Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Poor farmers, rich narcos: Marijuana, the only safe investment

Rio Doce. 8-27-12.

Translated by un vato for Borderland Beat.

Note from translator: This article appeared yesterday in Rio Doce. The original Spanish version is posted on the Forum, but I thought it deserved wider exposure because it helps describe the social and economic reality in the Golden Triangle. --un vato.

A trip to Chapo Guzman country.

Close to 6:00 p.m. in the afternoon on Tuesday, August 21,  a young mountain resident about 20 years old, came in on an ATV,  with more style than if he had arrived mounted on an alazan (chestnut sorrel horse). He stopped under a thick live oak tree, turned off the motor, climbed off and slowly walked towards the house. He had an AK-47 rifle hanging on his shoulder, a two-way radio on his chest and a .38 Super pistol tucked into his waist.  

A dog came out to greet him. He was almost walking into the portal of the house when he bumped into the journalist, whom he regarded with mistrust. His skin tanned by the sun, the young man gripped the rifle with his right hand, slowed down and, not knowing what to do in the presence of a stranger, he seemed to hesitate while he looked all around him. This is when the guide who had taken the journalist into the bowels of the Sierra Madre Occidental (West Sierra Madre Mountain Range) returned with a glass of water in his hand and, with surprising intimacy, greeted him:

"How's it going, Lupe, what do you say?" he exclaimed as he came forward to greet him.

The tension lessened, but not the mistrust.

"He's a journalist who came to do some work about the weed... Jose already knows, so you can tell him all about this business out here," explained the guide.

"Ah!," murmured "Lupe", who still not quite convinced  stared at the journalist, although he finally shook his hand; more out of inertia than out of conviction.

A little later another 15 mountain farmers arrived, also riding ATVs and also carrying AK-47 rifles. One by one, they climbed off their ATVs like a death squad in the mountains and, curious, surrounded the journalist.

The guide, with greetings and jokes, began to reassure the newly-arrived farmers, until three more ATVs arrived. One of them, the tallest, wearing a bulletproof vest, a cuerno de chivo (AK 47 rifle) on each shoulder and two radios, walked towards the journalist, with what appeared to be his security people by his side. The guide, with surprising familiarity, went to meet him halfway.

"Jose ... this is the journalist I was telling you about; he came up to the mountains to do some work...well, the  reality about the farmers who plant marijuana: how they live, what they eat, what they hope for and how things are not what people believe," he told him. 

Jose looked at the journalist with a certain mistrust, but he extended his hand to greet him, but not before warning the guide:

"Well, he can't use names or say where we are, and he can't take pictures, because you're the first one we'll come looking for."

"He knows that if he pisses outside the hole, he'll never see the end of it...and, well, I know that I won't see the end of it," said the guide, half joking and half seriously.

Everybody laughed with amusement at the guide's comment. The ice was broken.

You have to make a living

To live in the mountains is to live in total abandonment, and to be always "at the mercy of God." If you don't kill a jackrabbit, a deer, a cochi jabali (peccary), you rarely eat meat, unless you take something up from Culiacan. But in addition to food, you also have to pay for electricity, oil, clothing, shoes, school supplies for the children, and although one can plant beans, squash and tomatoes, money is indispensable, at least for the basics.

But there is no work, not a single industry to create jobs, so it's difficult to get ahead. That's why people have not stopped planting marijuana-- despite the signs of civilization that are coming closer, like pavement and electricity-- (it's) the only product they can be sure will sell.

And, there's no "right" age for planting marijuana; it can be (done by) an eight year old child as well as a 60-year old adult,  and growing it is not easy.

Every day, farmers of all ages get up at 6:00 in the morning, have a breakfast of eggs, beans or "whatever there may be," and start a hard, eight hour work day under the sun. 

In a place that can only be reached by air, or after a five hour trip-- starting from Culiacan, the municipal seat-- on roads, gullies and paths that run on the edges of curves and steep cliffs, the farmers get ready to go up to the most inhospitable part in that area, where they have their plots.

Right at dawn, they get up, eat, take their weapons, machetes, knives, lunch, and climb on their ATVs, beginning a journey of several miles of uphill trails, crumbling roads, rocks and pine trees. In the old days, they say, they went on horseback,  but they had to feed the animal, now they get there faster on ATVs, and they only need gasoline and the tires changed every six months.

"Tires don't last long because there's so many rocks," one of them explains. 

At the top, the farmers lay down their weapons, the lunch, and they go into the marijuana plants which were planted in June, and so begins caring for the crop.


The "desmachadero"

As with any other crop, marijuana requires a lot of care and dedication. From August to September, the farmers undertake the process known as the "desmachadero", which consists of identifying the male ("macho") marijuana plants and cut them down to prevent  pollination of the female marijuana plants, otherwise the crop is ruined.

"Because, if you leave the male plants, it produces little balls, and these little balls release a dust that gets into the "colitas" (tails, the flowering part of the female plant). If that happens, instead of  harvesting marijuana "colitas", you harvest seed, and that's where the crop is ruined," explains "Pancho", a farmer that has a plot of more than 50 square yards (4,500 square feet).

Like him, every farmer plants his own little plot,  from a 14 year old boy to a 70 year old man. They help each other, and if one of them falls behind on the "desmachadero", the rest of the farmers get together to help. 

The search for male plants can last up to three weeks, and it's done row by row. As it grows, the plant starts to show what will be the marijuana "colita", which is what people smoke, or whether it will develop the little balls of pollen. But even after the male plants have been eliminated, the farmer has to keep taking care of the plots, not just because a male plant may appear or because a female plant may turn male, that is to say, it will start to produce balls of pollen,  but to pull up weeds that grow among the plants and to eliminate insects. In addition, cows and deer go into the plots and eat the marijuana plants.

"The cows and the deer that eat the marijuana get all crazy, but they also ruin the product," explains a farmer that has been coming from Culiacan for eight years to plant the drug. 

From the city to the mountains

Many people from Culiacan go into the mountains to plant "mota" (marijuana). According to them, "there are no jobs in the city." Up in the mountains, they go to relatives, or through a trusted person who recommended them.

If they work hard like the rest of the farmers, they come back and after some time, they are given access to land so they can grow their own marijuana.  In cases like these, once he harvests the marijuana, the deal is 50/50, that is, the owner of the land provides the plot, the seed, fertilizer, room and board, in exchange for him taking care of the crop. Once it is harvested, they split the profit (50/50).

"If we get 150 kilos (330 lbs) we get 75 and 75," explained a young farmer, while he was spraying his land, a plot of about 200 meters square (about 1,800 square ft.) Like "Lico", many other city dwellers go to the mountains and up there, in the most inhospitable part, where there is no cell phone service, they remain out of touch, hoping the cultivation of marijuana works out and leaves them a little cash.

The man.

Once the marijuana is harvested, in mid-October, and hoping the Army doesn't hit them and destroys their fields, the farmers can only deal with one man. This person, they said, buys all the marijuana grown in the mountains from everybody, (paying) up to 800 pesos per kilo (about $62.00), if the weed is good, but if it contains a lot of seeds, the most they get is about 200 (pesos per kilo, about $15.00).

"The thing is, nobody else can buy marijuana around here, just this man," says a farmer.

"This man, is he Chapo Guzman?" he's asked.

The farmer hesitates before he answers. He looks all around, and finally explains that the mountain belongs to El Chapo, but he's not the one who deals with them, but somebody who surely knows him and who probably sells everything to El Chapo Guzman. This man is the one who takes the weed with him, only he knows where he takes it. We only grow it, and if we lose it or the Army destroys it, well, there's no money.

Armed to the teeth.

The farmers in the mountains always go around armed. It's de rigueur. And although they may lay down their AK-47 in the shade of a pine tree while they're working, under no circumstances will  they take their pistol off their waist. They sleep with it, they wake up with it, they die with it if necessary, but they don't take it off.  They say it's to defend themselves from mountain lions, cats, snakes and any other animal that they run into, or in case they bump into a deer or a "cochi jabali" (peccary). In that case, the shots are quick.

--Why do you carry the pistol inside the house?
--In case something comes up, explained an old farmer who's lived all  his life in the mountains.

As was explained (to this journalist), fights in the mountains are not with fists, but with gunfire. People joke, and all of a sudden somebody doesn't like a comment, and they get their irons out and start shooting.

When somebody kills another person, the victim's family wants satisfaction and comes and kills the murderer. The (murderer's) family also wants satisfaction, and goes looking for the person who killed their relative. Entire families are eliminated in that manner, and the feuds and the killing goes on  from generation to generation.

"It's just that there can be no fix because there's blood involved," explained the farmer, giving his reason why everybody goes around armed with weapons.

The hope.

Resting their bodies and the sun, the farmers get together every night to joke a little and forget the day's hardship. After almost three months of labor, fatigue begins to weaken them, but their hopes of getting a little money and going to see their families begin to grow. The only thing they hope for is that soldiers won't come and destroy their crops.

"If you get about 200 kilos (440 lbs) of "mota", well, you're doing well, but it's money that's got to last until we plant again, because the truth is, mister, life is hard around here," explained the oldest farmer as he snugged his cuerno de chivo on his shoulder. It was time to rest; tomorrow, another day in the sun awaited him.  

Notes on marijuana

-- The marijuana cultivation cycle is 125 days, the first stage being germination, the next 15 days its sprouting stage -- when it comes out of the ground--, and the next 70 (days) the vegetative (growing) stage, and the final 35 days, the reproductive stage, explains the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

--According to SEDENA (Mexican National Defense Secretariat), just this past July alone, the Army located 494 plots of marijuana in Sinaloa and Durango, which amounted to 59.48 hectares (about 147 acres). Likewise, 3,053 kilograms (6,716 lbs) of unprocessed marijuana,  176 kilos (387 lbs) of packaged marijuana and 227.6 kilos (455 lbs) of cannabis seed were seized.

--According to Sylvia Longmire, former officer and special investigator in the U.S. Air Force, trafficking and sales of marijuana makes up 60% of Mexican cartel profits.

--From the World Drugs Report:  in 2006 --the year that President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs began-- Mexico was the largest cannabis producer in the world, producing up to 7,400 tons.

--For several decades, the United States has been the world's principal cannabis consumer.