The acreage devoted to opium poppies has also soared, according to the U.S. State Department, making Mexico the second-leading heroin producer in the world, after Afghanistan, whose crop goes mostly to Europe and Asia.
Five years into the fight against Mexico’s drug cartels, the country’s sagging eradication efforts expose a major weakness in a U.S.-backed strategy whose leading goal for American officials has been a reduction in the amount of drugs on U.S. streets. With Mexican security forces busy fighting mafia gunmen in places such as Monterrey and Acapulco, their capacity — or commitment — to rip up rural marijuana and poppy plants has fallen off, sending a surge of fresh dope over the U.S. border.
U.S. officials say they are worried about increased drug production in Mexico but have limited ability to push for a more aggressive eradication campaign, given the Mexican government’s urgent need to do something about violence and insecurity in the cities. And by trying to seize high-value shipments of South American cocaine from the cartels and capture or kill top mafia leaders, both governments hope they can do more damage to the cartels’ networks and finances.
Mexican troops hacked and burned 77,500 acres of marijuana in 2005, the year before Calderon took office. But last year they cleared just 43,000 acres, according to the Mexican army and marines. Marijuana seizures at the United States’ southwest border went from 1 million kilograms in 2006 to 1.5 million kilograms last year.
As the acreage of poppies destroyed has dropped, Mexican heroin production has boomed, from 8 metric tons in 2005 to 50 metric tons in 2009, according to the U.S. government. Heroin seizures along the U.S.-Mexico border have tripled during the same period.
In Mexico’s prime dope-growing region, known as the Golden Triangle, local farmers say the best cash crops are still the illegal ones.
“Look at these mountains. What else are we going to do?” said grizzled, 79-year-old Sabino Juarez, waving his machete toward the steep green folds of the Sierra Madre in northwest Mexico’s Sinaloa state.
Juarez said most of the poor families in his nearby rancho grow marijuana, and the military has left them alone in recent years. Drought was the bigger worry this season. “It was bad for corn, bad for beans and bad for mota,” he said, using the slang in Mexico for marijuana.
Come late October, the clandestine fields of sticky marijuana are head high and ready for harvest in Mexico’s rugged mountains, and the pretty red, white and purple poppy buds are fat with opium sap in the remote valleys.