Pubdate: Mon, 08 Jul 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Kirk Semple


SAN MIGUEL AMOLTEPEC VIEJO, Mexico - For years, two young brothers,
like many other farmers in their poor, mountainous region of southwest
Mexico, found salvation in the opium poppy. They bled the milky latex
from its pods and the profits made their hard lives a little easier.

The fact that this substance was the raw material for most of the
heroin consumed in the United States was of little concern to the
family, if they even knew it at all. But then changes in that distant
market for illegal drugs made the price of the dried opium latex plummet.

"I don't know what happened and suddenly the price fell," recalled the
older brother Ricardo, 19, who was raised here in San Miguel Amoltepec
Viejo, a tiny hamlet in the La Montana region of Guerrero state. "We
could no longer buy a lot of things: corn, all the

The crop had once yielded profits beyond any other. But a price drop
of about 90 percent over the past year and a half has plunged farmers
in this village and hundreds of others scattered across the rugged
slopes of La Montana, into extreme poverty.

Many of them have joined the soaring numbers of Central Americans and
others who have migrated north, causing a crisis along the
southwestern American border that has worsened tensions between Mexico
and the Trump administration.

Ricardo and his 17-year-old brother were among them. They now pick
strawberries in California. Ricardo asked to be identified by his
first name only because he is an undocumented immigrant.

The reason for the sudden fall in opium demand is a matter of
speculation, but is almost certainly related to changes in the supply
and demand of illegal drugs in the United States, officials and
experts in Mexico and the United States say.

Some evidence is emerging that fentanyl, a powerful and highly
addictive synthetic opiate, is replacing heroin and other drugs,
particularly on the East Coast. The soaring production of heroin in
recent years may also have accounted for the recent drop.

The area under poppy cultivation in Mexico reached a record high in
2017, rising 38 percent from the previous year, according to
statistics from the Drug Enforcement Administration. Over the same
period, heroin production increased by a similar percentage, rising to
more than 122 tons in 2017 from about 89 tons the year before, perhaps
creating a glut in the market, officials and experts say.

In the largely indigenous farming communities of the La Montana
region, however, there is only bewilderment about the fact that
something so lucrative has suddenly become so worthless.

The numbers are stark: At the market's peak in 2017, the farmers were
selling their opium resin for as much as $590 per pound. It currently
fetches no more than $50 per pound.

Mountain slopes that were once blanketed with the plant, its pink,
purple and red flowers lending a burst of vibrancy to an otherwise
dusty landscape, now lie fallow or have been replaced by subsistence
crops - mainly corn.

There is widespread bewilderment about the cause of the precipitous
drop in demand. The word "fentanyl" is met with puzzled looks. Few
residents even admit to knowing that the opium resin is converted into
drugs for consumption in the United States.

"We heard on the news that it was used in pills," said Delfino Moran
Ramirez, 43, a community leader in Ahuixotitla, another agricultural
hamlet in the La Montana region. "But beyond that, no."

Still, residents of this area - one of the most impoverished regions
in Mexico and long-ignored by the government - know full well the pain
inflicted by the price drop.

"The cultivation of poppy was so that your kids could go to school, so
you could buy clothes, so you could get something extra," said Abel
Barrera, director of Tlachinollan, a human rights group that works
among the communities of the La Montana region. It meant simple
improvements in the quality of life, like the addition of eggs to the
diet, or meat on a family's plates more than once a week.

"Because of that, the poppy became a magic plant: It permitted you to
breathe economically," Mr. Barrera said. "The fact that it was an
illegal crop didn't matter."

Higher incomes also allowed people to stay home instead of migrating,
as earlier generations had done, in search of more lucrative work.
Families remained together. Parents could watch their children grow
up. The community felt stronger.

But when the income from opium poppy evaporated, many families were
left with nothing, having shifted all their agricultural efforts to
that single crop.

"The people were left exposed," Mr. Barrera said.

And in short order, large-scale migration from the region resumed,
rupturing families and the communal fabric.

Most of those who have left the La Montana region have chosen
destinations within Mexico, finding work in the agricultural fields
and factories of other, wealthier states. But many others have headed
to the United States, particularly to agricultural communities in
California where enclaves of migrants from Guerrero have put down roots.

Migration has gutted hamlets throughout the area.

Before the crisis began, there were about 500 residents in San Miguel
Amoltepec Viejo, which sits on the edge of a steep valley. Now there
are fewer than 300.

About 20 of those who left have migrated to the United States, mostly
younger men, said Celso Santiago Cayetano, a community leader. But at
least a third of the cement-block houses now sit empty, their owners
having migrated.

Many families have been broken up by migration, with the men going off
to look for work, and those remaining behind surviving on

"At least with the poppy, the family would work the fields together,"
Mr. Cayetano said.

Among those who remain behind in the former poppy communities of La
Montana, most are at least thinking about migrating themselves.

Filiberto, 26, a farmer in the hamlet of Ahuixotitla, said that for
about eight years, he cultivated opium poppy on a plot of land that
produced several pounds of opium resin a year. The income allowed him
to stay in Ahuixotitla and raise his two children, now 4 and 5.

But he now plans to contract a migrant smuggler to help him get to the
United States. His departure is set for August.

"I don't want to go, but there isn't money," he said, providing only
his first name out of concern that the government might seek to punish
him. "You're always lacking money here."

His 17-year-old brother also plans to migrate to the United States.
And their mother, Juliana, can only watch as her family comes apart.

"I don't want them to go, but they want to go," she said. "It's sad
because there isn't any work."

When times were flush, buyers or "mules" would arrive in Ahuixotitla,
sometimes as often as twice a day, to buy freshly harvested opium, and
farmers with product to sell would gather it from their homes and head
down the mountain to make the sale.

The resin was transported to small labs elsewhere in the country,
where it was turned into heroin and then smuggled across Mexico's
northern border into the United States.

These days, the mules come around maybe once a month - if at

On a recent morning in Ahuixotitla, the hamlet was making final
preparations for the annual three-day festival dedicated to the
community's patron saint, a high point in the year's social calendar.

In better times, the hamlet's leadership donated four cows to feed the
participants. This year, they could only afford one. Before, they
bankrolled hundreds of cases of beer, but this year they could only
spring for six.

The economic slump has bred resentment toward the federal government,
with the growing bitterness concentrated on President Andres Manuel
Lopez Obrador, who in April acknowledged the crisis affecting the
poppy farmers in Guerrero.

"We're taking care of this situation," the president said at a news
conference. "Many are being taken care of and they will all be taken
care of."

But residents of La Montana say promises of financial aid and crop
substitution programs have not materialized, and many have begun to
regret casting their vote for the president in last year's election.

Some are counting on a rebound in the demand and have stockpiled a few
pounds of opium in the hope that the prices go back up. And some
experts say that's not an unreasonable expectation: illegal drug
markets are highly elastic, and tastes shift.

In the meantime, the struggle is to figure out how to make it through
the day, and that calculus is increasingly involving migration.

"Even more are going to go," predicted Mr. Cayetano, the community
leader here in San Miguel Amoltepec Viejo. But he was hopeful that
better days lay ahead.

"The migrants are going to come back," he said. "God willing."
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MAP posted-by: Matt