The Mexican army says its fight against surging opium production that feeds U.S demand is increasingly complicated by the rise of smaller gangs disputing wild, ungoverned lands planted with ever-stronger poppy strains.
The gangs have engulfed the state of Guerrero in a war to control poppy fields, turning inaccessible mountain valleys of endemic poverty and famous beach resorts into Mexico’s bloodiest spots.
The army sends platoons of troops on foot for month-long expeditions to seek and destroy poppy fields every season. They set up camps and fan through treacherous terrain, part of a campaign that destroys tens of thousands of fields a year.
One such field visited by Reuters was deep in a lawless region of Guerrero through winding dirt roads thick with dust that rose into the mountains.
It was irrigated by a lawn sprinkler mounted on a pole that spritzed water over less than a hectare of poppies and fertilizer bags were piled nearby, basic farming techniques the soldiers nevertheless said were a sign of growers’ new sophistication.
A dozen troops fanned out, chopping down the flowers with machetes.
Army Lieut. Col. Juan Jose Moreno Urzua said poppy-related violence is skyrocketing in Guerrero as drug traffickers fight over the region’s crops.
“Violence has increased in Guerrero, say, by 50 per cent, 100 per cent because now we have nine or 10 groups fighting in the area, fighting over poppy production.”
Moreno Urzua said that Guerrero’s poppies produce some of the best opium gum in the world due to “geographic peculiarities.”
“Now we are facing an improved seed, hybrids. So we don’t have plants with one or three buds. Now we are faced with plants more resistant to inclement weather and with greater production,” he said. “We have plants with an average of 12 to 15 buds. That is what has increased production.”
Col. Isaac Aaron Jesus Garcia, who runs a base in one of the state’s most unruly cities, Ciudad Altamirano, said that violence increased two years ago when a third gang, Los Viagra, began a grab for territory. He said large poppy plantations have disappeared and are being replaced with smaller fields in hopes of escaping detection.
Bodies are discovered almost daily across the state, tossed by roads, some buried in mass graves. In Ciudad Altamirano, the mayor was killed last year and a journalist gunned down in March at a car wash.
From this frontline of the fight against heroin, Jesus Garcia sees a direct link between a record U.S. heroin epidemic that killed nearly 13,000 people in 2015 and violence on his patch.
Heroin use in the United States has risen five-fold in the past decade and addiction has more than tripled, with the biggest jumps among whites and men with low incomes.