In 1976, then presidential candidate, José López Portillo, made a campaign swing through southern Mexico. In Acapulco Bay, he gave a speech in which he stated that: “unlike in the desert, where idle hands are found because land there is not bounteous, in Guerrero idle hands [exist] because of dispossessions; this is socially painful”1Fiscalía Especial para Movimientos Sociales y Políticos del Pasado, 2006..
Despite this apparent sensitivity, however, by the end of his six-year term in office, President López Portillo was best known for sending the country careening into bankruptcy with his extravagant mansions and disaccreditation of statism as a form of governance. His term in office was followed, in the late 1980s, by the emergence and rapid ascent of a technocratic elite bent on implementing a series of political and economic reforms that would signal Mexico’s entry into neoliberalism. That was also the time when a new phase of dispossessions began in the state of Guerrero.
Neoliberalism in Mexico translated into a commercial aperture that restructured the earlier land tenure regimen, in part by granting private property rights over lands not previously susceptible to purchase/sale operations2The revolutionary ideology crystallized in the 1917 Constitution and, later, the Agrarian Reform, converted large groups of displaced people into usufructuaries of collective lands called ejidos or forms of communal property. A basic feature of these kinds of tenure was that rights-holders could produce on the land, but not sell it. The post-revolutionary ejido had some similarities to private property –e.g. rights of inheritance and exclusion– but was distinguished by several legal restrictions. See Torres-Mazuera, G. 2012. “El ejido posrevolucionario: de forma de tenencia sui generis a forma de tenencia ad hoc”. Península, 7(2), 69-94..
Later, in 1994, ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) fomented foreign investment in agricultural production in a way that favored and incentivized the development of commercial enterprises over subsistence farming. These structural reforms generated a transition in productive processes that gave clear preference to agribusiness over other ways of exploiting the land. In this process, certain states, such as Michoacán and Sinaloa in western and northern Mexico, respectively, were transformed into regional and international economic powers thanks to exports of products like avocado and tomatoes. In stark contrast, territories in the south with high indices of indigenous population, like the states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, became sources of labor for those poles of commercial agricultural production. In this sense, we can say that the implementation of neoliberal policies re-functionalized the historical process of dispossession of a large part of Mexico’s rural population.
In Guerrero, participation in drug production and trafficking by an impoverished peasantry emerged as a survival strategy in a context of harsh relations of economic exploitation. For one sector of these rural populations, participation in drug-trafficking became a way of reorganizing within, and adapting to, an overarching economic structure that relegated it to a subaltern position. From this vantage point, poppy production becomes visible as a response to the economic and social crises that have ravaged the Mexican countryside, and illicit crops appear not as a product of a largely absentee State, but as a direct effect of state policies.
Numerous localities in the Sierra Madre del Sur adopted poppy cultivation as an economic activity that allowed them to defend themselves against power structures that kept them in a subordinate position. However, in stark contrast to accounts which assume that poverty is an underlying, universal characteristic of all poppy-production regions in Mexico, some growing areas in Guerrero present varied socioeconomic profiles. There are, in fact, zones where illicit crops have even supported the emergence of rural capitalists, subjects with property, capital, and a certain capacity to participate creatively in a market economy.
In the following section, I present a case which illustrates how the economy derived from poppy and opium gum production functions in its local dimension. The discussion is based on the results of fieldwork conducted in a mountainous area of northwestern Guerrero in December 2020. While the data analyzed refer to a limited period of fieldwork, my many previous visits to the area allowed me to arrange the interviews and side trips necessary to substantiate this illustrative case. Moreover, I am in constant contact with participants in my research through messages and phone calls. Note that some information has been modified in order to ensure the anonymity of the place and my informants.
Development and crisis of the poppy-growing subject
While it is commonly argued that the prices of products can be explained exclusively on the basis of the relation between supply and demand, the reality is that various factors influence the income that producers receive for their merchandise. In the case of opium gum, the organizational capacity of poppy growers (called amapoleros), the location of their fields, and the political order within which purchase/sale operations take place are some of the key elements that impact evaluations of their product’s value. Poppy growers are often lumped together in the category “drug-producers”3Ronquillo, V. 2011. “La narco-agricultura: cáncer del campo mexicano”, La Jornada del Campo, 15 January 2011., but there is no unified collective of peasants dedicated to producing illicit crops, much less equal purchase/sale conditions for all.
Pueblo Alto is a village with fewer than 200 inhabitants, most of them mestizo ranchers, that sits at an elevation of some 2,700 meters (8,860 ft) above sea level. It is located in an area of the municipality of San Miguel Totolapan, in the Sierra region, where poppy production is a well-known phenomenon. In contrast to some nearby communities, people in Pueblo Alto can be described as prosperous, as evidenced by the many four-wheel drive pick-up trucks, ample dwellings, and recently remodeled church that the visitor can see there. There is no doubt that this is a village dedicated to poppy production for almost everyone is involved in one way or another in this business that began in the mid-1960s.
During my stay in Pueblo Alto, I lived in the house of one of the best-known families. In one of the many conversations I shared with members of that household, older residents recalled how they had begun to plant poppies, narrating that some men from Sinaloa came to teach local peasants the techniques for cultivating this flower. They were described as “daring, valiant, fearless [men …], quick to pull the trigger” but, above all, as family and “good friends”. After a time, the Sinaloenses returned to their state, but local people maintained the commercial relation they had forged.
They began to carry kilos of opium gum –in commercial buses– to cities like Culiacán and Ciudad Juárez in northern Mexico, where their friends helped them “find a market”; that is, “they connected them with their ‘boss’” who bought their product at “good prices”. In the early 1970s, dealing perhaps 10 kilos of opium gum was sufficient for those growers to purchase “a big car, one for loading”4Interview – December 2020.. A decade later, when new generations began to participate in cultivation, profits were still considerable.
In a conversation with some ten producers of different ages, they recalled that “in 85, 90, 95 with just one kilo [of opium gum] you could buy […] a four-wheel drive pick-up truck”5Interview – December 2020.. The buyers were still Sinaloenses, but relations were not as friendly or trusting as in the early days. People from Pueblo Alto continued to take product to northern cities, but they were no longer trafficking raw opium gum for by that time they had learned to process heroin using artisanal methods.
In the words of one grower who took product to Mexico’s northern border for many years, the advantage of processing the product locally was that “it’s easier to transport a hundred grams of heroin powder than a goddamn kilo of stinky [gum]”6Interview – December 2020.. In the last decade of the millennium and early into the 21st century, business remained more-or-less stable, though not quite as profitable. In 2012, however, the organization of the local economy changed due to a drastic transformation of the ‘business model’ as regional monopolies with no qualms about using violence to eliminate competitors from their territories displaced the independent traffickers who were used to transporting their own production. As one interviewee said:
“Before it was freer [but] those guys [various criminal groups] got into it and just took over. Because they have [transport routes], they don’t let you get involved or even process the gum [to convert it into heroin]”
Interview – 23 December 2020.
The end result of this ‘cartelization’7The process of monopolizing illegal activities has been dubbed ‘cartelization’. See Natalia Mendoza, “Microhistoria de la violencia en Altar, Sonora”, pp. 247-272 in José Antonio Aguilar, (ed.), Las bases sociales del crimen organizado y la violencia en México. Mexico City: SSP-CIES, 2012. process was that poppy producers in Pueblo Alto were converted into simple growers whose access to higher positions in the production chain and trafficking activities was blocked by those criminal organizations.
The productive chain of drug-trafficking
The current design of the productive chain and trafficking operations has also impacted the commercial value of opium gum. In Pueblo Alto, for example, purchase/sale operations now take place through figures called ‘runners’ (corredores).
The role of runners is to establish links between opium gum producers and buyers. They are individuals that the peasant poppy growers (amapoleros) know, but also ‘people of confidence’ for the men they refer to as their ‘bosses’. Typically, a boss tells a runner that he needs to obtain a certain number of kilos of opium gum by a certain date. The runner contacts a local ‘collector’ (acaparador) and entrusts him with the task of ‘filling the boss’ order’ by making arrangements with peasant growers to purchase their harvests. When the collector has gathered the required amount, the runner arrives and gives the collector bags of money in exchange for the merchandise, which he is responsible for transporting to his boss.
The collector and runner each receive around $1,000 pesos per kilo of opium gum they obtain ($50 USD). Obviously, the price paid to the growers does not correspond to the amount the boss sends since these two intermediaries pocket a good share of it. It is important to note that this productive chain is designed to ensure that no one can determine with certainty the identity of the final buyer, distributor, or criminal group involved. No one I interviewed in the community of Pueblo Alto recognized being a member of a criminal organization. One runner that I interviewed by telephone explained the strategy in this way:
“It’s not wise to know who’s behind it all… it could be a congressman, a businessman, it doesn’t matter. You don’t want him to know [who you are] because he can fuck you and he […] thinks you can do the same to him”
Interview – December 2020
Not surprisingly, exchanges of information and interactions in places like Pueblo Alto are reduced to what is strictly necessary, for each individual strives to minimize the number of people who know the identities of those involved. This strategy, however, comes at a cost for it increases the number of middlemen and, with that, operating expenses. The long-term result, of course, is that the final product –processed heroin– has a market value far above the price paid to those who produce the raw material, opium gum. This is a context in which as risks increase so too does the number of intermediaries, which means lower economic benefits for the peasant amapoleros.
Although during those years the economic organization of the poppy business meant that growers no longer reaped the extraordinary benefits they once did, poppy cultivation continued to be highly profitable. In 2016, however, the price of raw material began to fall due, presumably, to the dramatic increase in demand for fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid from Asia. In fact, this development triggered, not a decrease, but a collapse of the demand for opium gum8See Le Cour Grandmaison R., Morris, N., & Smith, B. 2019. “The last harvest? From the US fentanyl boom to the Mexican Opium Crisis”. Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, 1(3), 312-329, 2019. so severe that in Pueblo Alto in 2018 a kilo of gum sold for just $5,000 pesos ($250 USD). The resulting economic crisis at the local level forced an exodus of young men who migrated to northern Mexico to work in factories and agribusiness operations. In the final months of 2020 prices began to recover and many of those migrants returned to their home region to renew their participation in the poppy economy.
Current conditions cannot, however, be characterized as ‘prosperous’. During my fieldwork in the winter months of 2020, the price of a kilo of gum reached $15,000 pesos ($750 USD). Producing this amount requires more than one hectare of land, so the profit margin is not high, especially when one takes into account expenditures on inputs like chemical fertilizers, vitamins for the soil, sprayers and hoses to carry irrigation water for the plants, and gasoline for daily trips to attend to the fields. All these outlays, plus the cost of labor, entail an inversion of around $10,000 pesos ($500 USD).
Earnings, therefore, are far from spectacular, but opium gum has a significant advantage over other commercial products that people in Pueblo Alto could cultivate –avocado, for example– in that derivatives of poppies can be stored for a certain period of time until a buyer arrives or in the expectation that prices will improve.
Local Organization and Negotiations
These peasant producers define their participation in the drug business “as a gamble… luck”9Interview – December 2020.. They cultivate poppies because they know that people “are looking for [opium gum]”.
Those ‘people’ are, of course, buyers who frequent the village and region. In the face of these conditions, producers in Pueblo Alto have developed strategies that allow them to maintain at least minimal control over the value of their merchandise. Implementing those strategies has allowed them to maintain the selling price of their opium gum above that of products from other zones on the crest of the Sierra Madre del Sur (called Filo Mayor) and nearby villages.
I was able to identify certain factors that explain this phenomenon. The first one is that this zone has maintained a certain degree of autonomy from the influence of criminal groups and drug cartels. Since 2015, Pueblo Alto and several neighboring communities have organized and maintained armed defense groups to guard their territory. Transactions of illicit substances are permitted, but only local residents are allowed to bear firearms or circulate in their vehicles, and everything that goes on in the villages is under constant surveillance.
One particularly interesting aspect of this form of local political organization is that it has allowed residents to forge the capacity to communicate with the leaders of criminal groups. Recently, for example, the leaders of the self-defense movement held a meeting with representatives of criminal organizations dedicated to drug-trafficking in the region. They discussed several issues, including the purchase price for the opium gum produced in Pueblo Alto. In the words of the local ejidal commissioner (comisario ejidal):
“Here […] we have more freedom than in other towns, and the areas with criminal groups, well [those guys] pay really cheap […] [In Pueblo Alto] they have to pay the [set] price. If they don’t like it, they can go look someplace else”
Interview – December 2020
This explains why the price of opium gum in Pueblo Alto is higher than what peasant producers in areas that have been fully ‘cartelized’ receive.
A second advantage is that Pueblo Alto is nestled amidst three regions controlled, effectively, by distinct criminal organizations. This strategic position, coupled with the negotiating capacity guaranteed by their self-defense forces, mean that these peasants producers are free to sell their merchandise to whoever comes with the best offer. This clearly reveals why, thanks to the village’s social organization and the political profile of its leaders, these amapoleros can interact with various buyers and, as a result, increase the income they obtain from commercializing their products.
In contrast, people in communities in Filo Mayor who share this history of poppy cultivation but have been absorbed into economies that are fully monopolized by one criminal group or another have a severely restricted –or null– capacity for negotiating with buyers. In the neighboring municipality of Tlacotepec, for example, conditions are very distinct.
Key differences there include the following:
1) Producers in Filo Mayor –which is more directly communicated with the state capital of Chilpancingo– find it impossible to sell their harvests to buyers who are not associated with the de facto authorities who dominate their territories and, as noted above, pay lower than free market prices.
2) Once established, the monopolistic cartels maintain intense vigilance over the narcotic-producing territories they occupy and, therefore, on the amount of opium gum produced, making it very difficult for growers to sell their product outside that restricted market.
3) The control exercised by drug cartels is extremely unpredictable. Some peasants have stopped participating in illicit economies because they know that continuing means being obliged to deal with actors who can behave in violent and unexpected ways10In one well-known case, a cartel leader in a nearby municipality organized public spectacles where he butchered his enemies alive. This has caused great alarm and distrust among local people who are now afraid to have any dealings with him or his group.. Withdrawing from illicit activities is one way to evade an erratic power that seeks to impose control on them and to improve their chances of survival.
From November 2020 to the present, a slight recovery of poppy production is visible in the area, and the price of opium gum has increased. Though I have no doubt that some exogenous factors are in play here –such as border closings due to the COVID-19 pandemic11“Por el Covid-19, el precio de la goma de opio tiene leve repunte; esperan campesinos alivio económico”, Caterina Morbiato, El Sur, 3 June 2020.– during my recent ethnographic visit to producing zones, I was interested in documenting the local conditions that contribute to configuring the markets for poppy products.
This perspective leads me to argue that macrosocial analyses are insufficient for explaining local realities and often fail to identify the elements that permit the formation of heterogeneous economic regions with their own, internal social dynamics. Finally, studies of that kind cannot inform us about the measures that local people implement in their efforts to overcome the conditions that relegate them to subordinate or marginal positions.
In this regard, the present text has described the formation of poppy-growing subjects (amapoleros) as historical actors who have succeeded in accumulating some economic capital through their participation in drug-trafficking, but who have also had to defend the position they have achieved in a commercial scheme that increasingly pushes them into disadvantageous positions.