A Mexican soldier throws poppies onto a fire during an eradication operation in Guerrero state’s Tierra Caliente, or Hot Lands, where flowers that are used to produce heroin are grown and where violence has skyrocketed.In this skittish town on Mexico’s heroin highway, civilians with rusty shotguns shake down passing cars for contributions to the public defense. The police were disbanded years ago. The mayor recently got a death threat and fled in the governor’s helicopter.
But it’s when Highway 51 drops down from the rolling hills, and runs west in two lonely lanes across the scorched valley floor, that danger really starts to poison people’s lives. Drug bosses known as “the Tequila Man”and “the Fish” rule like feudal lords, at war with each other and the vigilante groups that have risen against them. Residents get kidnapped in groups. Tortured corpses are discarded in the valley, left to sear on hot pavement.
The opioid epidemic that has caused so much pain in the United States is also savaging Mexico, contributing to a breakdown of order in rural areas. Heroin is like steroids for drug gangs, pumping money and muscle into their fight to control territory and transportation routes to the United States.
Mexico provides more than 90 percent of America’s heroin, up from less than 10 percent in 2003, when Colombia was the main supplier. Poppy production has expanded by about 800 percent in a decade as U.S. demand has soared. The western state of Guerrero is the center of this business, producing more than half of Mexico’s opium poppies, the base ingredient for heroin. Guerrero also has become the most violent state in Mexico, with more than 2,200 killings last year.
“These groups have transformed themselves into a super-criminal power,” said Ricardo Mejia Berdeja, the head of the security committee in the Guerrero state congress. “The anchor for organized crime is heroin poppy.”
Guerrero has produced marijuana and poppies for decades. But organized crime used to be more organized, with one main cartel in the state quietly paying off police and officials and moving drugs. The booming heroin business has encouraged the rise of new gun-toting trafficking bands, which in turn has triggered the rise of citizen militias.
Along this 110-mile stretch of Highway 51 in the region known as Tierra Caliente, or Hot Lands,below the poppy-carpeted slopes of the Sierra Madre del Sur mountains, the social breakdown is plain to see. More than 200 schools have closed periodically in recent months as striking teachers protested rampant criminality. The Mexican army moved into one town this month to wrest control from a civilian militia that was threatening a nearby village.
“This is a land without law,” said one businessman who works in the region.
Nicolas Bartolo turned off Highway 51 at the town of Tlapehuala and headed south on a dirt road through fields of dead cornstalks. It is the dry season, and plumes of smoke muddied the sky as farmers burned their lands for planting. Bartolo made the sign of the cross and kept driving.
“We used to be free here,” he said.
Bartolo works construction and plays guitar in a band named La Leyenda (The Legend), which tours the towns of Tierra Caliente. Nearly everyone out here is forced to deal with the drug gangs, which have diversified into extortion, kidnapping and just plain robbery. At the sites where Bartolo works, gunmen have stolen trucks and a solar-powered generator to use in the poppy-growing mountains. Bartolo’s employer must pay one cartel at least $300 a month for each piece of heavy machinery — such as excavators and backhoes —used on a project. If the firm doesn’t pay, it risks further robberies or attacks.
Slowly, the region’s economy is being asphyxiated by the criminal groups. Business owners say that vendors of mangos, cucumbers and other produce must pay cartels one peso — about 5 cents — per kilogram they sell. Restaurants needing chicken meat are forced to buy from gang-specified suppliers.