Mexican troops are in the streets to fight the drug war, and the country’s defence chief says legalisation may be ‘a way out’

John Kelly Mexico Guerrero opium poppy heroin
Cienfuegos shows then-US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly opium-poppy eradication operations in Guerrero, July 6, 2017. Mexican Defence Secretariat/Twitter
  • Mexico’s defence minister said Friday that legalization could be a solution to the problem of drug-related violence in the country’s southwest.
  • Officials in Mexico have already pushed for legalization as a way to reduce bloodshed, and the incoming government has said it will consider such a policy.
  • Mexico is the world’s third-largest producer of opium and a major transshipment zone for cocaine.

The head of Mexico’s defence ministry said on Friday that the legalization of opium could help resolve drug-related violence that has spiked throughout the country in recent years.

During a ceremony to open a military base in the town of Teloloapan in northeastern Guerrero, Mexican army Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos said legalization of opium for scientific and medicinal purposes was “already on the table.”

“I think it can be a way out of the problem [of violence],” he told reporters. But, he added, there were concerns about “the security of the farmers” who would stop selling opium to drug traffickers and instead supply it to the government “to make morphine used to treat the pain in patients.”

Guerrero is one of Mexico’s main opium producers and one of its most violent states. Soldiers have destroyed thousands of acres of opium crops there in recent years, but rule of law is scant, criminal groups are pervasive, and growers, who often lack other economic options, continue to plant.

In 2016, the governor of the state, Hector Astudillo, proposed regulating opium for medicinal uses with the goal of taking business away from criminal groups. Astudillo said at the time he thought “it would help lower the level of violence a lot.”

Earlier this year, Astudillo backed a proposal by the government of incoming President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to decriminalize the cultivation of opium poppies. Olga Sanchez, who Lopez Obrador has tapped as interior minister, has said the administration will look at regulating opium production for pharmaceutical use.

Sanchez has also proposed legalization as a way to fight violence in places like Guerrero, and Lopez Obrador has suggested a negotiated peace and amnesty for non-violent dealers, traffickers, and farmers involved in the drug trade.

“It’s time,” Astudillo said in July, a few weeks after Lopez Obrador’s landslide election win. “I’m delighted that a different way of dealing with the poppy is finally going to be explored.”

Lawmakers from Guerrero sent a draft bill for the legalization of cultivation, production, and sale of opium to the federal congress in August.

“It is a subject that will have to be debated. In principle, it seems to me that it is correct,” Cienfuegos said on Friday. “It is a proposal that the governor already made a while ago as well. We will have to see how it works.”

Cienfuegos is the senior-most Mexican military official, overseeing the thousands of troops who have been sent into the streets to fight crime and into the sierras to eradicate illegal crops.

He has criticised that deployment of the military in the past, but his comments on Friday are the first of their kind from a high-ranking military officer.

Guerrero has consistently been one of the most violent states in Mexico. Its homicide rate rose from 56.5 per 100,000 people in 2015 to 61.6 in 2016 and to 64 in 2017.

The number of homicide victims there has risen steadily over the past three years, from 2,016 in 2015 to 2,213 in 2016 and to 2,522 last year, according to government data. With 1,707 homicide victims through August, Guerrero is on pace to slightly exceed last year’s total.

The state has a long history of political violence, stemming in large part from land disputes.

Grafted onto that has been drug-related violence, which is stoked both by smaller groups that compete for control of production and other criminal enterprises and by larger groups with a national presence that compete over control of transshipment routes.

Those routes include a valuable overland corridor to Mexico City, which is northeast of the state, and land and maritime routes through Acapulco, which has become one of the most violent cities in the world, nicknamed “Guerrero’s Iraq.”

Mexico is the third-largest producer of opium in the world, behind Afghanistan and Myanmar, and 60% of that production is believed to take place in Guerrero.

Some 100,000 people are involved in the trade in Guerrero, focusing on producing opium for export to the US, according to growers, though the already impoverished region is experiencing deep economic crisis from declining opium prices.