MEXICO’S OPIUM BOOM: ‘The cartels have a pretty good handle on the appetite in the US’

Heroin use has increased for men and women of all age groups and across all income levels in the US, according to the Centres for Disease Control.

Between 2007 and 2013, the number of users of the drug in the US nearly doubled.

That surge in use has been accompanied by a boom in opium production in Mexico, where officials estimate cultivation of the crop increased by 50% in 2014.

Heightened American demand for the drug has been spurred on by a crackdown on painkiller abuse, which has pushed users to search for a new high. Impoverished farmers in Mexico, as well as opportunistic drug cartels working in both countries, have capitalised on the rise in demand for the lucrative drug.

“The cartels have a pretty good handle on the appetite in the US,” Jack Riley, the deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, told The New York Times.

“They understand the prescription drug issue here, and that is one of the major reasons why you are seeing the expansion of poppy production.”

According to farmers involved in the opium trade and officials who track it, the flow of the drug is controlled by the Sinaloa cartel of Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who tunneled out of one of Mexico’s most secure prisons in July to rejoin his organisation.

The Sinaloa cartel rose out of Sinaloa state, a rugged area dominated by the Sierra Madre Mountains that run along Mexico’s west coast.

Mexico guerro
The Sinaloa cartel controls much of the drug trade in Mexico, including in Guerrero state, where violence and weak governance have allowed drug cultivation to thrive. Google Maps/Amanda Macias/Business Insider

Sinaloa’s marijuana and poppy seed fields in Mexico reportedly cover an area larger than Costa Rica, and opium cultivation thrives in remote, mountainous regions where the crops can be hidden and where the Mexican state cannot effectively govern.

The Sinaloa cartel is generally regarded as the world’s most powerful drug cartel, and Guzmán has risen to be the world’s most powerful kingpin, no matter whether he happens to be in jail or not.

In addition to its control of production in Mexico, Sinaloa reportedly controls 35% of the cocaine made in Colombia, the world’s largest producer of that drug. And, according to the DEA in 2013, “supplies 80% of the heroin, cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine — with a street value of $US3 billion — that floods the Chicago region each year.

As The New York Times notes, the violence-wracked state of Guerrero is a hotbed for opium production. Clashes between criminal groups and drug cartels in Guerrero have paralysed much of the state, which is home to the idyllic beach town of Acapulco.

Despite the resorts and beaches, Guerrero’s governor has compared the state to Afghanistan, the landlocked country that is the world’s leading producer of opium.

“We are pretty much in the same place, even though we are just one state and they are a country,” said Gov. Rogelio Ortega Martínez.

Guerrero has not experienced the 30 years of war that have blighted Afghanistan. But, according to one farmer in a remote town in the state, Guerrero is far from stable.

“There is not real order here. We are governed by narcos,” the farmer told The New York Times.

Guerrero was also the scene of the disappearance of 43 students in September last year. It is not believed that the students were abducted by police, who then turned them over to a local gang. The students were reportedly executed and their bodies incinerated.

Opium is a hearty crop that produces two harvests a year, The Times notes. It is in such demand that drug cartels travel to the remote corners of the country were farmers produce it and purchase it directly.

For the farmers, producing opium and other drugs “has a certain logic,” and many don’t linger on the ethical implications of it.

“The fault is not with those who cultivate the opium,” José Luis Garcia, a farmer who leases land for opium crops, told The Times.

“It’s with the idiots who consume it.”

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