Pubdate: Sun, 29 Jun 2003
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2003 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Marion Lloyd
Bookmark: (Heroin)


Crop a hedge against poverty

CENTRAL GUERRERO STATE, Mexico - The latest strategy for warding off
starvation in the highlands here is a bulb-shaped plant that farmers
innocuously refer to as ''round corn.''

This is not some miracle food crop. It is a high-yield variety of opium
poppy, whose deadly byproduct - heroin - is destined for the streets of US
cities from Los Angeles to New York. Mexican heroin accounted for 30 percent
of the drug sold in the United States in 2001, according to the most recent
survey from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

While farmers in Guerrero's near-impassible mountains have been growing
opium poppies since the 1970s, production has surged in the past decade,
according to US and Mexican government officials. The drug increasingly is
being grown instead of traditional crops like corn and coffee, whose prices
have plummeted since the mid-1990s.

''There is so much poverty and no help from the government, so the people
have no other choice but to plant poppies,'' said a local official in charge
of resolving land disputes in a remote village east of Acapulco. The man
asked that neither he nor the village be identified for fear of reprisals
from area drug traffickers.

He said the number of farmers in the region planting opium poppies had
skyrocketed in recent years, despite an aggressive government eradication
program that destroys thousands of acres of the reddish-pink flowers each

The reason is simple financial logic. A pound of opium gum fetches $750 in
the mountains and $1,200 in the regional market center of Tlapa de
Comonfort. In contrast, corn sells for 20 cents a pound, and coffee - once
called brown gold for its high price - sells for a meager 15 cents a pound
at the market.

Guerrero accounts for 51 percent of opium poppies grown in Mexico, with
another seven western states accounting for the rest, according to Carlos
Luque, director of the federal government's Center for Drug Control.

''Clearly, Guerrero is a problem,'' he said, adding that government
eradication programs were insufficient. Mexican soldiers destroyed 65,000
acres of poppies last year, up from 54,000 acres in 2000, an increase that
antinarcotics officials attributed to the growing presence of the plant.

It is not just the increase in poppy production that is worrying US and
Mexican officials. It's the purity. Mexican traffickers are following the
lead of the Colombians - who produce nearly 70 percent of all heroin sold in
the United States - in developing a new, more refined variety that can be
snorted instead of injected. The purer form of the drug has been linked to
an increase in heroin overdoses in the United States - from 630,000 in 1992
to 977,000 in 2002, according to DEA figures. The new drug is appealing to
more middle-class Americans.

''You get away from the stigma of the needle, which has been one of the
problems that we have had up here, especially on the East Coast,'' said
agent Will Glaspy, a DEA spokesman in Washington, D.C. ''Kids are now
looking at this stuff and saying, `Hey, well look, everyone else is having a
good time on this.' And that's leading to a big problem from Baltimore to

The number of heroin addicts admitted to drug treatment clinics in
Massachusetts has tripled since 1992, according to state government figures.

Most of the heroin being used east of the Mississippi is the white Colombian
variety, while Mexican brown or black tar heroin dominates in the West.
Mexican traffickers are making inroads in the East Coast market by
developing their own version of purer, white heroin, according to DEA

Heroin presents a challenge for antinarcotics officials. Unlike cocaine,
which is grown on large fields at lower altitudes, opium poppies are grown
in scattered plots in high mountains that are harder for antinarcotics
squads to reach.

In March, three Mexican police helicopters crashed in Guerrero while
spraying poppy fields with herbicide to kill the plants. Two of the
helicopters were shot down by suspected drug traffickers defending their
crops, according to the federal attorney general's office. The incident
sparked fears that Colombian-style drug violence might be spreading to

In addition, heroin can be processed in tiny portable labs that can be
easily hidden.

Typically, however, the farmers sell raw opium gum to middlemen, who then
smuggle it to nearby towns inside trucks carrying soft drinks that make
daily trips into the mountains, according to the land official and other

Human rights activists, who question the government's version of the
helicopter crashes, say the government is exaggerating the heroin threat in
Guerrero to justify the increased militarization of the region. They argue
that rather than going after small poppy growers - the majority of whom are
impoverished Indians - the government should create jobs in the region so
that the farmers are not forced to grow drugs.

''We're talking about people who are really poor. They are the slaves of the
drug trade,'' said Abel Barrera, director of a human rights group in Tlapa
de Comonfort. ''They only know what they grow, and that's it.''

He said most farmers do not get rich growing poppies, since they were
limited to tiny plots along steep ravines, areas out of reach of police

While drug production has made some farmers better off, it also has
increased the level of violence in a region already plagued by armed
conflict. Guerrilla groups have been active in Guerrero since the 1970s, and
disputes over illegal logging have claimed dozens of lives over the past

As a result, many farmers have used the profits from selling the poppies to
buy guns, according to the land official. He described the fallout in his
village after the army wiped out the poppy fields in 2000, ending three
years in which half the town was involved in drug production.

Within a year, he said, seven people were murdered, apparently while
settling drug disputes.

Today, there is no evidence that his village ever tasted economic good
times. Most of the 700 residents still live in sagging adobe houses along
mud streets. The only exceptions are the few dozen families who have
relatives working illegally in the United States or the few who have managed
to buy trucks and can charge residents $5 for a ride to the nearest town,
four hours away.

The rest talk enviously of the nearby villages that are still growing
poppies. ''We should have been bolder and offered the army money to leave
our crops alone,'' the land official said. ''That way, we would still have
some hope.''
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