Mexico’s War on Drugs Failed

Proposals to legalize opium production could still beat the cartels—but only if poppy farmers are part of the process.

A police agent confiscates illegal poppy flowers during an operation in Sinaloa, Mexico on March 15. (Rashide Frias /AFP/Getty Images)
A police agent confiscates illegal poppy flowers during an operation in Sinaloa, Mexico on March 15. (Rashide Frias /AFP/Getty Images)

The mountains of the Mexican state of Guerrero are dotted with opium poppies, a staple crop for many local farmers. Much of their harvest ends up as heroin, which has placed them square in the middle of the violence associated with rival drug trafficking syndicates. In 2017, Guerrero saw 2,318 homicides involving narcotraffickers fighting for control of the territory. This year is well on track to exceed that number.

The violence comes despite attempts by the national army to crack down on poppy crops, root out drug cartels, and round up criminals—policies that have been widely recognized as missteps. Speaking in Mexico in September as part of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, once a firm proponent of the war on drugs, urged contemporary lawmakers to “give the benefit of the doubt to those of us who have followed the wrong policy for so many years.” And Mexico’s incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, said in his victory speech that the drug war was a “failed crime and violence strategy.”

Guerrero’s state legislature agrees. As an alternative to the policy of the last few years, lawmakers there have called on the national government to legalize the production of opium for pharmaceutical use. The State’s governor, Héctor Astudillo, has led the charge. López Obrador’s incoming interior minister, Olga Sánchez, seems to be on board, and the president-elect has said that he won’t rule it out.

The basic idea behind the plan is that decriminalization will provide an official route for farmers to produce and sell opium poppies. The legal market should cut the drug traffickers out of the picture, weaken them, and reduce conflict. There is some evidence that such measures could work. As the Council on Foreign Relations has observed, legalization of marijuana in some U.S. jurisdictions diminished cartel profits. And in Portugal, the number of overdoses from heroin was initially reduced by a whopping 85 percent after that drug was legalized. How similar rules would play out in Mexico, though, where cartel violence is extreme, is less clear. At the very least, there’s no doubt that legalizing poppy production would reduce its value to traffickers.

Still, there’s one group that doesn’t seem particularly optimistic about the Guerrero plan, and that is the farmers themselves. At a regional forum in August, several expressed their concern that legalization for medical uses would cause more problems than solutions for them. The proposal included no guarantee that the current growers would be suppliers to the legal market or that they would be protected from prosecution for their current activities.

Arturo López Torres has lived and worked in Guerrero’s La Sierra area, the mountain range that overlooks the region’s capital of Chilpancingo, for 25 years. He served as commissioner for the region from 2013 to 2016 and is a well-respected advocate for poppy farmers. It’s not that the growers are against decriminalization per se, Torres told me. Indeed, he was emphatic that the legal cultivation of opium poppies in his state could provide legitimate employment and income for locals. “Legalization functions well in other countries—like Australia, Turkey, and India,” where it has provided employment and development, he argued.

Rather, the problem for many farmers is that the proposal Guerrero’s Congress is pushing is being rushed through without adequate consultation of locals. An estimated 50,000 people work or rely on poppy farming in the region. Most of their farms have been operating since at least the 1950s, and they employ many women producers who are the sole heads of their households. A majority of the farmers have no reliable source of income other than poppy cultivation, and their livelihoods are regularly threatened by violence and displacement caused both by cartel battles and government raids.

Securing greater employment and urban development for the Sierra region is at the heart of the fight for decriminalization. So the farmers need to be sure that any new measure on drugs would help them maintain their livelihoods and expand employment opportunities for their children. Local leaders like Torres also need to ensure that the profits from legal, pharmaceutical production of the opiates will return to the region.

“If we’re going to do something about opium cultivation, we really need to take into account those that are already involved in the chain of production—that have their livelihoods, their security at stake,” Lisa Sánchez, a Mexico-based global drug policy expert, told me over the phone from Mexico City in October. Sánchez is the director-general of a citizen security organization called Mexico Unido Contra La Delincuencia, or Mexico United Against Delinquency, in Mexico City. It is a nongovernmental body that provides direct support to victims of crime, runs community-based programs aimed at strengthening local security, and researches and advocates for evidence-based drug policy with a focus on harm reduction.

Sánchez supports Torres’s demands for consultation, but she also notes that the public and policy debate about the decriminalization of opium production is in its very early days, especially as a new federal administration takes office in Mexico. As of yet, she reminded me, there is no policy proposal of any detail on the table. The proposal from the Guerrero Congress is not a bill, and supportive comments from López Obrador have yet to manifest in any concrete policy proposals.

For its part, if policies do start to circulate, Mexico Unido Contra La Delincuencia strongly advocates following the measures codified by the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which sets out the purposes for which legal narcotics may be used, such as medical treatments and research, and codifies the rules of legalization that jurisdictions should observe. This, Sánchez suggested, is the clear route for Mexico. “There is a market for legal opium, and there are already 24 countries authorized through the U.N. process to grow opium poppy and produce opium. Mexico is already producing opium illegally, and there could be a move to legal opium where the growers in particular are not victims of criminal gangs that basically force them to grow poppy.”

There’s still the question of violence, though. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior foreign-policy expert at the Brookings Institution, warns that nothing can happen unless criminal gangs are subdued. The “government in Mexico needs to clean up Guerrero and Michoacán,” she said, before decriminalization could be a viable solution to cartel-related violence, which rests on the extortion by gangs of growers, a practice Felbab-Brown said would continue regardless of whether their produce is legal or not. It is probably for this reason that, at the same time as López Obrador is disavowing the war on drugs, he is proposing a new national guard composed of armed forces and federal police—a 50,000-strong force whose implementation would require changes to the constitution.

Indeed, there are significant challenges to decriminalization related to endemic political corruption and weak governance. However, Sánchez said, “you have to try and explore all possible alternatives” to the current arrangements and their catastrophic violence. Mexico, after all, does not have the luxury of waiting for the perfect conditions to arrive. Nor do the farmers in Guerrero, where an estimated 3,000 people have been displaced by violence in the last five years and an average of seven people are murdered every day. For now, their best bet may be applying pressure to be included in the discussions about the Guerrero proposal as it makes its way to Mexico’s new government.

Ann Deslandes is a freelance writer and researcher. Twitter: @Ann_dLandes

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