A photo of a bufo alvarius toad standing proudly on the desert sand, with plants in background.
Photo: Getty Images

Psychedelic Toad Hunters Are Under Attack by Mexican Cartels

Those making a living off harvesting the potent venom of the Sonoran desert toad are getting caught in the crossfire of narco traffickers.

The rainy season in Mexico was heading towards its conclusion in September 2021. It was a pitch-black evening, and Saúl, José and Pedro – whose names have been changed to protect their privacy – were armed with flashlights as they searched the desert near Hermosillo, capital city of Sonora state. They were on the hunt for bufo alvarius toads. These amphibians secrete a venomous resin that contains 5-MeO-DMT, also known as “the God molecule”, one of the world’s most powerful psychedelics.


Purveyors of this medicine – which in Mexico is referred to simply as “sapo” (or toad) – claim that it can bring about a state of “oneness with God” amidst what has been described as a cosmic orgasm. The only catch is that to reach this acid k-hole, the ego has to die – and that can be terrifying ordeal that has left some experienced psychonauts untethered and destabilised afterwards. Nonetheless, toad smoking is increasingly popular across the world. U.S. president Joe Biden’s son Hunter, former boxer Mike Tyson, comedian Eric Andre and podcast host Joe Rogan are among those to have thanked it for changing their lives.

As a result, collecting the venom has become a niche yet appealing career path in northwestern Mexico. On a good night, Saúl, José and Pedro might collectively milk the glands of enough toads to make several hundred dollars. Their monthly earnings vary, but on average they take home the equivalent of £1,400 minus the £250 they must pay the cartels for permission during the three months when the toads come to the surface.


Two years ago, some of the areas of desert where they would hunt had become hot with drug trafficking activity. Since 2016, two groups — El Mayo Zambada and Los Chapitos – had been fighting for control over the Sinaloa cartel as a result of the power vacuum left behind following the conviction and jailing of its former leader Joaquin Guzman, aka El Chapo. The turf war for territory would typically flare up at night, which just so happens to be when the nocturnal toads emerge from their burrows.

That evening back in 2021, Saúl, José and Pedro, had been collecting medicine for several hours when they ran out of water. Saúl volunteered to go to a nearby ranch to replenish their supplies, José recalls. Little did they know that the ranch’s owner had ongoing problems with El Mayo Zambada after he had circumvented them to obtain a permit to extract water. That night, unfortunately for Saúl, the cartel had come to kidnap the ranchero.

“They took Saúl too,” says José. Bizarrely, narcos from Los Chapitos had been following El Mayo Zambada that night and planning an attack – they soon arrived on the scene. A shootout ensued in which Saúl’s kidnappers were caught unawares. They were all killed, and Saúl was taken by the other group, whose members all wore masks. They shot the rancher dead.

Hands holding a toad illuminated at night by torchlight.

Photo: Getty Images

The toad collector had been caught in the crossfire of a hot war. The narcos spared him when they realised he didn’t work for the farm owner. “They said, ‘We would have killed you’,” says José. Still, Saúl had to work for the cartel as a lookout for several months in order to prove himself and effectively earn his freedom.

The war between the two cartel factions was resolved later in the year and a truce deal demarcated lines of territory, which have been largely respected since. But this hasn’t stopped toad hunters from running into bother. “Collectors have had encounters with local cartels,” says Fernando Suarez, a toad practitioner and lawyer who set up Fair Trade Toad to establish ethical standards in the trade. “You just cannot be moving around the Sonoran desert. There are many activities happening and if you run into somebody else’s business, you’re going to get in trouble.”

The cartels now have increasing sway over the land where toad is collected. “They’re taking control over it, just to have control of it,” says Suarez. “We have heard many times that if they find collectors who are not from their territory, they will take everything from them.”

In Hermosillo, a number of people who are dependent on drugs have recently begun collecting toad and exchanging it with dealers for methamphetamine, according to José. “Since the meth addicts started working, the price has gone down to MX$300 (£14) for a gram in Hermosillo,” he says. “I maintain MX$1,000 (£46) for a gram. Little by little the narcos control more of the toad trade in Hermosillo.”


In early 2022, another man was kidnapped by one of the cartels and forced to divulge how to extract the lucrative venom from toads, according to herpetologist and conservationist Robert Villa from the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory. “It sounded like these people didn’t even know how the substance is used,” he says. “But they forced him to reveal everything he knew. Toad turismo [tourism] is on the rise. And of course the cartels are sweeping in to try and capitalise off of that.”

Collectors typically sell to middlemen who sell it on before it reaches the eventual buyers in the US and Europe for prices ranging from £80 to £800 a gram, says Joel Brierre. He’s the CEO of psychedelic wellness company F.I.V.E., which trains 5-MeO-DMT facilitators. In 2016, he noticed the toad market beginning to change: “A lot more harvesting started happening and collection teams expanded into larger organisations amid rumours of cartel involvement and lots of shady practices.”

Then carbon and other contaminants began to be found in bags of toad venom to bulk it out. “It's become a financial draw in a very impoverished place of the world – that will come with its ups and downs,” Brierre explains.

Since toad came to popular attention in 1984, it has emerged as a reliable income source during the rainy season for some tribes in Sonora. There are family run operations, and larger more collectivised outfits. “Some pledge to abide by best practices,” says Brierre, “but some are known to not engage with conservation efforts and are instead involved with low level cartel players.” Suarez adds: “It's a very easy way to make money, at least in theory. A lot of people are trying to learn how to do it.”

Whether there is a traditional indigenous history of toad use is disputed. The Yaqui tribe in Sonora today offers ceremonies to seekers, and there has been an increase in usage among locals too. “At first I was just collecting it for a job, but over time I realised it is truly a medicine,” says José. “It’s helping the local people a lot. There’s a ceremony every month for people with addiction, depression and trauma.”

Accordingly, the increasing demand has caused the prevalence of toads in and around Hermosillo to plummet, as unscrupulous collectors bag them up to extract their medicine and then don’t return them to their habitat, according to Suarez. But given that the highly reproductive toads have all the state of Sonora to populate, he is not yet worried by the growing conservation concerns. “I think there is more medicine available than we as humanity can consume,” he says.

More than two years later however, Saúl is still paying the price for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has again been forced to work for Los Chapitos. “He’s on a hill watching if government forces or the rival cartel enter,” says José.