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Mexico's Heroin Farmers: The Trail of Destruction Starts in the Poppy Fields

From the farmers barely earning a living from cultivating the poppies, via the entire communities forced from their homes by warring gunmen, to the growing number of addicts in the US — there are few winners along the route of Mexican heroin.
Foto di Laura Woldenberg/VICE News

Memo is a young and healthy farmer who says he would like to grow chili but he grows opium poppies instead. He does this because they bring in more money, though it is still very far from lucrative, and the risks involved are frighteningly real.

This young farmer — whose real name will not be printed for security reasons — owns a small plot of land near the village of Jaleaca de Catalán in the imposing mountains of the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.


The red and white poppies are relatively easy to take care of and can produce three harvests a year. This involves scratching the unripe seed pods to release the milky resin that will turn into opium gum after drying out in juice cans.

Though Memo says army eradication operations have intensified in recent years, he can normally rely on getting a kilo of paste out of his poppies. This is worth around 15,000 pesos, about $870. It takes about 15 kilos of gum to make a kilo of heroin that sells for between $25,000 and $70,000 in the US.

It adds up to a yearly income of about 45,000 pesos, currently around $2,600. This is not even twice Mexico's paltry minimum wage that has long been derided as one of the lowest in the world.

Clearly, Memo is not doing well from the heroin business. In fact there are very few winners along the chain that starts in Guerrero and ends at the point of a needle in cities around North America.

Watch the VICE News documentary The Rise of Mexican Black Tar:

The story of Mexican opium begins with the involvement of Chinese workers in the construction of a railroad in the northern state of Sinaloa at the end of the 19th century. Local producers took over later and business boomed in the 1940s, reputedly thanks to the demands of the US Army during World War II.

There is a new boom today, fueled by the growth of dependence on opioid medication that is both more expensive and harder to obtain than heroin.


Mexico is currently the main provider of the drug to the US, and the third most important opium producer in the world. Afghanistan leads the list with 85 percent of the world's opium, followed by Myanmar with eight percent and Mexico's two percent, according to figures from the UN's 2015 World Report on Drugs.

Related: Heroin Kills White People More Than Anyone Else — And Nobody Is Sure Why

Mexican opium is mostly produced in the mountains of Guerrero and in the so-called Golden Triangle region that straddles the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua.

Heroin produced here is traditionally low quality and low cost "black tar" consumed west of the Mississippi, which contrasts with the purer and costlier "China white" that generally comes from Colombia and is consumed in the northeast. In recent years, however, Mexican drug cartels have also started producing the purer variety as they expand their presence in new heroin markets.

The trail of destruction left by the drug starts in the fields of the state of Guerrero where production was controlled by the Beltrán Leyva cartel, until almost all its leaders were arrested or killed beginning in 2009 and the group fell apart. Since then numerous spin off organizations — such as the Rojos, the Guerreros Unidos, and the Ardillos — have been fighting over the territory making life in some of the villages untenable.

Photo by Laura Woldenberg/VICE News

More than 281,418 people were displaced by drug war violence across Mexico between 2011 and 2015, according to figures from the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights, or CMDPDH. The people in Guerrero state make up 21 percent of that number.


Azucena lives in a kind of refugee camp located next to the highway connecting the resort cities of Acapulco and Zihuatanejo and filled with around 160 other former residents of the municipality of San Miguel Totolapan in the Hot Land region of Guerrero.

Azucena and her family fled the municipality, where she says the security forces never go, in 2013. She was 17 at the time. The family took the decision to escape one night when they could no longer stand the threats of the armed men who circled the town shooting and making it clear they wanted complete control.

"We slipped away through the mountain. We crossed the river to go unnoticed. We did not take anything, only the clothes we had on and a little amount of money," Azucena remembers. "We walked all night, we slept a little, but we continued walking for three days."

They left behind their home, lands, cattle, and documents. Azucena says the only thing that remains now are the ashes of the family house that the narcos burned down, and the memory of her old life surrounded by mangos and coconuts. Today they sleep on the floor and have no running water. Her parents live in a small room built out of wood and thin metal sheets.

Photo by Laura Woldenberg/VICE News

"Mexico has not had a political or security structure that limits, or breaks down criminal organizations," says Guillermo Valdés, former head of the Mexican intelligence service, who says the state has instead implemented a "schizophrenic policy" that mixes periodic crackdowns with tolerance. "The Mexican government's permissiveness during decades made these organizations powerful, even more than local institutions."


Related: Mexico Will Never Win Its War on Drugs — But It's Going to Keep Fighting Anyway

Meanwhile, the eradication campaigns leave many already poverty-stricken farmers who are trapped between different warring cartels, without any kind of income at all. And it is never enough to stop the opium gum and heroin reaching the border either. Heroin seizures in the Mexico-US frontier increased 40 percent between 2009 and 2015, according to the Customs and Border Protection agency.

"They use sophisticated vehicles, tunnels, people…they really don't stop," Anthony Williams, an agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration, says of the methods used to move heroin into the US. "Mexican cartels have increased their production. We have a new wave of heroin consumers, because it is cheaper than legal opioids."

Photo by Laura Woldenberg/VICE News

Nate lives in the streets of Los Angeles, where he sleeps on the remains of a couch tucked between two garbage containers. He is young and blue-eyed, and became hooked on opioids as a small child when he began consuming his father's prescription pain medication and then slowly shifted to heroin because it was cheaper. Now he needs two hits a day.

According to figures from the Office of National Drug Control Policy, there are currently around 1.5 million consumers of heroin in the US. The Office estimates the value of the market at $27 million. Deaths related to the consumption of opioids went up by four times between 2002 and 2013, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Related: The Golden Age of Drug Trafficking: How Meth, Cocaine, and Heroin Move Around the World

Follow Laura Woldenberg on Twitter: @woldenberg