Fields of opium poppies may conjure up memories of Remembrance Day, or perhaps of Afghanistan. Less likely, is that they bring up images of Mexico even though by some estimates it supplies 90 percent of the heroin available in the United States. Heroin, I should mention, is manufactured from the gum that is extracted from opium poppies. While Mexico is not the largest producer of heroin, its proximity to the United States, the largest illicit drug market in the world, make it a key actor in understanding this illicit market.
Yet, despite its relevance, we know little of the political economy of opium poppy cultivation in Mexico. The “Mexico Opium Project” led by Noria Research and in which the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies collaborated along with the think-tank Mexico Unido Contra la Delincuencia and the Sinaloa-based Revista Espejo sought to fill this important data vacuum by answering important questions about opium production in Mexico and what it reveals about the failed “War on Drugs”. Outputs of the project available both in English and Spanish include six short essays based on field work exploring variations in opium growing regions in the states of Nayarit, Guerrero, Durango, and Sinaloa including an analysis based on original data of the legal crops grown in conjunction with opium poppies.
As one of the researchers for the project I cannot recommend enough that you read all the essays. One of the central findings is that the popular representations of “narcos” have little to do with the dynamics we observed in opium growing regions of Mexico. However, while the essays make it onto your reading list (or one of the 50 tabs you may currently have open on your computer) I share 10 key facts and findings:
1. Poppies have been cultivated in the Golden Triangle (Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua) for over 60 years, and for almost 40 in Guerrero. Over four generations of residents have been active in poppy production.
2. 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).
3. Based on the magnitude of registered destructions by the Mexican Army and their recurrence, we identified a group of 59 municipalities that we denominate “poppy” municipalities (See maps).
4. 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.
5. Illicit crops cannot develop without relations with the state. Far from observing the absence of the Mexican 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 in these regions.
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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 (US $770 per 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.
9. Numerous reports have argued that the Covid-19 pandemic has affected drug trade. Despite 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 provides a better understanding. On opium production, the only data available are the ones provided by Mexico’s National Defense Secretariat (SEDENA) regarding its eradication activities. It is urgent that we find a way out of this situation.
10. Farmers’ participation in producing and trafficking drugs has represented a survival strategy in a context of exploitative economic relations. Illicit economies constitute one way for escaping from a subaltern position in a context of chronic economic and social crises in the Mexican countryside.
* Cecilia Farfán Méndez is head of Security Research Programs at the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California San Diego (UCSD). Twitter: @farfan_cc