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Mexico's opium poppy farmers are fed up with the job's dangers

Opium farmers in the state of Guerrero are starting to complain loudly about toxic fumigation, cartel violence, and poverty. The new activism comes amid tentative political moves towards legalization.

by Nathaniel Janowitz and Arturo de Dios Palma
Jun 27 2016, 3:00pm

Dead poppy plants after a government fumigation in Guerrero. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/VICE News)

Lomillos stood at the top of a slope behind his house pointing down to the small stream beyond the treeline where he and his family get water to drink, bathe in, and cook with. Between him and there sat a field of dried up poppy plants.

"They destroyed everything," he said, referring to the law enforcement operation that fumigated his crop which would otherwise have yielded opium paste for him to sell, and would have eventually been turned into heroin.

Nearby his two young nephews sat on a log, one of them holding a toy gun.

"The chemicals got in the water, in the house," the farmer said, adding that the family has been suffering from intestinal problems and irritated lungs in an isolated area with no hospitals, schools, or cell phone service. "We all got sick."

Lomillos explained that the sudden blast of chemicals destroyed the only form of income available where he lives, high up in the sierra of Mexico's southern state of Guerrero in the municipality of Tecpán de Galeana. Now his family can only afford to eat meat twice a month.

And fumigation, he said, is just one of the problems poppy growers like him face as they struggle to get by on meagre profits, as well as navigate the terror of living in territories disputed by different drug trafficking gangs.

But something is afoot in the mountains of Guerrero where growers are beginning to protest against the conditions they say force them to rely on the illegal crop, with some even pinning their hopes on a complete shift — legalization.

"There's no opportunity for the inhabitants of the sierra," said Rigoberto Acosta, who runs a non-government council of towns in Guerrero's sierra.

Acosta grew up in the area. He was only one of two students in his class who was able to go to college. Now he works trying to create better conditions for families who have grown poppies for generations and rarely feel they are doing anything wrong.

"We need to convince the Mexican state to designate resources to conserve the natural resources of the sierra of Guerrero," said Acosta. "The forest, the water, and definitely better conditions for the people who live there."

Lomillos' nephew looks down at the dead opium poppies behind their house. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/VICE News)

In late April poppy farmers from the mountains around the state capital of Guerrero, Chilpancingo, left their villages to bring attention to their demands by blocking the major highway linking the resort city of Acapulco to Mexico City. The blockade lasted for more than 10 hours, before authorities broke it up.

Earlier this month the poppy farmers were in Chilpancingo again, this time to lobby local legislators over the legalization issue.

'The chemicals got in the water, in the house... We all got sick'

The farmers have become much more vocal since politicians began hinting that they may one day no longer be breaking the law.

"It's a way out that could get us away from the violence there has been in Guerrero," Guerrero's governor, Hector Astudillo, said in March, floating the idea of legal cultivation of poppies for medical purposes.

Though Astudillo has backtracked somewhat since then, the idea is also gathering steam, if slowly. Local deputies have presented a legalization initiative before the Guerrero State Congress.

Related: Mexico's heroin farmers: the trail of destruction starts in the poppy fields

In May, leading newspaper El Universal revealed that the federal government has been exploring the idea of some kind of legalization pilot scheme of poppy production for medicinal purposes in Guerrero. The paper cited high-level officials saying they expected a proposal to be presented to the federal legislature before the end of the year.

There is international noise on the issue as well, with Mexico promising there will be some kind of opium poppy plan coming out of the so-called Three Amigos meeting with the United States and Canada in Ottawa on June 29.

"This isn't just about destroying (plantations), it's about finding solutions for people forced to cultivate poppies," Paulo Carreño, Mexican deputy foreign minister in charge of North America, told Reuters this month. "There will be an important announcement in this context at the summit on a new cooperation plan between the three countries to deal with problems that obviously concerns us all."

'Faced with this abandon the small farmers had to turn to poppies in order for their families to survive'

Mexico's poppy growers are currently center stage because of their role supplying ballooning US demand for heroin. And, according to one former member of the guerrilla groups that roamed Guerrero in the 1970s, alliances between poppy growers and the authorities are nothing new.

Arturo Miranda Ramírez claims it was poppy growers who put the army on the trail of Lucio Cabañas, the region's highest profile guerrilla leader who died in a military ambush in 1974. He said the farmers were seduced by the government's counterinsurgency strategy that included investment in health clinics and roads, and that fell apart as soon as the guerrillas were crushed.

"It was all taken down and abandoned," the former rebel said of the social programs. "Faced with this abandon the small farmers had to turn to poppies in order for their families to survive."

Related:Medical marijuana, decriminalization, and opium: 2016 looks big for drugs in Mexico

It takes five hours on dirt roads to reach Lomillos' house in the sierra. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/VICE News)

The possibility of a future alliance between poppy growers and the government in some parts of the sierra today also has a backdrop of armed conflict, albeit of a very different kind.

On the opposite side of the mountains from Tecpán de Galeana, where Lomillos lives, the inhabitants of Campo de Aviación stress the violence that can accompany tending to their opium crop.

'When we asked what had happened to the people who were being taken from the community they told us 'don't even look for them''

The villagers say things turned critical three years ago after 15 armed men called a meeting where they announced they would be the only buyers of opium paste from the area from then on.

Soon, the number of men with guns multiplied and the village's 500 inhabitants had to ask them for permission before leaving or entering the community. The gunmen also lowered the price they paid for the paste. Then villagers began disappearing and turning up dead, or not turning up at all.

"When we asked what had happened to the people who were being taken from the community they told us 'don't even look for them,'" local farmer Crescencio Pacheco recalled.

Related: The Taliban Is running amok and killing policemen in Afghanistan's opium heartland

Pacheco fled, as did many from the community. But after a few months in Chilpancingo he returned with the other townspeople to confront the criminals. The battle lasted days, he said, but the villagers managed to defeat the criminals with the help of the army and regained control of their town.

Pacheco now heads a rural police force and is vocal in his demand that the authorities start taking better care of the sierra so people like him can stop growing poppies for the illegal heroin market.

Though the problems of growers are now talked about more openly than ever before, and the idea of medical opium is sneaking onto the political agenda, some experts are skeptical that Guerrero, or any other poppy-growing state, has the capability to manage a legal opium industry.

Lisa Sánchez, the drug policy director for the group Mexico United Against Crime, has stressed both that there is still no serious proposal on the table and that Mexican institutions are currently just not strong enough to keep the illegal market out.

"We have to take into account that the demand for non-medical opium will continue to exist," she said. "Especially from the US market."

Related: Chilapa disappearances highlight the struggle between drug gangs for Mexico's poppy trade

Meanwhile, back in the Tecpán de Galeana municipality, the elected head of the region Leopoldo Soberanis Hernández, decided to travel up the sierra on a mission to show that he cares about providing job alternatives to his local constituents. Poppy farmers greeted him, peppering him with questions.

Once there he bemoaned the environmental effects of fumigation and said he wanted to clean the ecosystem. He claimed the local timber industry is booming, but needs to be taken out of the hands of companies from other states who are giving the jobs to people from other states as well.

'Thank you for coming, but you're not the first politician to come up here, and you won't be the last'

"We must bring more economy, create industry, and give the jobs to you," said Soberanis. "These activities are going to benefit your level of wellbeing."

By the end of the visit, dozens of farmers had gathered around the politician. As they asked him questions, other killed and then cooked a baby lamb on a spit over a fire and drank tequila. The mood was festive for the most-part, but also skeptical.

"We have no guarantee that there will be other ways to work. You're going to provide work?" said local farmer Mauro Bello. "Thank you for coming, but you're not the first politician to come up here, and you won't be the last."

The elected head of the region Leopoldo Soberanis Hernández fields questions from skeptical poppy farmers. (Photo by Hans-Maximo Musielik/VICE News)

Lomillos, the farmer whose family had gotten sick after his poppy farm had been fumigated in April, was even harder to convince that the visit would be the start of anything really new.

After graduating high school, Lomillos spent three years in the state capital studying ecology, graduated, and returned to the sierra.

"I want to start a project to support us and the environment, the jungle, the animals, tourism," he said. He called it his "dream."

But he also said he didn't know how that could actually happen with no infrastructure, money, or opportunity. Instead, he's worried about his daughter who currently studies further down the sierra because there are no schools or teachers in the community.

"My daughter, for example, what's going to happen when she comes back?" he reflected, as his two nephews played nearby. "She'll need to work in the fields because there are no jobs."

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Follow Nathaniel Janowitz on Twitter: @ngjanowitz