialists like Luis Astorga, a researcher at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, places Chinese immigrants as the first to use the gum for opium. In those days the production was low, almost for personal consumption. The situation changed during World War II when the US government encouraged the cultivation of the plant in Mexico, as their sources of supply in Asia had severed. Poppy gum was essential for US troops, because it was used to develop the morphine that was used to calm those wounded in combat. This situation was held during the US war in Korea, and the first stage of the conflict in Vietnam.
That’s how the flower replaced other products, such as apples, corn and tomatoes, and their place was taken by poppy cultivation; especially in the region known as the Golden Triangle, a mountainous area at the confluence of the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua. That’s where most heads of some drug cartels, such as El Chapo Guzmán, Ismael Zambada García, May, the Beltran Leyva brothers, Rafael Caro Quintero, Ernesto Fonseca Aguilar or Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo— the ‘Boss-of-Bosses,’ were born.
The situation changed when the administration of President Richard Nixon changed the US policy towards drugs, and began a persecution against producers who sent marijuana and heroin to the United States. The poppy flower, then virtually disappeared from public view of Mexicans, according to specialists. In Mexico, the decision resulted in a series of military operations in the mountainous regions of Sinaloa and Guerrero which were intensified after 1977 when Operation Cóndor was initiated. Prior to those operations, the flower adorned public gardens in places like Mexico City, Oaxaca and Guadalajara, and was commonly found on sale in markets. Thereafter the presence of the plant was limited to the mountains monitored by drug cartels. Up until now, the Mexican government’s military operations have failed to reduce its cultivation, according to analysts and official estimates. For example, the report by the Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional (Sedena) [Secretariat of National Defense], “Combating Narco-trafficking,” notes that in 2007 the soldiers destroyed 28,152 acres planted with poppies. Five years later, in 2012, the figure was 35,452 acres.
The Sedena figures show an increase in poppy cultivation area, says the specialist Islas. “Where production is growing is in Nayarit, Durango, Colima and Guerrero,” he affirms. Why? There are several factors. The UNODC report notes that in Colombia the surface of poppy cultivation was reduced, while increased in Mexico where there are 29,652 acres “with a corresponding greater potential of heroin production.” Most of the territory is in the area controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel, according to reports from the Comisión Nacional de Seguridad Pública [National Public Safety Commission]. But increased heroin production can spark a new dispute between cartels, says the BBC Guillermo Garduño Valero, researcher from the Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM). “The war will continue, now mafias will face-off not only over the markets of cocaine or marijuana,” he says.