After legalizing marijuana in several states, the U.S. was able to cut off a massive flow of cash to Mexican drug cartels. And while the lack of funds certainly hurt, Mexican drug organizations have regrouped and shifted focus.
Instead of marijuana, cartels are now focusing on other money-making drugs – namely heroin – leaving poppy farmers in the poorest parts of the country in a precarious position.
The Dark Side of Supply and Demand
The Filo Mayor Mountains, located in the southern state of Guerro, are the main source of opium-filled bulbs used to make heroin. Farmers here can make about $900 for one kilogram of opium paste, compared to just $17 for one kilogram of marijuana. After the poppy plants finish flowering (about three months into the winter season), farmers are able to collect about 300 grams of opium paste using little more than a metal scraping pan.
Though there’s more money to be made, opium farmers in this area are hardly in an ideal situation. Many live in shacks without indoor plumbing. And, thanks to the Mexican government’s version of “war on drugs,” helicopters now have the authority to spray pesticides on any opium field they find. If spotted, farmers run the risk of losing a season’s worth of work in the span of just a few minutes.
The drug growing and subsequent profit that comes from it has also led to yet another surge in gang violence, this time spreading throughout small villages in towns like Guerrero. On top of that, most of the villagers believe the government money spent on spraying pesticides from helicopters would be better used on creating long-term development projects.
A Love/Hate Enterprise
As things stand today, very few of these Mexican opium farmers personally use the drug. What’s more, they openly speak of their disdain for the business as a whole. Despite negative feelings, however, more Mexican opium and heroin is being farmed, produced and smuggled across the U.S. border than ever before.
"Almost everyone thinks the people in these mountains are bad people, and that's not true," said Humberto Nava Reyna, the head of the Supreme Council of the Towns of the Filo Mayor, a group that promotes development projects in the mountains. "They can't stop planting poppies as long as there is demand, and the government doesn't provide any help."
The Inevitable Rise of Violence and Crime
As you would expect, the increased demand and trafficking of opium drugs have resulted in much more crime and bloodshed. And that’s true for both sides of the border.
The DEA’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment noted that Mexico produces almost half of the heroin sold on U.S. streets, up from 39 percent in 2008. Heroin seizures across the U.S. border have tripled since 2009, while opium paste seizures in Mexico have increased by a staggering 500 percent between 2013 and 2014. Unsurprisingly, heroin-related deaths have doubled in the U.S. between 2011 and 2013.
A large part of the drug cartel push to get Mexican heroin onto American soil is due to a general decline in U.S. consumption of cocaine. However, the rise in prescription painkiller abuse throughout the U.S is the main culprit of this opium trend. More and more people are switching from opiate painkillers to heroin, as it provides a longer-lasting high and its cost is significantly cheaper. Believe it or not, a single hit of heroin can cost as little as $10 on the streets, often making it more expensive to buy a six-pack of beer.
Learn more about drug abuse and the resulting effects on your body and mind.
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