Blog dedicated to reporting on Mexican drug cartels
on the border line between the US and Mexico

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Poppy, Eradication, and Alternative Livelihoods in Mexico

 "MX" for Borderland Beat; Brookings Institute

Although requiring years and decades of effort, alternative livelihood programs are important, writes Vanda Felbab-Brown. And they are far from any effective design and implementation in Mexico, she explains.

On July 31, the U.S. White House Office of National Drug Control Policy released its annual assessment of opium poppy cultivation in Mexico, praising Mexico for the 2019 record reduction of poppy cultivation to 30,400 hectares (ha) — i.e., by 27 percent from 2018. Under the threat of possible counternarcotics sanctions from the Trump administration, that decline was a welcome reprieve for the Mexican government. The White House statement even went out of its way to acknowledge the alternative livelihood efforts of the Andrés Manuel López Obrador administration. Although requiring years and decades of effort, alternative livelihood programs are important. But they are far from any effective design and implementation in Mexico as I discuss in this week’s column. In my next column, I will explore the hopes for and obstacles to licensing Mexico’s poppy for the production of medical opioids.

Since the 1940s, Mexico has been a principal supplier of heroin to the United States. During WWII, Mexico supplied legal medical opioids for the U.S. war effort. When U.S. demand for morphine declined after the war, the cultivated poppy was processed into heroin instead to supply the U.S. illegal drug market. It flourished particularly in the 1970s, before declining due to U.S.-sponsored eradication and, importantly, the rise of cocaine consumption in the United States.

By 2011, poppy cultivation shot up to 12,000 ha for several reasons and kept increasing since. First, Colombian poppy farmers producing heroin for the U.S. market went out of business in the early 2000s. Second, Mexico’s cannabis farmers lost out to legal cannabis production in the U.S. Third, and most importantly, the U.S. began restricting the prescription of medical opioids as a massive opioid epidemic stimulated by the over-prescription of opioids and egregious malpractices of U.S. pharmaceutical companies raged (and continues to rage) in the U.S. With those addicted to prescription opioids seeking cheaper heroin, Mexico’s poppy cultivation exploded, reaching 44,100 ha in 2017.

Although precise data are lacking, Mexico’s poppy cultivation likely employs tens of thousands of poor, marginalized, often indigenous Mexicans. It is a very labor-intensive illicit economy, enabling its sponsors—organized crime groups—to obtain extensive political capital. In prominent areas of poppy cultivation such as Michoacán, Guerrero, and Sinaloa, the drug economy constitutes a substantial portion of the local economy while state presence is weak, inadequate, sporadic and often repressive.

Access to drug cultivation areas is controlled by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs). They also serve as arbitrators of disputes, providers of public goods, and shapers of local economic options. At the same time, areas of poppy cultivation are often highly violent and contested, with many small and large DTOs as well as anti-crime and crime-coopted militias operating there.

Mexico’s counternarcotics strategy has for decades centered on eradication and interdiction. During the 1970s, eradication was mostly foisted on Mexico by the U.S. and often adopted by the Mexican government reluctantly and haltingly and with substantial subterfuge and deception on the part of Mexican law enforcement.

Under U.S. pressure, the Enrique Peña Nieto administration (2012-2018) once again beefed up eradication, even resorting to controversial aerial spraying. Although President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has disavowed targeting Mexican poppy farmers, some aerial spraying of poppy crops persisted in 2019. In 2018, eradication was estimated to have destroyed between 21,000 and 29,000 ha of poppy. But as farmers often replant after eradication, and drug processing facilities for heroin are easily rebuilt, the suppression efforts did not significantly reduce heroin supply to the U.S.

Poppy eradication campaigns severely complicate efforts of the Mexican military and law enforcement forces to pacify festering Michoacán and Guerrero and rid them of violent organized crime. Counterproductively, they bond poor poppy farmers with the DTOs and further alienate them from the Mexican state. Thus, they undermine efforts to restore public safety and build rule of law in Mexico.

Historically, Mexico showed little interest in adopting alternative livelihoods, even rejecting U.S. assistance for such programs. The rural development efforts that were adopted ended up highly ineffective—sometimes poorly designed and under-resourced, often undermined by extensive corruption by local administrators and political bosses. Projects to promote communal logging, fishing, tourism, and legal agriculture were often undertaken in an ineffective top-down manner.

The fact that the AMLO administration wants to focus on providing alternative livelihoods is a positive development. Alternative livelihoods efforts require extending state presence and engaging in broader and more equitable development. They also require sustaining the resources and political wherewithal to tackle the highly skewed political and economic power distribution in Mexico and the extreme social marginalization of many of its communities. That meshes well with the core of López Obrador’s political project.

But the López Obrador administration has implemented few alternative livelihood efforts, and their design remains most problematic. The administration wants to champion various agricultural support measures for farmers in Mexico, particularly through a food security program. In a visit to Guerrero in January 2019, López Obrador promised to provide price support for grains to dissuade farmers from cultivating opium poppy, setting the price of a ton of corn at US $300. With opium prices in Mexico down due to the significant expansion of poppy cultivation, possibly large inventories of stored heroin, and, importantly, the rise of fentanyl (a synthetic opioid) in the U.S., such a price may be competitive. At US $260 per kilo, about a fifth of the price compared to three years ago, opium poppy cultivation barely covers subsistence needs. The very high likelihood that synthetic opioids, whether produced in China, India, or Mexico, will continue to dominate the U.S. market makes price profitability of legal crops more competitive with opium poppy. Yet, US $300 per ton of corn is nowhere near adequate to help marginalized Mexican farmers escape poverty and profound food insecurity.

Moreover, profitability is not the sole factor influencing farmers’ cropping decisions. Access to land and stable land titles, availability of microcredit, good physical infrastructure, and effective value-added chains, such as processing plants and trade and export facilities, all determine the viability of alternative legal livelihoods.

Poppy also outcompetes many other crops in its ability to grow in areas of poor soil, inadequate water, or difficult climate.

Crucially, good local security is a fundamental factor enabling the takeoff of legal livelihoods. The intense insecurity and minimal state presence in Mexico’s poppy cultivation areas are key obstacles to launching alternative livelihoods efforts. Significantly increasing law enforcement and improving security would be necessary starting points. But despite serious deterioration of public safety in Mexico, the López Obrador administration has not developed an effective security strategy overall, let alone for the poppy areas.

Moreover, the significant contraction of the Mexican economy projected at between 4.6 and 8.8 percent in 2020 could leave the Mexican government with little resources to robustly invest in alternative livelihoods while criminal groups will capitalize on the economic downturn.

Nonetheless in the meantime, the López Obrador administration and the U.S. should explore developing value-added chains and microcredit facilities and helping farmers obtain titles.

Getting those dimensions right is fundamental to the success of any alternative livelihoods efforts.


  1. Less poppy, more fent?

    1. im not sure if its the cartel or if someone is cutting it but in east coast states with our brotha friends. the whole block is dropping. they are overdosing left and right off heroin and fent. have you seen the movie the wolf of wall street. were leonardo d caprio gets all fkd up and looses his speech mobility and ends up twiching on the floor. im glad in california we dont got those type of drug addicts we have the tweaker zombie ones. that live in tents and are labled by the left wing as homeless.

    2. I have been homeless off and on in califas for 25 years. Yes, many/most of them are now methheads. They have been colonized by the dope dealers for sure, in fact, the eyes and ears of the dealers. Me, I will never touch that garbage, I prefer freedom to possession!

    3. @4:06 have you not seen tha Bay Area

  2. Legalize heroin!!

    1. The British made opium and its derivates Legal in China in the 1700s, soon nobody was paying taxes to the chinese emperor and he outlawed opium, the British re-iposed the empire of their law upon the chinese through superior artillery and navy...
      Legalize bullshit, if it were not for Mao Tse Tung who won His chinese War on Chiang Kai Shek and the foreign devis, like US chennault and his flying tigers and the Vetnam war, the chinese would still be a poor country of half dead of hungry people.
      Legalize this...

    2. 13:12 that's irrelevant.

  3. The Crookins institute is just preparing the Land for more genetic enhanced BS, gringos go home and take your BS with you

    1. haha don't worry 7:36, I have traveled to Mexico for the last time. I won't be back...oh and thanks for the racism.

    2. The Crookins institute is getting shit ready for big agro, soon as AMLO is gone they will start their BIG BS all over again, paying mexican farmers pennies on the dollar as always

  4. ¿STEVIA?

    sugar cane alcohol for fuel instead of trees?

  5. AMLO still is tied with Mayo. As they move in on Mencho, that will be huge for AMLO but as we all know the submarine's and tractor trailers loaded will always make their way to the U.S.

  6. A lot of conflicting info because just a few months ago, I saw where AMLO wanted to legalize and bring poppy production more mainstream for pharma use so why would they be eradicating. Furthermore, they also want to decriminilize

  7. I think i read that there was pressure from the us not to do that- maybe im remembering wrong-
    I did read that what the mexicans are making, isnt strong enough to be used in pharms- doesnt surprise me- mexican dope seems like booty most of the time- someone smart in columbia could make a killing rn if they could get their h going again- and get it to the usa-

    I was talking to a higher up guy who runs a street operation in chicago- he said all the spots are selling fent- not 1 is selling h. And he said hes been trying to get h, cant find it anywhere.and thats a dude with big time connects- Said he could be making $$$ if he could find it.. nobody wants fent- the sooner these bozos pushing fent realize it, the better off everyone will be.. you could literally brand your shit as straight h, and charge 2-3x what the current price is.. its just that fent has totally fucked up the opiate game


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