To the trained eye, an opium field isn’t difficult to spot. It’s the colour that gives them away: speckled with purple and crimson, the jade-green meadows look otherworldly on the steep hillsides of the high Mexican sierras where they sit alongside larger plots of avocado and peach in an effort to hide the valuable crop from the helicopters.
Look closer and you will see the harvesters. Children are preferred for this work. Armed with only a razor blade and plastic cup, they are more agile on the sheer slopes around their mountain villages, and their smaller hands are ideal for delicately scoring the opium bulb to let the narcotic paste seep slowly out.
“It’s very hard work, and it’s all about patience,” says Arturo Lopez, as he gently scrapes the latex from the cut around the seedpod’s surface. Holding it up to the sunlight he nods his approval at this half gram of sticky gum.
“Oro verde,” he smiles. Green gold.
Arturo, 58 years old and originally from Mexico City, has been farming opium in these remote mountain villages of western Guerrero state for 40 years. It’s one of Mexico’s most inaccessible regions, though Acapulco remains one of the Pacific coast’s more popular resorts.
Having arrived here as a government foresting engineer, Arturo saw the first poppy fields spring up as the drug cartels from the north expanded their operation southwards, decreasing their dependence on Colombian opium.
When his government forestry department was shut down, Arturo stayed, marrying a local woman and seeking employment in the mountains where his expertise could be put to use.
Having gone native, he has consecutively been town mayor, regional hospital director, and founder and chief of the Guerrero Opium Farmers’ Union, which recently defied Mexico’s federal government by refusing to stop cultivating poppies, harvesting the opium and selling it on to narcotraffickers.
“Of the 50,000 people who live in this region, 90 per cent of us harvest and sell opium,” he says, looking out over the rolling hills from the town’s only restaurant, from where the state capital Chilpancingo, 2,000 metres lower in altitude, is visible in the distance. “Every mountain village in Guerrero produces opium, and our entire economy depends on it. By this point, there’s no turning back.”
Guerrero produces more than half the raw material that fuels the US heroin epidemic, causing 13,000 drug-related deaths a year. The state alone is the world's third biggest producer of opium, behind Afghanistan and Myanmar.
Opium first arrived in North America with Chinese railway labourers, who established plantations in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains on the continent’s west coast, from Oregon down to Sinaloa in Mexico.
As the United States cracked down on the opium dens of San Francisco, the country’s civil war saw a surge in demand for morphine, and both the Union and Confederacy turned to Mexico for its painkillers. History repeated itself during the World War Two, when neutral Mexico supplied American military hospitals with opiates. [sub note: can’t find this fact]
Thirty years later, as the drug cartels began to supply the United States with Colombian cocaine through Miami, and Mexican marijuana via California, entrepreneurial Latin Americans took advantage of the American government’s crackdown on The French Connection – opium from Turkey, turned into ‘golden brown’ in Marseille and then trafficked through New York.
Today, two types of heroin dominate the North American market. ‘China white’ from Colombia is a highly processed and purified powder found on the Eastern Seaboard; and Mexican ‘black tar’ (heroin acetate, or homebake heroin), dominates the Pacific side and the US-Mexico border from California to Texas, where heroin seizures have jumped 150 per cent since 2010.
In Mexico, narcotics were traditionally produced in the Golden Triangle, an area of western Mexico including the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa. In these labyrinthine highlands that raised Mexico’s most famous drug kingpin Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, marijuana and opium were grown with impunity.
As the Sinaloa Cartel established its dominance across Mexico, its captains, based in Acapulco, noticed that the remote hills and high altitude of the interior would be ideal for opium cultivation.
Going from village to village, the drug cartel brought seeds and knowledge of the brightly coloured plant to the impoverished farmers of the sierras, promising great rewards to those who would supply opium at the end of their harvest.
Fuelled by the ravenous demand and enabled by a corrupt state police force and weak judicial system, opium production exploded in Guerrero. Today, an estimated 30,000 acres [12,000 ha] are given over to poppy fields.
When Arturo arrived in the sierras 40 years ago, just 2,000 farmers were involved in opium cultivation; he now estimates his union is 45,000 strong – nearly double the size of Mexico’s Marine Corps.
The state produces more than 60 per cent of Mexico’s total opium output, and despite being a large producer of the narcotic, its consumption is non-existent in the sierras, save for a small amount for toothache relief. It all goes north to supply the ever-increasing demand for heroin in the United States.
“We know the opium eventually does harm, but we can’t ignore the demand, and we are so far removed from the death it causes to feel innocent enough,” says Arturo. “We literally have no other options. For us it would be ridiculous not to cultivate poppies.”
The United States’ issues with heroin have been worsened significantly by the availability of pharmaceutical opiates, most notoriously oxycodone, nicknamed hillbilly heroin. Seventy five percent of regular American heroin users came to the drug through prescription medication, which becomes too expensive and difficult to get hold of for pain sufferers-turned-addicts, many of whom make the obvious move to cheap and readily available Mexican black tar.
And there’s no need for users to buy on street corners in dodgy parts of town, the Mexican cartels in the US now deliver direct to your door. The most successful illicit narcotics organisation in history, the Sinaloa Cartel controls the North American narcotrafficking process all the way from manufacture to sale, in a heroin market worth more than US$8 billion a year according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In 2008, Mexico produced an estimated 38 metric tons of heroin; less than a decade later, Guerrero alone can export 150.
“Everyone here harvests opium,” says Arturo, “If it wasn’t for the poppy these mountain communities would have disappeared long ago.”
The opium crop produces two harvests a year: the end of the dry season in March produces a concentrated opium gum, worth US$1,000 per kilo, while the rainy season’s product, gathered at the end of September produces a greater quantity, but a more diluted paste, worth just US$300 per kilo.
Ironically for such a deadly and illegal product, aside from its inherent value, opium paste is an ideal cash crop.
Most residents in the region will cultivate two hectares of poppies at a time, which will yield a minimum of 20 kilos per year: generating an average annual income of US$13,000 from the cultivation and sale of opium. For those who still farm fruit and vegetables, a ton of peaches is worth around the same as a single kilo of opium.
The farmers themselves are a humble group, and see little of the huge profits reaped by the drug cartels from the sale of heroin. While a farmer can see as little as US$5,000 for enough raw opium to manufacture a kilo of black tar, the street value of the same package on the streets of Chicago can reap an average of US$80,000.
In the higher reaches of the sierra, their villages have no electricity or running water, the closest mobile signal is a four-hour drive away, and the sharp relief blocks even long distance radio waves. Before opium poppies arrived in their villages, their traditional means of providing for their families was to migrate to the United States and send money back. But today, as more US deportees return to the sierras and President Trump promises crackdowns on illegal immigrants, opium has become the stabilising factor in the local economy.
“The more Trump talks about cracking down on Mexicans, the more joy the deportees take in their work,” grins Arturo.
Ironically for such a deadly and illegal product, aside from its inherent value, opium paste is an ideal cash crop. The opium poppy is a hardy plant, resistant to changing weather, and a single pod produces more than a thousand seeds which can still be sown even after the opium has been extracted, exponentially increasing consecutive harvests.
Opium is also light; an entire harvest can be carried easily in a rucksack from remote hidden plantations on steep hillsides, while a ton of avocados, worth roughly the same, requires heavy machinery and good roads, neither of which are abundant in the high sierras.
On top of that, it’s an enduring commodity. If a buyer is not found for a batch, it can be buried in the ground and stored indefinitely, while corn and peaches spoil quickly. Fruit and vegetables must also be transported to market; for the opium, the narcotraffickers come directly to the farmers.
The buyers are the only contact the farmers have with the narcotrafficking chain. Wiry young men, they are often natives of the sierras in which they trade on behalf of the cartels. A good knowledge of the mountains and cultural understanding with the locals are prerequisites for the job, and much of the commerce is done on foot.
Journeymen traders, the buyers catch public transport from village to village through the badlands. Armed with just a pistol and bundles of cash, they negotiate with the farmers to fill their backpacks, before descending to a cartel laboratory in one of the towns in the foothills, where 15 kilos of opium are made into a single kilo of heroin.
The cartel presence is not always welcomed in the sierras, and farmers will not do business with more than one narco buyer at a time for fear of negotiations turning violent. Although the Sinaloa Cartel controls the narcotrafficking chain from the laboratories to the street dealers, the high volume of opium produced within the mountains has resulted in a number of smaller gangs from within the mountain communities becoming active.
Of the 56 active drug cartels in Mexico today, 24 are based in Guerrero State alone. Los Rojos, Los Ardillos, Guerreros Unidos, Los Tequileros, and SIDA to name a few, are all competing in the business of trafficking opium.
The situation has resulted in a lot of violence. The more remote settlements have seen whole communities kidnapped within their villages and forced into slavery by gangs who steal their entire harvest. Shootouts are common in the access towns to the sierra, where the shot-up sandbags of army outposts conquered by cartel enforcers litter the roads. Most notoriously, 43 protesting students disappeared in 2014 at the hands of the Guerreros Unidos gang in the strategic town of Iguala, whose mayor was also the cartel boss.
In addition to contending with gang violence, the farmers are under constant threat from [Operation Condor,] the Mexican army and marines’ joint mission to wipe out opium crops from the air using herbicides sprayed from low flying aircraft.
Helicopters and crop-dusting planes fly low over areas of opium cultivation identified by satellite photography, spraying paraquat dichloride, [sub note: most sources suggest this is no longer used] a viciously effective herbicide entirely banned in Europe, which unselectively destroys plant matter upon contact and is water-resistant within minutes of application. The scorched land can take years to recover from the substance’s effects and the chemical, linked to the development of Parkinson’s disease, is highly toxic to humans,with no known antidote.
Guerrrerense communities who drink from water sources that run through sprayed fields have reported respiratory problems, liver, heart and kidney failure, and in cases of prolonged exposure to contaminated substances, death.
“The government thinks of us as criminals, and treats us as a wartime enemy,” complains Arturo, who says he has witnessed military planes spraying paraquat dichloride over areas known to contain natural water springs from which communities drink. “We are not narcotraffickers, we are just trying to feed our families.”
Despite government efforts to control opium production in the mountains, the sierras are impossible to police. In the past two years Arturo’s farmers’ union has established its own vigilante police force, which communicates the entry of any unknown persons into its mountain chains, and forcibly refuses access to any outsider who has not previously been granted permission. For a journalist to enter, two months’ notice and committee approval are required.
So inaccessible are these high mountain villages to the Mexican authorities that ‘El Chapo’ Guzman was reported to have hidden out here, in the remote village of Corral de Piedra, following his 2015 tunnelled escape from Mexican high security federal prison.
Arturo says that despite government efforts to curb their opium production, that the sierra residents will always win.
“We are in 60,000 square kilometres of mountains, which we know better than any outsider,” he says. “If it comes to guerrilla warfare, the Guerrerense are the baddest of Trump’s ‘bad hombres’. The government won’t stand a chance.
“Even without the threats of government crop destruction, narco takeover and hungry local animals eating your crop, the process of producing opium can be very expensive.
“First you have the labour costs of preparing the land. Territory sprayed by the government is useless, so you must find a new patch of land and clear it by hand. The best plots to avoid detection will be two hours’ walk into the sierra to decrease chances of discovery.
“If you have various fields, as most people do, then you must keep them small and separate. That way, if one is discovered, you don’t lose your entire harvest. It is also a good idea to surround your opium crop with taller avocado and peach trees for camouflage.
“Once your crop is ready, it take five men four days to harvest a single hectare, by which time on top of the fertilizer, herbicides and labour costs, you’ve already spent half your earnings from a batch of opium that hasn’t yet been sold.
The farmers live a hand-to-mouth existence, using their earnings from the valuable dry season sale to last them the rest of the year, hoping that drug cartel activity in the sierras doesn’t worsen so much that they end up kidnapped in their own towns.
Guerrero is now North America’s most murderous state, with about 60 murders per 100,000 residents annually – four times the Mexican national average – while rates of kidnap, femicide, disappearance and extortion are higher than any of the war zones on the northern border. Caught between federal anti-drug policy and the suffering of the impoverished farmers, the Mexican government finds itself in an impossible position.
The issue has become such a problem for Guerrero that last year the state governor Héctor Astudillo compared his region to Afghanistan.
“We are the same place,” he told the Mexican national media. “Except we are one state and they are an entire country.”
In the same breath Astudillo informally floated the idea of legalising and regulating the production of opium, a proposal that was ignored and ridiculed by the country’s Federal Congress in Mexico City.
Astudillo however has remained firm, championing the idea across the state in his political visits. The governor first came to office through the forced resignation of his predecessor following the scandal of the disappeared 43 students, and his first 100 days in office saw 734 homicides throughout the state. If you can’t beat them, at least find a way to tolerate them, he says.
As Guerrero’s opium production grows exponentially by the year, Arturo says he sees no end to the industry in his beloved mountain village.
Jorge Hernandez Tinajero, a founding member of the Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, an independent body which seeks an end to the decade-long drug war that has cost over 100,000 lives, is doubtful that regulating opium production is the silver bullet that will put an end to the state’s narcotics problem.
“On a global level we already have a surplus of medical opiates, and we don’t see an increasing demand,” he said from his office in the south of Mexico City. “Of the 800 tons of medical morphine that were produced last year, only 500 tons were consumed.
“If Mexico were to go into business as an opium exporting country, it would find that shifting its product would be very difficult.”
Arturo also admits that while legalisation would put an end to much of the violence, moving away from selling produce on the black market would ultimately affect his union’s bottom line.
“We look at it in terms of profit,” he said. “No one who can get a thousand dollars for selling kilo of opium to a narco is going to sell it on to the government for a quarter of that and then pay taxes on it.”
“Ultimately it’s better for us as a farmers’ union if opium cultivation remains illegal… We’ll take our chances.”
As Guerrero’s opium production grows exponentially by the year, Arturo says he sees no end to the industry in his beloved mountain village.
“We live happy and peaceful lives up here, and as long as our union is strong we have no reason to fear,” he says. “Most of us here don’t even know what the opium is even used for, we just know it’s valuable.”
“God help us when the younger generation finally work out they can smoke it straight out of the plant,” he laughs. “That’s when we’ll really be in trouble.”