CARTEL CHRONICLES is an ongoing series of dispatches from the front lines of the drug war in Latin America.
The only sounds in the poppy field are birdsong and the wind rustling the nearby trees. Accessible only by a 40-minute ride on an all-terrain vehicle from the nearest town, the meadow's crop of pretty purple, white and red flowers slopes steeply downwards. Behind them are the mountains of Sinaloa – the home state of Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, who last week was found guilty by a court in New York of running the global criminal organisation still based here.
Four men bend over the plants as they score lines around their ripe bulbs. They will return tomorrow to scrape the opium paste that oozes out, which will be combined and sold to middlemen, processed into heroin and sent north to addicts in the United States. But their product is less in demand these days, because it is the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl that addicts are now clamouring for.
"Synthetic heroin [fentanyl] has killed this business," says one of the workers, who did not wish to be named. For labourers like him, who earn about 300 pesos ($15) a day working the plants – and the thousands of farmers who for generations have cultivated poppy across states like Sinaloa, Durango and Guerrero – the heroin boom is over.
Poppy has been grown in these mountains for more than a hundred years, but it was at the start of the decade that addicts in the United States hooked on prescription painkillers began switching to cheaper, more easily available heroin, prompting a boom in production in Mexico. Now, the paste produced by fields like this sells for a fraction of what it did when the boom began – if it sells at all. At the height of the boom, a kilo of opium paste sold for some 36,000 pesos ($1,865). Over the last three years its value has dropped to a mere 10,000 pesos ($500).
Fentanyl – or la chiva sintetica (synthetic heroin), as it is known here – is the new drug in demand. It is being sent north in the tens of kilos a month, according to cooks and transporters who spoke to me. Although the investment is high – a trafficker may have to sink as much as $50,000 into the chemicals or raw fentanyl needed to generate product – the returns are huge.
Criminal cells say they are cooking the deadly opioid – which killed some 28,000 people in the United States in 2017 – with chemicals imported from China and Germany. Although the majority of fentanyl being consumed by addicts in the United States comes to them directly in the mail from China, Mexico's criminal syndicates are increasingly embracing the deadly drug as part of a portfolio that also includes cocaine, methamphetamine, heroin and – to a lesser extent – marijuana. And it is a demand-led trend, as heroin was before it.
Jose – who I interviewed in a parked car in the city of Culiacan – said he gets six kilos out of the one kilo of raw fentanyl he buys from importers. He then sends that north to clients in the United States, who may dilute it further – but he makes a profit of $14,000 on each of those six kilos, after the cooking, taxes and transportation costs he has to swallow.
"Unfortunately, [in the coming years] we will be more focused on fentanyl. We don't want to work it, but the heroin business is going down. And we have to do what we have to do," he said.
I asked Jose what was unfortunate about that if it was such good business.
"All drugs are damaging, but natural heroin doesn't kill [as often as fentanyl]… and you can bring people back from an overdose. But with fentanyl, a lot of people are dying. We know that, but this is our work – and even if we don't like it we have to stay in the market."
Enrique – a fentanyl cook who spoke to me on condition of anonymity – said that, at first, fentanyl was being mixed into heroin made from poppy-paste, but now that's not so common: "We're not doing that anymore. When it goes to the United States it goes up as pure fentanyl – I think because it's stronger. Others still make it with poppy paste, but we send only fentanyl."
He added that the chemical precursors and/or manufactured fentanyl arrives in liquid form to the major sea port in Mazatlán from companies in Germany as well as China. Once in his possession, he mixes it with petrol or diesel and other chemicals and substances to dilute it and make it harder to detect.
"People want the stronger drugs now, and that's fentanyl. There's no consumption here – the mafia won't allow it. It's all for export north," said Enrique, who is paid $2,000 a kilo if he cooks for a third party rather than himself, and similar to Jose makes over $10,000 per kilo in profit.
The role of Mexico’s cartels in the production and transportation of fentanyl remains an unknown quantity, but independent research – as well as investigations by United States law enforcement – point to a growing level of involvement, mainly by the Sinaloa Cartel and the New Generation Jalisco Cartel, Mexico's two strongest criminal organisations.
Seizures of fentanyl at the Southwest United States border are on the rise. The most recent report by InSight Crime – a think-tank dedicated to the study of organised crime in the Americas – shows that during 2016 and 2017, 75 percent of the total volume of fentanyl seized by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was at its Southwest border. Law enforcement officials there have seen a 700 percent increase in seizures, spiking from six in 2015 to 54 in 2017. The Dominican Republic is also a key transit country for the drug being moved from Mexico into the United States.
Fentanyl traffickers I spoke to in Sinaloa suggested that small, independent criminal cells are producing the drug and moving it north through different networks under the supervision of the Sinaloa Cartel. Both said they don't work with people from anywhere else.
What is perhaps most disconcerting about the latest business boom for the Sinaloa Cartel and the drug trafficking business in the state is that it has coincided with the arrest and conviction of its former boss, Guzmán. Although Guzmán was incarcerated during many of the years that the cartel was operating (his two great escapes from maximum security prisons here are the stuff of legend now), it was only when he was extradited to the United States that he was truly considered out of the game. Wisdom would dictate that taking out one of the cartel's major powers would limit its ability to organise, as well as to adapt to changing trends and new opportunities in the market. The growing business around fentanyl and the continuing production of heroin, methamphetamine and marijuana shows that that's not the case.
If anything, business is booming. Not only are fentanyl seizures rising – suggesting Mexico is producing more of it, as well as that detection methods are improving – but last year Mexican authorities made the biggest seizure of methamphetamine in the country's history, some 50 tonnes, in – you've guessed it – Sinaloa.
But Guzmán – or "el Señor", as many call him here – is missed. I got the news alert that he had been found guilty as I walked into the poppy field that day. The workers weren’t happy when I passed on the news.
"When Mr Guzmán was around, the prices were better. Now, everything has gone down. We miss him because he helped a lot of people," said one worker, vocalising the respect and support the convicted drug lord commands throughout Sinaloa, where he is considered to have created an economy where there are few other options.
If anything, his conviction and eventual sentencing will only serve to cement his status among people here. At the local chapel dedicated to the narco saint Jesus Malverde in downtown Culiacan, the state capital, owner Jesús Gonzales has started selling miniature figurines of Guzmán to those who come through to ask for blessings and miracles. Malverde is a folkloric Robin Hood figure famous for robbing from the rich to help the poor, and in the eyes of many has much in common with El Chapo. Few deny Guzmán was violent, but many we spoke to did not believe the accusations of drugging and raping young girls that emerged during the trial in New York.
Although his criminal organisation was a major source of violence over its three decades of life, El Chapo was a peacekeeper of sorts during his time in Mexico – even when he was incarcerated.
"When he was here, everything was calm and there wasn’t as much killing. After he went, the killing went crazy," said Gonzales, referring to the fighting that was unleashed between different factions of the Sinaloa Cartel once Guzmán was extradited to the United States in January of 2017.
His sons and co-founder Ismael "el Mayo" Zambada went into battle with Dámaso López Núñez, Guzman's former right-hand man, for control of the cartel and its territory, and violence spiked – until López was also arrested and extradited to the United States, where he eventually testified against Guzmán. His exit from Mexico meant the battle was won by El Mayo and "los Chapitos", as Guzmán’s sons are known. His younger generation has a reputation for ruthlessness and a lack of respect for the old-school rules.
Guzmán’s exit has also coincided with the two most violent years in Mexico’s history, which many observers say is a result of the law enforcement pursuit of crime bosses via the Kingpin strategy – which creates power vacuums and violent internal power struggles for the control of routes and plazas. The last two years have been Mexico's most homicidal on record, registering more than 31,000 murders in 2017 and over 33,000 in 2018, according to government data.
Mexico’s new president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, has declared the country’s drug war "over" and vowed to focus on bringing down insecurity rather than netting kingpins. It's hard to see how he can do the former without bringing the country's powerful criminal syndicates to heel.
What seems certain is that the fentanyl boom in Sinaloa and other parts of Mexico is just beginning, and signals a growing trend by criminal syndicates to favour synthetic drugs which are quicker and easier to produce – cutting out the planting and harvesting process. El Chapo remains a local hero at home, and although the heroin boom may be over, tradition dictates that Mexico's production of poppies and the plant-based drugs will also continue.
For those who claim the takedown of Guzmán is a drug war victory, the situation on the ground suggests otherwise.