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“They got us in the field,” says José, matter-of-factly. For some who sow poppies in the Mexican mountains, the risk is not whether they will get busted, but when.
Marines had arrived at his plantation — a steeply sloping field more than 40 minutes’ drive down a bumpy dirt road in Guerrero state — threatening to kill him and his workers if they tried to bolt, he says. After stripping them of the poppy gum they had collected to be processed into heroin, as well as mobile phones, radios, rucksacks and machetes, they ordered the farmers to destroy their crops — “and do it properly”.
But enough poppies survived the cull for him to be back in the field a week later, laboriously slitting the poppy bulbs that remained, and harvesting the trickles of gum that oozed out into a small apple juice tin. “I’d have had a kilo if the marines hadn’t come,” he says. “Now it’s 200g.”
More plantations, heroin labs and even, it is rumoured, clandestine landing strips are hidden high in the Guerrero mountains, where few venture. Mexico supplies nearly half the heroin sold in the US and much comes from fields like these, colloquially nicknamed “gardens”.
People like José — suppliers of the raw materials — are the first link in a deadly chain, or as Luciano, another long-time producer now determined to leave the crop behind, puts it: “We are the root of the problem.”
And it is a big problem, responsible for as many as 100,000 deaths in a crescendo of violence during the former government’s failed “war on drugs”. Despite President Enrique Peña Nieto’s attempt to force the focus on to energy and other transformational reforms, recent cartel attacks have only fuelled doubt about whether the government’s security strategy is working.
For most of the 30 farmers in this village, poppies are a subsistence crop. There is no hunting for buyers — they come to you “and whoever comes, you say ‘take it’, because you don’t want to have the danger in your house either,” Luciano says.
It is not as if the farmers make an excellent living — they do not. The houses in this village are simple and though most boast satellite dishes, inside they are basic and bare, with only functional furniture, dirt floors and large barrels of water outside. Dogs bask in the sun, chickens peck and donkeys, with rough wooden saddles, are still used for transport.
But besides agriculture, there are few other jobs, and poppies, grown in Guerrero since the 1970s, have become a way of life. With their two to three harvests a year, to many farmers they look like an attractive way of making cash fast — rather like a short-term loan or insurance policy, if only the crop were not so risky.
“Young guys might think: ‘I want a car, so I’ll sow some poppies’. It’s hard to get out of,” says Luciano.
Mario — like José, he asked not to use his full name — had given up poppy farming completely for two years, turning over most of his land to chillies instead. But now, down a steep bank, a good half-hour’s trudge from the road, there are purple, white and red poppies mingled in with his dried up corn plants. After pressure from a friend, and with five children to provide for, he agreed to use some of his land for the crop he learnt to grow when he was eight. A friend provides the labour.
But Mario wants this to be his last year. “There’s too much risk for too little reward,” he says.
It is a common complaint. The most lucrative time to sell poppies is in the dry November to January season, known as “secas”. A kilo of gum can go for 15,000 pesos ($980) then, and one hectare can yield five kilos. About half a hectare is needed to fill José’s little gum collection pot.
But in the rainy season, or “aguas”, the price drops, and for larger fields, farmers still need half a dozen workers to slit the bulbs, wait for the slit poppy bulbs to “cry”, then wait for their oozy gum to dry just by the right amount, collect the gum, and repeat the process two days later. The going rate for a day’s labour is 200 pesos, and then there are nutrients and pesticides to buy as well.
Luciano has switched his focus from flowers, as the locals euphemistically call the crop, to avocados. He is now in his eighth year and can make 50,000 pesos per harvest, instead of 15,000 if his poppies did well. But his trees took five years to bear fruit and Humberto Nava Reyna, who heads a farmers’ association and is trying to get producers to diversify into legal crops, says that with such delays, only 2 per cent of the farmers in his region have quit poppies.
Luciano’s cousin Olga also grows avocados, but finding a reliable buyer willing to pay decent prices can be hard. She has sold some of her production at just 5 pesos a kilo this year, a far cry from the 17 pesos she managed another time.
Luciano is betting on avocados. “I’m getting on. I don’t want to be running from the government when I have a stick,” he says.
But José has few illusions. “If I can, I’ll sow this field again,” he says. “What do you do? There aren’t other jobs. And if you don’t do anything, that’s when poverty sets in.”
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