Pubdate: Sun, 30 Aug 2015
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2015 The New York Times Company
Author: Azam Ahmed
Page: A1


EL CALVARIO, Mexico - With her nimble hands, tiny feet and low center 
of gravity, Angelica Guerrero Ortega makes an excellent opium harvester.

Deployed along the Sierra Madre del Sur, where a record poppy crop 
covers the mountainsides in strokes of green, pink and purple, she 
navigates the inclines with the deftness of a ballerina.

Though shy, she perks up when describing her craft: the delicate 
slits to the bulb, the patient scraping of the gum, earning in one 
day more than her parents do in a week.

That she is only 15 is not so important for the people of her tiny 
mountain hamlet. If she and her classmates miss school for the 
harvest, so be it. In a landscape of fallow opportunities, income 
outweighs education.

"It is the best option for us," Angelica said, leaning against a 
wood-plank house in her village, where nearly all of the children 
work the fields. "Back down in the city, there is nothing for us, no 

As heroin addiction soars in the United States, a boom is underway 
south of the border, reflecting the two nations' troubled symbiosis. 
Officials from both countries say that Mexican opium production 
increased by an estimated 50 percent in 2014 alone, the result of a 
voracious American appetite, impoverished farmers in Mexico and 
entrepreneurial drug cartels that straddle the border.

Abusers of prescription pharmaceuticals in America are looking for 
cheaper highs, as a crackdown on painkiller abuse has made the habit 
highly expensive. And the legalization of marijuana in some states 
has pushed down prices, leading many Mexican farmers to switch crops. 
Cartels, meanwhile, have adapted, edging into American markets once 
reserved for higher quality heroin from Southeast Asia while pressing 
out of urban centers into suburbs and rural communities.

"The cartels have a pretty good handle on the appetite in the U.S.," 
said Jack Riley, the deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement 
Administration. "They understand the prescription drug issue here, 
and that is one of the major reasons why you are seeing the expansion 
of poppy production."

The results have rattled both nations. In the United States, where 
deaths from heroin overdose surged 175 percent between 2010 and 2014, 
politicians and drug enforcement agents are scrambling to respond. In 
Mexico, where cartel violence has pulsed through the nation, bringing 
the deaths and disappearances of thousands, the government reports 
that it eradicated a record number of hectares of poppy crops last year.

Nowhere is the toll of that surge more apparent than in Guerrero, the 
country's most violent state, where rival drug factions perpetrate a 
war of bloody competition and silent disappearances that have 
paralyzed the region. Here, farmers are increasingly opting to grow 
poppies, cloaking remote mountainsides in the robust crop to eke out 
a living in places like Calvario where, as far as most are concerned, 
the government barely exists. To meet the demand, children are 
enlisted in the harvest, out of necessity and convenience. The money 
is too much to ignore for most, and the tricky terrain more 
manageable for those with slighter frames.

The governor of Guerrero recently likened his state to Afghanistan, 
the world's largest opium producer.

"We are pretty much in the same place, even though we are just one 
state and they are a country," said Gov. Rogelio Ortega Martinez, 
whose state has seen the sharpest increase in opium production nationwide.

But unlike Afghanistan, a nation writhing under the weight of more 
than three decades of conflict, Guerrero is not an all-out war zone. 
The state capital has a Burger King and a McDonald's. Guerrero is 
also home to the famous beaches and resorts of Acapulco.

But where children like Angelica scale steep mountainsides to lance 
poppies and collect the gummy brown opium that seeps out, there is an 
eerie similarity with Afghanistan. In both places, the near absence 
of the state allows the industry to flourish.

"It is not the drug production that generates underdevelopment," said 
Antonio Mazzitelli, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs 
and Crime in Mexico. "It is the lack of development that generates 
the opium cultivation."

Or, in the words of one farmer in Calvario: "There is no real order 
here. We are governed by narcos."

Not that anyone in Calvario much cares for - or even knows - of the 
broader debate over the drug trade. Villagers see little harm in 
cultivating opium. No one here uses the drug, or its derivative 
heroin, and the day rate for labor in the poppy fields is many times 
what is paid for shucking corn.

Isolation breeds a certain detachment. Calvario, though just a few 
miles from the state capital, is marooned an hour's drive up unpaved 
mountain switchbacks littered with boulders and ruts. In the village 
of around 100 people, there is limited awareness of the outside 
world. Some farmers are not entirely clear what opium is even used for.

Jose Luis Garcia, a farmer in Calvario who leases his land for opium 
cultivation, asked more than once what exactly it was about poppies 
that drove Americans so crazy. After hearing of the epidemic of 
addiction in the United States, Mr. Garcia paused for a moment to 
reflect on the ethics of growing poppies.

"The fault is not with those who cultivate the opium," he said. "It's 
with the idiots who consume it."

For years, Mexico has operated as much more than just a transport hub 
for drugs bound for the United States. In addition to opium poppy, 
the cartels grow marijuana and manufacture methamphetamines, textbook 
examples of the backward and forward links that business students 
might encounter in their coursework. By both growing and 
distributing, the drug cartels can keep more of the profit.

For farmers living in remote Calvario, opium cultivation has a 
certain logic. It is a hardy plant, with two growing seasons that 
yield a modest harvest in the summer and a more substantial one in 
the winter. Getting goods to market is also simple: The traffickers 
come to them, driving their flashy trucks into the remote village 
outposts and buying directly from the farmers.

Farmers and officials say the trade falls under the control of the 
Sinaloa cartel, the most sophisticated and organized of Mexico's drug 
gangs. The group is led by Joaquin Guzman Loera, better known as El 
Chapo, arguably the world's most notorious kingpin, who tunneled his 
way to freedom last month from Mexico's most secure prison.

His return to the drug game is seen as a good thing in the mountains 
of Guerrero.

"He will bring more money to the area," Mr. Garcia said. "He will 
make things easier."

As it stands, there is nothing easy about cultivating opium poppies 
in this unforgiving stretch of the country, stationed above the 
clouds at more than 10,000 feet. Perhaps the most tangible sign of 
the government's presence in Calvario is the lengths to which farmers 
must go to hide their opium cultivation.

Getting to Mr. Garcia's plot, which he used to cultivate himself but 
now leases, involved an hourlong, four-wheel drive obstacle course 
along chewed roads, followed by a nearly two-hour hike over hidden 
trails scratched into the remote folds of the Sierra Madre del Sur.

There, a mosaic of color blankets a vast hillside: emerald stalks 
dappled with purple, white and pink flowers. The hiss of an automatic 
sprinkler pierces the air, as water is spewed up and down the sheer 
incline. Dried, blackened tree stumps convey the land's recent 
clearing to make way for the field.

The steep grade and loamy earth make standing upright difficult, and 
on occasion adults tumble down the hillside and are injured, 
villagers say. That is where the children come in: Their slightness 
is an advantage come harvest time.

The children do not seem to mind. Several said opium was like any 
other crop they might be told to farm for their parents. Only it pays better.

"There aren't a lot of opportunities to earn money," said Arturo 
Guerrero, 13, seated with his two cousins early one morning this 
month. "We can't help support our families if we don't work."

The need to work is paramount - it is why both Arturo and his cousin 
Agustin, 17, dropped out of school this year. To attend high school, 
students from Calvario must live in the nearby town of Mazatlan 
because there is no daily transportation. The expense, combined with 
their lost wages, proved too much for their parents. The boys decided 
to quit school and return home to farm.

"We couldn't go and come back from the fields, and then also make it 
to school anymore," Agustin said.

The boys speak of the decision in a matter-of-fact way, without a 
trace of self-pity. They have dreams, of course. If they had their 
choice of careers, they would join the army, they said, again using 
the brutal calculus of poverty.

"Any other profession would require time, preparation and money," 
Angelica said. Being a soldier is "the easiest, shortest way to make 
money and help out my family."

But the aspiration is also a matter of exposure. They know soldiers. 
The Mexican Army turns up once a year in Calvario to conduct 
eradication campaigns, which helps explain why the villagers opt to 
grow their poppy crops in such remote areas.

While seemingly stationed on opposite sides of a heated divide, the 
villagers and the soldiers respect one another. The soldiers do not 
hassle them, villagers say, even if they suspect them of growing 
opium. The farmers, in turn, share their water with the teams of men, 
who camp on the outskirts of the village.

It was in this context that the children first encountered the 
soldiers. For a moment, the young boys in the village sounded their 
age when they described how, beyond a good salary, the idea of flying 
in helicopters and planes and carting around heavy weapons sounded like fun.

But they quickly jettisoned such frivolous talk.

"If I had the chance to keep studying, I would have liked to have 
been a soldier," Arturo said. "But that's all behind me now."

Paulina Villegas contributed reporting from El Calvario and Mexico City.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom