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Executive Summary – 10 Key Facts, 10 Ideas & 10 Conclusions

Key Insights from the Mexico Opium Project

Opium poppy is an open door to emblematic territories of the Mexican “War on Drugs”.

In Mexico, opium functions as a “political opiate”: one that allows marginalized regions to economically survive, while the State limits its social, educational, and development functions to a minimum.

We conducted 15 months of cumulated fieldwork in Guerrero, Nayarit, Sinaloa and Durango, and gathered unprecedented quantitative data to produce novel insights regarding opium poppy cultivation and economy.

This allows us to answer a series of crucial questions: Who are the poppy growers in Mexico? How do they live in an illicit economy? How are illicit markets regulated? How does the State behave in such territories? What is the structural weight of opium and heroin economy in Mexico? How is it articulated with licit industries and infrastructures?

10 Key Facts

  • Poppies have been cultivated in the Golden Triangle (Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua) for over 60 years, and for almost 40 in Guerrero. Over 4 generations of residents have been active in poppy production.
  • This activity is deeply integrated into society. In poppy-growing territories, between 70 and 95% of the population –men, women, and children– work in, or earn their living through, activities directly or indirectly related to opium.
  • Between 2003 and 2019, Mexico’s Department of National Defense (SEDENA) registered the destruction of poppies in 835 of the country’s 2,465 municipalities. The U.S. government affirms that in 2016 Mexico had 32,000 hectares of opium production, which increased to 44,100 in 2017.
  • Reports on eradicated surfaces in 5 municipalities exceed 20,000 hectares in a period of 17 years (in Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, and Guerrero), while figures for other 253 report destructions of less than one hectare (2003-2019).
  • Only a few municipalities appear every year in SEDENA’s eradication database. From 2003 to 2019, only 15 are registered in every year, in contrast to 277 that were theaters for the destruction of plantations in only one of those 17 years.
  • Based on the magnitude of registered destructions and their recurrence, we identified a group of 59 municipalities that we denominate “poppy” municipalities (municipios amapoleros) – see maps in the dossier.
  • The opium gum extracted from the flowers is transformed into heroin in Mexico and exported –almost in its entirety– to the United States and Canada, where it represents around 90% of the consumption market.
  • The crisis of the poppy market between 2017 and 2020 (see Noria’s report No More Opium for the Masses, 2019), was in part due to the introduction of fentanyl (a much more potent and profitable synthetic opioid) into the US and Canadian markets. This has provoked a fall of over 90% in the per-kilo price offered to peasants over the period.
  • In mid-2020, prices recovered. In early 2021, our estimates of the average price offered to peasants per kilo of gum (in Mexican pesos) are: – $16,000/kilo at the national level ($770 USD/kilo): Sinaloa, $17,000/kilo ($820 USD/kilo); Guerrero, $15,000/kilo ($725 USD/kilo). – Variations are large within growing regions: in Guerrero (Mexico’s leading producer) prices range from $8,000/kilo ($380 USD/kilo) in the Montaña to $21,000/kilo ($1,000 USD/kilo) in the Sierra.
  • At the local level, the Covid-19 pandemic does not seem to have affected drug production and trafficking. Activities related to poppy cultivation continue without any specific contretemps. Yet, the social and economic impact within some of the most marginalized regions of the country are catastrophic, and far from being attend by the government.

10 Key Ideas

  • Mexico is one of the world’s principal producers of illegal poppies and heroin. This reality, one of the pillars of the country’s “war on drugs”, contrasts sharply with the scarcity of studies that seek to understand what this market represents in the social, economic, political, and agricultural panorama of the country.
  • In the productive chain of heroin, much of the money generated is captured by legal and illegal intermediaries. This means that the fantastic profitability of the final product has an almost null structural impact on inequalities, discrimination, criminalization, or the lack of State investment.
  • The drug derived from poppies represents an illegal resource that perturbs social and economic equilibria. The boom of the poppy economy in the years 1980-1990 represents a brutal turn that severely shook up perspectives on work, relations between rural and urban spaces, and the way in which the Mexican State relates to marginal territories.
  • The poppy boom is associated with structural reforms implemented by the Mexican State in the 1980s and 90s that culminated with the signing of the Free Trade Agreement (TLCAN-1994). This transformed certain areas into regional and international agricultural powers (like Sinaloa or Michoacán), while increasingly converting others, like Guerrero, into sources of cheap labor.
  • At the local level, poppy production is no secret. People in production zones know where and when poppies are cultivated, and who grows them. This includes authorities and public forces. The boom of illicit crops, then, does not occur behind the State’s back but is articulated with political-economic interests that have not been studied sufficiently.
  • The understanding of illicit crops production in Mexico is severely limited by the absence of any systematic recording that would make it possible to monitor their evolution over time, their territorial distribution, and the basic characteristics of production (surface areas planted, prices, and yields, among other aspects).
  • Profitability of illicit crops lies in (i) demand and (ii) the illegal nature of the product. Consumption markets incentivize production, and remuneration is high due to the risks and necessary expenses, such as transport and corruption costs. Each time the product passes through the hands of intermediaries, the price multiplies, but these participants capture the lion’s share of profits, not the growers.
  • The issue of illicit crops is not only a rural phenomenon. Earnings generated by the drug market flow constantly between cities and peripheries, nourishing entire local economies.
  • It is crucial to consider the less “cinematographic” aspects of illicit economies: the business side, and the local-regional infrastructures required for them to function. The development of drug-trafficking cannot be understood if we fail to recognize that everything that facilitates legal commerce has the same effect on illegal trade.
  • Since 2017, fentanyl has upset the poppy and heroin markets. No one, neither growers nor analysts, had foreseen the crisis of the gum market. We are ill-prepared to conceptualize the idea of a crisis of the market for drugs, accustomed –obsessed? – as we are with their supposed perpetual expansion, profitability, and vitality.

10 Conclusions

  • Farmers’ participation in producing and trafficking drugs has represented a survival strategy in a context of exploitative economic relations. Illicit economies constitute one route for escaping from a subaltern position in a context of chronic economic and social crises in the Mexican countryside.
  • In the productive chain of heroin, much of the money generated is captured by legal and illegal intermediaries. This means that the fantastic profitability of the final product has an almost null structural impact on inequalities, discrimination, criminalization, or the lack of State investment.
  • Illicit crops cannot develop without relations with the State. Far from observing the absence of the State, our work reveals an absolute distrust on the part of inhabitants towards public authorities, despite constant interaction with them. What matters here, then, is understanding qualitatively how public authorities are present and behave.
  • The studies that describe drug markets as mechanical, predictable, easy-to-read worlds could not possibly be further from reality. We find complex networks of intermediation, ephemeral realities, and constants impositions, fluctuations, and threats.
  • Drug markets depend on a succession of actors –both public and private– that link producers to consumers. Through this form of labor organization, peasants have been converted into specialized “poppy workers” as growers, labourers, slitters (rayadores), transporters (corredores), gatherers (acopiadores), heroin cooks, traffickers, or hitmen.
  • Poppy production has been related to the peasantry. The high prices that were maintained between the 1990s and 2017 contributed to limiting migration (except in the Montaña region of Guerrero). Yet, the crisis of 2017 caused a new exodus of workers towards the cities and poles of agroindustry in northern areas of Mexico.
  • Illicit markets do not flourish in an economic or political vacuum. The comparative advantage of certain territories for drug-trafficking –like Sinaloa– resides in the power of legal commercial infrastructures. Its dynamism and competitiveness, anchored in the licit economy, provide the best support for illicit economies as well. Analyzing these, then, is essential for understanding drug-trafficking and its contemporary evolutions.
  • Gum prices have recovered since mid-2020. Yet, the 2017 crisis still has dramatic social consequences that are felt even more acutely in indigenous regions (the Montaña of Guerrero and the Sierra of Nayarit). Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated such precariousness without weakening the drug trade in any substantial way.
  • War on drugs and State interventions have converted subsistence farmers into efficient drug producers. At the same time, they contributed to strengthening identities –principally indigenous– and resistance against State or criminal groups’ domination.
  • Numerous studies have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected drug trade. Despite the months of fieldwork, we are still unable to support this hypothesis. This serves as a reminder that we know very little about the mechanisms that nourish illicit markets and trigger their fluctuations. Hence, we need to produce more independent data that shall provide a better understanding. On opium production, the only data available are the ones provided by SEDENA regarding its eradication activities. It is urgent that we find a way out of this situation.