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article imageMexican army faces uphill battle against opium poppies

By Laurent Thomet (AFP)     Dec 11, 2016 in World

The soldiers ripped the opium poppies with their hands and tossed them in four bonfires, clearing a hill in Mexico's lush northwestern mountains in less than two hours.

But their work in the heart of the country's "Golden Triangle," a tri-state region of heroin and marijuana production, was far from over.

After the troops destroyed the 0.5-hectare (1.2-acre) field on Thursday, Lieutenant Juan Pablo Hernandez Zempoaltecatl pointed to another one on a steep hill past a row of pine trees, and more down the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range.

His 18-man unit has destroyed 39 fields amounting to 15 hectares since they set up camp two weeks ago following a day-and-a-half trek up hills infested with snakes and venomous spiders.

Hernandez estimates that his unit faces 20 more days of grueling work to clear the remote area while spending chilly nights in small tents in the wild.

But once they've destroyed all the bulbs, Hernandez expects farmers to quickly plant new seeds to replace what they just lost. It takes only three months for poppies to grow.

The Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range is a part of Mexico's 'Golden Triangle'  a...
The Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range is a part of Mexico's 'Golden Triangle', a tri-state region of heroin and marijuana production
Alfredo Estrella, AFP

"It's tiresome to see so many poppies every day," the fresh-faced, 24-year-old commander said as he trekked back toward the unit's tent camp.

As Mexico marks 10 years since the government deployed troops to crack down on drug cartels, the army faces an uphill battle in its four-decade-old struggle to eradicate a growing opium poppy production.

The poppies are grown by local farmers, who extract opium gum from bulbs and sell it to gangs such as the Sinaloa drug cartel, which transforms the raw material into heroin.

"Every time we destroy a field ... the locals come back to plant after our personnel has left the area," said Colonel Cipriano Cruz Quiroz, chief of staff of a special narcotics eradication unit based in Badiraguato, Sinaloa state.

"They don't see us in a good light but they tolerate us. They have their work and we have ours. They plant and we destroy," said Cruz, whose base is in the hometown of imprisoned Sinaloa cartel kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

- 'Market day' -

Opium poppies are mostly grown in the southern state of Guerrero and the Golden Triangle -- which straddles the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua.

Farmers in Mexico's 'Golden Triangle' started to grow more poppies than marijuana sin...
Farmers in Mexico's 'Golden Triangle' started to grow more poppies than marijuana since several US states began to legalize pot consumption in 2012
Alfredo Estrella, AFP

Farmers in the Golden Triangle started to grow more poppies than marijuana since several US states began to legalize pot consumption in 2012, Cruz said.

Cartels used to pay the farmers around $60 per kilo of marijuana, but the price has now dropped by half, he said.

The price of a kilo of opium gum has jumped from around $980-$1200 to $1,765.

The half-hectare field destroyed by Hernandez's unit could have produced half a kilo of brownish gum, enough to make three kilos of heroin.

The farmers slice the bulbs with a razor blade, allowing the sticky gum to trickle out overnight to be collected the next day. The raw material is then sold in a sort of "market day," Cruz said.

In June, Mexico's government and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released the first estimate of opium poppy cultivation, with aerial and satellite images finding 24,800 hectares across Mexico between 2014-2015.

A second analysis is underway to make a year-on-year comparison.

But army figures show poppy eradication nationwide increased from 14,613 hectares in 2013 to 26,249 in 2015. It stood at 19,848 hectares in the first 11 months of this year. In the Golden Triangle, 9,078 hectares were destroyed in 2015 and 6,145 this year, far more than marijuana.

A US Drug Enforcement Administration report says heroin seizures more than doubled to 2,524 kilos at the US-Mexico border between 2010-2015.

The government has stepped up eradication efforts, increasing fumigation flights in the Golden Triangle to four missions in 2016, each lasting 20 to 25 days, compared to three operations last year.

The region's special unit was created in July 2014 to focus solely on plant eradication. Reconnaissance flights or satellite images spot the fields. When fumigation flights are not available, soldiers do the work by hand.

Small teams like the one led by Lieutenant Hernandez spend three months in the mountains looking for marijuana or opium poppies. They set up 10 tents between trees, braving chilly nights and spending the day destroying plants.

But they never arrest growers, who either flee or deny owning the fields.

The farmers or cartels report troop movements by radio, using solar panel-powered antennas that they installed all over the mountains.

As Hernandez's unit got close to the latest poppy fields, they heard the roaring engines of all-terrain vehicles. The farmers had already sliced several bulbs before fleeing.

A month ago, the soldiers got the order to burn all the plants they find after the army realized that farmers were returning to the fields to extract the sticky gum from the bulbs that were cut down.

"It's a bit tedious," Hernandez said. But "it's worth it" because his work "helps young people take conscience that this not the right path."

- Legalize it? -

The government has launched programs to convince farmers to plant legal crops, but they keep planting drugs "because it's more profitable," Cruz said.

"It's a subculture. They are brought to the fields when they are little. There are places where children and women are brought to slice (the bulbs)," he said.

In the impoverished and violent state of Guerrero, the governor suggested earlier this year that opium poppies should be legalized for pharmaceutical uses.

"It's not a viable solution because it doesn't solve the region's structural problem," said Antonio Mazzitelli, the UNODC's Mexico representative, noting that Guerrero's remote regions lack good roads and public services."

And, he said, the legal industry doesn't want to compete with the criminal industry."

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