Could decriminalization of Mexico’s poppy farms reduce drug-cartel violence?

The World
A poppy farmer stands in front of a poppy plant and talks with a mic in his hand.

“Step into my city office!” says Arturo López Torres, a longtime community leader who represents his fellow poppy farmers in La Sierra, the mountain range that towers over a roadside park in Chilpancingo, the capital city of the Mexican state of Guerrero.

Torres has the weary voice and agitated humor of many who live in the mountains, which in recent years has been rocked by catastrophic violence related to battles for territory between drug cartels. Conflicts between 'narcos' fighting for control of territory is estimated to be responsible for 2,318 homicides in 2017 — and 2018 is well on track to exceed that number.

Torres recently had plans to meet with poppy farmers in the mountains as he often does, but the situation everybody refers to as la inseguridad, or "the insecurity," intensified with a cartel-related shooting that left two dead and several homes and cars burned to a crisp.

Urgently seeking a solution

A farmer of 25 years and a well-established political voice for the La Sierra region, Torres is a firm advocate for the decriminalization of poppy farming in the state of Guerrero, where the majority of heroin originating from Mexico is sourced.

The cultivation of opium poppies is illegal in Guerrero as it is elsewhere in Mexico, which has justified the Mexican army's raids on poppy fields — burning and poisoning crops in an ostensible effort to root out the source of cartel-related violence.

At the same time, poppies are the sole source of income for hundreds of farmers in small, under-resourced communities. These farmers often subsist in remote locations like La Sierra where poppies have been grown for several generations. Poppy farming is a crime because the poppies grown are almost exclusively used to harvest their gum to make heroin and trade it over the border in the US.

Is the solution decriminalization?

The proposal to decriminalize seems particularly urgent in Guerrero, where violence has displaced more than 3,000 people in the past five years, along with numerous casualties. Government operations to burn poppy crops has caused immense environmental and economic damage — and a chronic employment shortage. 

Decriminalization could have the hoped-for effect of increasing legitimate employment opportunities by eliminating the necessity of army and police intervention in poppy growing. It could also reduce environmental damage and the deadly violence related to the heroin trade.

With the election of populist center-leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, also known as AMLO, and his team set to take their positions in the Mexican government by Dec. 1, decriminalization advocates hope their proposed solution is in reach. 

And the world’s eyes are on Mexico regarding global solutions to the widespread problems of the international illegal drug trade. In August, the Global Commission on Drug Policy chose Mexico City for the launch of their 2018 report on drug control, which strongly recommends the regulation of drugs “as the realistic and responsible alternative to prohibition." 

Related: Joint US-Mexico effort to focus on drug kingpins’ financial infrastructure

Cannabis regulation is already making some headway in Mexico. AMLO’s party, Morena, introduced legislation this month that would allow citizens to grow and sell marijuana. In light of Morena’s congressional majority and a recent supreme court ruling that overturned a ban on recreational use, the bill is heavily tipped to succeed.

The Guerrero congress has formally proposed to Mexico's federal congress that the use of poppies for scientific and medicinal purposes be legalized. AMLO and his anointed Interior Minister Olga Sánchez Cordero have also expressed interest in the idea. 

While Torres and his fellow farmers have long advocated for decriminalization as a solution to crime, they recently expressed collective concerns that the proposal of their state’s congress does not have the best interests of poppy growers at its heart.

“They didn’t consult with us at all,” Torres said. “The process has been very rushed.”

Within this, he says, the state government has failed to inform and educate the campesinos of La Sierra on the plan for legalization and the implications for growers. The proposal includes a prison sentence of one to six years for those who cultivate or harvest the poppy without permission.

Still, Torres has hope that a national move to decriminalization can still be implemented with care and caution.

“If the federal government facilitates a process where there is dialogue between everybody who is involved in the cultivation and trade of opiates an effective law could still be passed.”

At a community club in Chilpancingo, a reporter asked a group of young men whether they think decriminalization will end la inseguridad — chronic violence and stagnant economic prospects. 

“We’ll never get rid of the drug trade completely,” says Martín, a 38-year-old father of three who recently lost his job as a truck driver. “But decriminalization would bring it under control. And that should reduce the violence. It was under control before — it can be again.” 

Related: Why heroin is Mexican drug cartels' new product of choice

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institute who specializes in global drug policy, is not so sure.

Felbab-Brown said that if Mexico is going to take the route of drug legalization to reduce violence and increase legitimate employment opportunities, “it needs to resolve its law enforcement problem.” 

Drug cartels use extortion of local businesses from gas stations to avocado farms to dominate territory, and the Mexican government will need to find a way to ensure that this extortion is no longer possible. Otherwise, legal poppy farms will simply be another opportunity for extortion.

“Legalizing poppy cultivation would reduce one aspect of the violence only,” Felbab-Brown continued. That is, “the violence of the state against the campesinos” who have been growing poppies illegally.

If the AMLO government does decide to pursue a legalization law, observes Felbab-Brown, it is highly likely to pass through the Mexican congress because — unlike his predecessors — the incoming president will have control of the house. However, once passed, there could be a backlash from the international community, particularly the US, about its compliance with the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which governs member states’ legalization process. 

Closer to home, the director-general of citizen security organization Mexico Unido Contra La Delincuencia Lisa Sánchez says that there is, at least,  — unlike cannabis — a legal framework immediately available through the UN process for legalizing opium production. 

“We know what the prerequisites are and we know what mechanisms a country should activate in order to be able to join the legal market.” MUCD advocates for the regulation of all drugs in Mexico and is closely involved in proceedings to decriminalize cannabis.

Sánchez notes that the conversation about decriminalizing opium has only just begun, and the progress of cannabis regulation will likely take precedence. In both cases, a lot will depend on actions taken by the new government. 

"The diabolical triangle" — that's what Arturo López Torres calls the section of La Sierra where the most poppies are grown and the cartel-related violence is most concentrated. For campesinos, the unemployed, and all those across Mexico praying for greater security, the devil may also be in the details.

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.