It’s been more than a decade since Mexico launched its war on the country’s most powerful drug cartels. And though the government has touted some successes — most notably the recent extradition of Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman — the true impact of the costly campaign is better measured in the infamous Golden Triangle, a region long known for its marijuana and poppy production.
Deep in the Sierra Madre Mountains, signs of cartel control are everywhere. Young men sport caps with the number 701, a reference to the ranking Chapo once held on the Forbes list of billionaires. Clandestine airstrips cut out indiscriminate swaths of surrounding forest. Crosses mark the spot of cartel killings.
VICE News traveled into territory controlled by the Sinaloa Cartel to see how, despite the deployment of the Mexican military and billions in U.S. funding to combat them, Mexican drug traffickers have nimbly responded to the biggest drug epidemic in U.S. history by increasing their supply.
Today, Mexico is growing more poppy than ever. By U.S. government estimates, poppy cultivation in the country has more than doubled in the last five years. And the boss here says the price of opium gum — the raw ingredient used to make heroin — has surged over the last decade, from about $500 a kilo to three or four times that amount.
Even with such high prices, the boss says, they have a hard time growing enough to keep up with soaring demand for heroin in the US.
According to the U.N.’s World Drug Report, the number of heroin users in the US reached around 1 million in 2014, almost tripling from the previous decade.
The cartel’s ability to respond to the U.S. heroin epidemic is revealing. As part of the campaign against the cartels, the military is often deployed to destroy drug crops.
The raids are supposed to cut into the cartel’s profits. And the arrests of kingpins like El Chapo are supposed to cripple trafficking networks by removing their top commanders.
But even after El Chapo’s imprisonment and extradition, the organization he built is very much alive and well. The mountains in the Golden Triangle are vast, and the poppy fields are camouflaged and almost impossible to make out from the air.
The poppy raids are mostly symbolic, the people here say. Much like the capture of El Chapo.
The Sierra Madre Mountains extend as far as the eye can see. The communities that grow poppy are extremely secluded, often taking hours to reach with all-terrain vehicles.
The poppy fields are guarded by heavily-armed members of the Sinaloa Cartel.
It takes roughly 10 kilos of goma — opium gum —to make one kilo of heroin. According to the boss of this area, a kilo of goma sells for $1,500-$2,000, three to four times as much as a decade ago.
The cartel’s local boss carries an AR-15 rifle and a gold-plated .38-caliber Colt handgun. Federal prosecutors in the U.S. claim El Chapo also carried a gold plated AK-47 on him.
A makeshift wooden tool is used to slice open the poppy bulb.
This clandestine airstrip, crudely cut out of the forest, is vital to the Sinaloa Cartel’s operations, allowing the organization to quickly move people and product out of the remote area.
All photos by Darren Foster.