HomeInvestigationsAs Marijuana Fades, Sinaloa’s Organized Crime Does Not
INVESTIGATIONS

As Marijuana Fades, Sinaloa’s Organized Crime Does Not

MARIJUANA / 6 DEC 2022 BY PARKER ASMANN AND VICTORIA DITTMAR* EN

In Mexico’s Golden Triangle, where the northwest states of Chihuahua, Durango, and Sinaloa converge to form the country’s epicenter of marijuana and heroin production, the shift away from plant-based drugs to synthetic drugs in recent years has upended the traditional relationship between small farmers and criminal groups.

As we climbed the two-lane road into the Sierra Madre mountain range, the fresh scent of pine poured from the cone-bearing evergreens. Behind us, we were leaving a lush valley filled with corn, beans, and tomatoes. In front of us, we were entering a forest of sturdy trunks that once provided cover for the illicit marijuana plantations that abounded deep within it. 

We soon turned onto a gravel path that led to a clearing. There, we met Francisco Ruíz Ochoa,** a farmer who guided us to a mid-sized plot of land beside several rows of crops protected by the cover of a greenhouse.

*This article is the third in a four-part investigation, "The End of (Illegal) Marijuana: What It Means for Criminal Dynamics in Mexico," diving into how the legalization of marijuana in a growing number of US states is impacting organized crime dynamics in Mexico. Read the full investigation here.

For generations, Ruíz's family lands were mostly populated by cannabis and poppies. The crops were sold to local Mexican criminal groups, which would then process the cannabis plant into the final marijuana product, and the opium gum into heroin before exporting it abroad, primarily to consumers in the United States.

Today, Ruíz says he has no illicit crops and says most of the other plots of land in this small community of about a thousand people have also stopped growing cannabis and poppy. Instead, Ruíz grows juniper trees, Fresno chillies, peaches, and other products to sell as part of a government-funded rural development program known as Sembrando Vida. It provides stipends to rural producers like him to support the planting of goods like these and reverse environmental degradation. 

The shift is part of a sea change in the region. For decades, criminal groups relied heavily on farming communities to harvest illicit crops. After the United States largely legalized marijuana and consumers shifted from heroin to the synthetic opioid, fentanyl, that is no longer the case.

Prices for these crops have plummeted, and groups like the Sinaloa Cartel, which has long dominated the region, have moved towards producing and exporting synthetic drugs. Unlike plant-based drugs, synthetic drug production does not require much land or a significant workforce composed of small farmers, leaving Ruíz and his neighbors searching for new horizons.

One place where this transformation is particularly evident is the sierra of Sinaloa, where many small farmers like Ruíz have abandoned cannabis and opium cultivation. Some have moved to other crops, often with the help of government-funded programs like Sembrando Vida. In contrast, others have left farming altogether and migrated internally to work elsewhere in the state.

In Sinaloa’s sierra, programs like Sembrando Vida give residents some semblance of peace. In years past, the Mexican military brutalized small farmers as part of US-backed eradication campaigns targeting marijuana production. With Sembrando Vida, Ruíz says soldiers no longer harass him; neither do members of the Sinaloa Cartel.

“We used to live in fear of the army. Their eradication campaigns were brutal, and they would attack anyone near marijuana or poppy plantations,” Ruíz recalled. “Today, our relationship with them has improved considerably.”

However, the transition is still in its early stages and remains bumpy. The results of Sembrando Vida vary, and much more evidence is needed to determine whether the program is achieving its goals. Elsewhere in Sinaloa, for example, local farmers told InSight Crime that some participants in the program continued to cultivate cannabis and opium poppies to supplement the stipend they received from the government.

And even while farmers move away from illicit crops, criminality remains ever-present.

Armed Convoys, Displaced People

The descent from the mountainside back into the valley below was slow. The two-lane highway was filled with sharp twists and turns, making it hard for the car to gain any significant speed despite the downward slope.

For a long time on that Spring afternoon, our only company were a couple of sedans, until, in the distance, we saw an oversized pick-up truck. It had pulled partially off to the road, so it was easy to spot the close to a dozen men wearing black, bulletproof vests, tactical helmets, and armed with assault rifles in the truck’s bed. On the outside of the vests read the word “Ejército,” or military, in white letters, with a red, white, and green line underneath.

They did not see us; their gaze was fixed on the brush off the road. But as we passed the truck, we could see that some of the men wore short-sleeved polo shirts beneath their vests. Others wore jeans and tennis shoes. These were, in other words, not members of the Mexican military. Cars drove by the truck from both directions. Nobody stopped. No police or military patrols passed.

The scene was a stark reminder of the sinister presence criminal groups still maintain in the Golden Triangle despite changes to the drug trafficking landscape. The decades-long economic dependence small farmers have had on illicit crops and the lack of state support in production regions allowed organized crime groups to cultivate a certain level of criminal governance. With or without plant-based drugs and programs like Sembrando Vida, criminal groups still have a presence in Sinaloa.

SEE ALSO: As Marijuana Profits Dry Up, Mexico Crime Groups Turn to Alcohol and Logging

To be sure, farmers in the Sembrando Vida program and cannabis producers in Culiacán told InSight Crime that networks associated with the Sinaloa Cartel still controlled who could buy marijuana from producers and punished those who broke these unwritten rules.

Instead of being exported, a growing percentage of this marijuana supplies more than a dozen informal dispensaries in the state’s capital city, Culiacán, a thriving metropolis of close to a million people. It’s also transported to major cities like Guadalajara and Mexico City. 

But while criminal groups have started to shift their focus towards Mexico’s growing, increasingly less regulated, decriminalized local consumer market, they still exert their will through violence in the countryside. Forced displacement, for example, continues across the most remote areas of the Golden Triangle, according to local authorities and activists.

Indeed, fighting among organized crime groups reportedly displaced at least 300 families in Sinaloa in 2020 alone, the sixth-highest across Mexico, according to data published by the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights (Comisión Mexicana para la Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos -- CMDPDH).

It is unclear how much of this violence is related to illicit crops, but local authorities told InSight Crime it was, in part, related to efforts by criminal groups to exert control over a new, booming industry: synthetic drugs.

One Danger Replaced by Another

It’s around 9 a.m. on a cloudless day, and in a region locals call the “valley,” the sun beats down relentlessly onto the backs of dozens of workers bent over to tend to the agricultural fields that abound to the northwest and south of Culiacán. The cultivation of tomato, cucumber, chile, and other vegetables has made the agribusinesses that export these products wealthy. Those profits, however, haven’t trickled down to the workers.

The living and working conditions on these sites are precarious. Workers are crammed into barren living quarters equipped with little more than two bunk beds. They are meant to house maybe four individuals but shelter many more. For a day of their back-breaking labor, each employee makes between 250 and 300 Mexican pesos, about $12-$15. But it still attracts people from all over Mexico and, increasingly, the small farmers who have left their marijuana and poppy plantations in the sierra

Following the crash of cannabis and poppy prices, work is tough to find. Former illicit crop farmers also take delivery jobs or become truck drivers in other major cities like Culiacán, Los Mochis, and Mazatlán. But the shift to yet another form of demanding work has brought them into contact with another danger: synthetic drugs. 

Over the last few years, Sinaloa has emerged as one of the most important places for Mexican production of methamphetamine and fentanyl. While much of this is smuggled across the US-Mexico border to consumers in the United States, a growing percentage feeds demand at home.

SEE ALSO: In Sinaloa, Mexico, a Deadly Mix of Synthetic Drugs and Forced Disappearances

For farm laborers, truck drivers, and others working long hours for little pay, consuming cheap synthetic drugs, especially methamphetamine, has become part of their routine. According to locals, the drugs keep them alert and prolong the hours they can work. 

“Methamphetamine helps agricultural workers endure the harsh conditions in the fields. It’s widely consumed,” said one community leader interviewed by InSight Crime in a village close to a major agricultural production zone.

It’s also cheap. Across Sinaloa’s three major cities, a typical dose of methamphetamine can be purchased on the street for as little as 50 pesos, about $2.50. The increased consumption of these day laborers is part of a boom in health issues related to synthetic drugs around the country.

Methamphetamine is now one of the most abused drugs and a growing number of people are seeking treatment for fentanyl use, according to data from the Mexican Observatory of Mental Health and Drug Consumption (Observatorio Mexicano de Salud Mental y Consumo de Drogas) -- a stark reminder that the story of illegal drugs in places like Sinaloa has many chapters to be written.

*Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, Michael Lettieri, and Marcos Vizcarra contributed reporting to this article.

**For security reasons, InSight Crime changed the names of those interviewed.

*This article is the third in a four-part investigation, "The End of (Illegal) Marijuana: What It Means for Criminal Dynamics in Mexico," diving into how the legalization of marijuana in a growing number of US states is impacting organized crime dynamics in Mexico. Read the full investigation here.

share icon icon icon

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Related Content

ECUADOR / 5 FEB 2020

For Ecuador, the death of one of the country’s most notorious homegrown drug traffickers was the end of an era.

COLOMBIA / 6 NOV 2018

As the opioid crisis continues to ravage the United States, with a record number of overdose deaths, crime groups in…

MEXICO / 25 AUG 2017

A new video provides an inside look at the operations of small-scale drug trafficking groups on the campus of…

icon #SupportFreePress
image

Support Our Work

Investigating organized crime is an expensive and often risky enterprise. Reaching primary sources and getting the real story involve extensive fieldwork. Please donate. Every dollar supports our mission.

DONATE NOW image