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Inside the Mexican towns that produce America’s heroin

A scene from the Showtime documentary series “The Trade.” (Our Time Projects/Courtesy of Showtime)

MEXICO CITY — Journalists in Mexico, foreign and domestic, tend to keep drug cartels at arm's length. Narco bosses like to stay out of the news. Several Mexican reporters have been killed by drug gangs for trying to expose organized crime. Firsthand reporting from inside the Mexican underworld is rare.

Myles Estey, a Canadian documentary producer, is establishing himself as an exception. Estey has helped produce two documentaries that take viewers deeper into Mexico's gun-littered badlands: the 2015 film “Cartel Land,” which was nominated for an Academy Award, and “The Trade,” a Showtime series about heroin that premiered this month. Both of these projects were directed by Matthew Heineman.

For “The Trade,” Estey, 36, led a three-person team into the mountains of the western state of Guerrero, one of Mexico's deadliest regions, to show how opium poppy is cultivated and how heroin is manufactured, packaged and shipped north to the United States. The camera follows a community leader, Don Miguel, who oversees poppy farmers and rifle-wielding guards in these remote hills. “There are thousands of us who live off poppy,” Don Miguel says.

Estey said the goal of those making “The Trade” was to “show the human side of this crisis, beyond the stats and numbers.” He talked to The Washington Post about his experience.

What was involved in getting this close to the drug business in “The Trade”? How were you able to document heroin producers like this?

It’s a very tricky story line in both subject matter and security issues. We had significantly more no's than yes's in our attempts to find things that we were able to film. It took months and months and months, probably about six months, before we started getting footage that was useful and started to have the trust and respect of the people where we were working.

Did you feel you were at risk at moments during the project?

We didn’t have any super-scary violent-outbreak-type moments, like in “Cartel Land.” We weren’t in gunfights, we were never detained. But I think the region itself has so many risks. People in that region deal with that all the time, every time they drive down a road. We try and figure out: Is there anything up ahead?

Did you get a sense that people grew up with opium poppy production or it has been relatively recently that it has become the dominant crop up there?

Poppies have been growing in Guerrero for a very long time. Depending on whom you talk to, there are lots of origin stories. People talked about in the '70s or '80s, guys from Sinaloa coming and figuring out that the terrain was ideal for poppy growing and then teaching people there how to grow. Slowly, people came and said, “Oh, do you want to make 100 pesos a day in the corn fields or do you want to make 300 pesos a day collecting poppy gum?”

Town leaders said that in the region — which they say is about 80,000 to 100,000 people — that easily 50,000 to 60,000 people work in some way, shape or form in the poppy industry, whether that’s traffickers or hit men. The bulk of that certainly would be growers, people who have their own fields, or people who have less money who would be contracted as day laborers. And then the main stores in town have rubber hoses for watering. They sell fertilizers for poppy. They sell all kinds of tools. Everything is based around poppy at this point, and that certainly wasn’t the case 10 years ago. I think even in the last five years it has exploded quite a lot.

Can you talk about Don Miguel? He seemed somewhere between a mayor and a cartel member and an opium farmer? How do you think he sees himself?

He sees himself as a social leader. He was working regular jobs and the security level started getting out of control. And eventually came to a point where he was driving down the road and his car was attacked by a group and several people were shot and one was killed. And that made him feel that he needed to organize. The region that they’re in, like a lot of regions in Mexico and Guerrero, there’s a push and pull with groups entering and trying to take over, and usually the takeover is quite violent. He witnessed all that and wanted to play a role at organizing to have some sort of relative peace in the region.

Where do you think poppy production is going in Mexico, this year and in coming years? Is the Mexican government making any dent in this business in terms of eradication or arrests? 

It's a bit of a cat-and-mouse game. If [security forces] take down 100 poppy fields, then 110 are going to get planted. The root problem is there is a huge amount of demand for it. The rule of law in Mexico is such that the level of corruption and impunity makes it relatively easy to traffic drugs through the country and across the border. There’s a constant market that is there and is not going away. Opioid use is higher than ever in the U.S. People often get hooked through the pharmaceuticals, but they end up using street heroin because it’s cheaper, and/or fentanyl.

People talk about how Mexican drug cartels have fractured into smaller, semi-independent groups that are fighting against each other and that’s one of the reasons that Mexico has become more violent. You saw up close how this business works. How are drug trafficking groups and cartels structured now? Would the group you were with call themselves a cartel or part of a cartel or were they subcontractors or independent suppliers? 

Pretty much all experts agree that there are now more cartels than when the drug war started. That has created fracturing and infighting. Guerrero has been one of the more violent states largely because there are so many groups vying for control. No one has control and everyone’s susceptible to takeover.

Where the line gets drawn between a local group and a cartel is a little blurry to me. Where we were working, they would never define themselves, at least not to us, as a cartel, but there are certainly people in the state who would disagree with them and call them a cartel. They're surrounded by rivals and they want to make sure their towns stay safe and the rivals stay out. People want to protect what they have and don’t want to be taken over by another operation.

We talked a couple of months ago to the head of Mexico’s anti-addiction agency. He was saying he was surprised there isn’t an opioid epidemic yet in Mexico given that a lot of the conditions are present: widespread poverty, an enormous supply of drugs, changing norms on drug use. What do you think about consumption in Mexico?

Along the border in Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana have been the two places you see extreme heroin use, but they’re relatively small. In Mexico City, we tried to look into whether there was a community, and we just didn’t find very much. In Guerrero, there are a handful of people in town who will use some of the products, but it’s generally discouraged and it's very frowned upon. Certainly people who are working as hit men are not allowed to be doing that. One of Don Miguel's crews that we were with are not even allowed to drink, let alone do heroin. Some of the growers that you see working in the fields, they just choose not to drink. There’s actually a surprising amount of sobriety up there, certainly more than in Mexico City, for example.

I think another big factor on why you don’t have [heroin addictions] on a national level: You don’t have opioids flowing from doctors to consumers. I’ve had two very major surgeries in Mexico, after accidents, and I was given Ibuprofen and some slightly stronger painkillers, but never an opioid. As far as I know, you very rarely get prescribed opioids in Mexico. Two people on our team [in the United States] who have been injured — one had a motorcycle accident, one had a bicycle accident — were offered OxyContin and both of them said, 'There’s no way I’m taking OxyContin.' So many people end up using heroin because they just throw OxyContin at everyone and people who have a proclivity for addiction end up buying more and more when their prescription runs out. And you just don’t see that in Mexico.

How do regular residents in Guerrero view the people in the drug business?

I’ve worked on and off in Guerrero since 2010. There’s really a feeling of them just being tired of violence. In some ways there’s also an acceptance of that violence. I think average people see the armed groups as a necessary part of their life. I don’t think they particularly like them. I think they do appreciate being able to make more money growing poppy than having to be subsistence farmers. No one wants to be living in extreme poverty, and the general feeling is that extreme poverty is the alternative to growing poppy.

Working on this project just made me realize even more how complicated this is. Obviously you want to stop the use of opioids and the overdoses in the U.S., and obviously you want to stop the violence in Mexico. We got the most violent year in a long time last year in Mexico, and things aren’t getting better. But those changes are very hard, and even if you’re just talking about heroin. If you were to cut off all poppy production, you would also have to deal with all these social and economic and cultural issues. What do you do with all the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on that? And what do they do? What’s the plan for them?