It has all contributed to a sense of despair and frustration in Mexico.
A few weeks ago, the Sinaloa cartel, Mexico’s most powerful criminal organization, reacted to an operation to capture Ovidio Guzmán Lopez by laying siege to the city of Culiacán. The Mexican government proved so inept at handling the violent response that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador chose to authorize the young Guzmán’s immediate release. It was a capitulation of historic proportions.
The fallout has been worse. After offering contradictory reports on the operation, López Obrador and his cabinet still have not clarified the exact circumstances in which Guzmán was freed, how the cartel negotiated his freedom or what the president himself knew. Last week, during one of his long, daily press conferences, López Obrador made the unprecedented decision to publicly reveal the name of the military commander responsible for the botched Guzmán operation. When reporters kept asking for further explanations, the president lashed out at the press.
Given the magnitude of what happened, these questions will not go away — even if the president wants the matter settled. Quite the contrary: National security challenges will likely escalate for López Obrador.
A year and a half ago, during a presidential debate, I asked then-candidate López Obrador how he would tackle opium production and trade in Mexico, especially deep in the mountains of the southern state of Guerrero, where, despite plummeting prices, hundreds of communities still count on poppy farming to make ends meet. I also asked López Obrador about Mexico’s role in the fentanyl epidemic. Mexican cartels, after all, had embraced the synthetic opioid and had begun competing with their Chinese counterparts as suppliers of the deadly drug to the American market. López Obrador explained his approach: “Farmers in Guerrero shouldn’t feel forced to harvest poppies,” he said. “They need to plant corn and be compensated for it. . . . We need to take care of the poor.”
Crop substitution is not new. It has been tried in other opioid hotbeds, such as Colombia and Afghanistan, with mixed results. It needs patience, resources and the efficient involvement of the government. It also requires the disposition of the communities affected, many of which have relied for decades on the poppy as their main source of income. Crops that substitute poppies have to generate enough basic income for the switch to make sense. In the poorer areas of Mexico, that is no easy task. So far, López Obrador’s attempt at curtailing and replacing opioid production in places such as Guerrero, where 60 percent of Mexican poppies are harvested, has failed.
Poppy prices in Guerrero have been falling steadily over the last couple of years. Farmers now sell a pound of opium for about $100, one-fifth of what it was worth just a couple of years ago. Many have left Guerrero, migrating to the United States or other regions of Mexico to find work. But others have stayed, choosing to defend their opium crops with a vengeance. Mexican newspaper Reforma reported recently on a surge in violence in Guerrero’s central highlands. “Criminal groups have increased their fire power to prevent the armed forces from entering the region,” Reforma writes. “They defend each patch of poppies,” a law enforcement official explained. The result has been a steep drop in poppy eradication in Guerrero. López Obrador’s government has managed to destroy 400 fewer acres per month than previous administrations.
Crop substitution hasn’t fared much better. To allegedly prevent corruption, Mexico’s federal government has taken control of fertilizer distribution, crucial for thousands of impoverished local producers whom the López Obrador administration wants to see transition into other crops, such as corn and beans. Results have been lackluster, at best. According to reports, only 40 percent of farmers in the government’s census have received the nourishment their soil needs. Delivery has been hampered by roadblocks, kidnappings, violent clashes with local cartels and, according to Guerrero’s local officials, the federal government’s inefficiency.
Rafael Higuera Sandoval, the 58-year old mayor of Coyuca de Catalán, recently told newspaper Milenio that he had never seen such a dire situation in the area. “We have nothing. We won’t even have grass for livestock, and we won’t harvest one grain of corn. If we are not crying right now, it’s only because we’re men.” Other voices from Guerrero offer much the same picture. “We harvest corn and beans for food, we don’t sell anything,” a local farmer from Acatepec, 200 miles south of Coyuca, recently said. “Without fertilizer, we won’t even have food.”
As the price of opium gum has fallen in Mexico, American demand for fentanyl hasn’t let up. In the last six years, seizures of fentanyl along the southern border have grown exponentially. According to Thomas Overacker, executive director of cargo and conveyance security for Customs and Border Protection, the CBP confiscated over 2,000 pounds of fentanyl in 2018. The total for 2013? Two pounds. As American appetite for fentanyl persists, cartels have become more brazen. The size of individual seizures is astounding. In late January, officials revealed the discovery in Nogales of a trailer smuggling 254 pounds of the drug, almost $5 million in lethal synthetic opioids.
At the same time, Mexican authorities have uncovered a growing number of labs designed for fentanyl production. To make matters worse, some of Mexico’s most dangerous criminal conglomerates, such as the Guzmán organization in Sinaloa and the violent Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación, seem to be increasingly interested in fentanyl, which is not only very profitable but relatively easy to traffic.
Is there a way out? López Obrador seems to be giving serious thought to legalizing opium for medicinal use in Mexico. The resolution, which has the support of the country’s influential defense minister, could make sense, especially in a country that suffers from a severe shortage of opioid-based painkillers. Mexican analyst Jorge Andrés Castañeda has suggested Mexico could emulate Turkey, which experimented successfully with opium legalization.
But regulating poppy production for benign purposes might not be enough if the Mexican government doesn’t find a way to guarantee a decent income to farmers. With 30,000 people dying of fentanyl-related overdoses every year in the United States and a growing criminal enterprise in Mexico, López Obrador will require unforeseen imagination if he is to keep his promise to both curtail the cartels’ voracious ambition and help poor Mexican communities that still rely on opium or have begun to turn to fentanyl production under the auspices of large criminal organizations.
Judging by the surge in violence across the country, including the furious firepower the Sinaloa gang displayed in Culiacán to free Ovidio Guzmán, López Obrador doesn’t have much time to spare.