HomeInvestigationsMaking Sense of Mexico's Heroin Production

Making Sense of Mexico's Heroin Production



Two of the most important annual reports about drug production have been released, and with them comes the inevitable diplomatic tiffs over who has the right numbers. In the case of Mexico, one of the focuses is on heroin production.

The two reports, issued by the United States State Department and the United Nations, say heroin production has nearly tripled in Mexico since 2007. But Mexican officials question the math, and a closer look at the numbers reveals that they have a solid case.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the overwhelming majority of the world’s poppy, the raw material for heroin, is concentrated in Afghanistan where close to 90 percent of the world’s heroin is produced. Most of this production services the world’s largest consumer market, Asia, and the world’s fastest growing consumer market, Eastern Europe.

In comparison, the United States has a relatively small heroin consuming population. Mexico largely services this consumption, with an increasing amount of heroin going to an alarmingly high, albeit small, local consumption. And Mexico is, without question, the region’s top producer, with Guatemala, then Colombia, a very distant second and third respectively.

But just how much is Mexico producing?

The 2011 United States State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report says that poppy production increased 31 percent between 2008 and 2009 to 19,500 hectares. This is up from an estimated 6,900 hectares in 2007, close to a 300 percent increase in production, which has caused Mexico, in the State Department’s estimate, to become the world’s second largest producer of poppy.

"While opium poppy cultivation in Mexico is very sparse in comparison to the densities estimated in Burma and Afghanistan, Mexico’s share of global poppy production has been increasing in recent years; estimates show that Mexico surpassed Burma as the world’s second largest poppy cultivator in 2009," the report states. (See Mexico country report here.)

For its part, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) relies  this production translated into close to 18 tons of heroin produced in 2007, and into 39 tons in 2009 (see p.138). The UN’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), in its report issued last week, refers to the UNODC report.

“Increased illicit heroin manufacture in Mexico and the increased involvement of Mexican criminal groups in trafficking in drugs from South America resulted in an increased amount of heroin being seized along the south-west border of the United States. Heroin continues to be widely available in the United States. In some areas of the United States, the availability of heroin is increasing, as evidenced by high purity levels and low prices,” the INCB report says (see p.68).

However, Mexican authorities say there is no basis for these numbers. They do not offer any estimates on production, but they are quick to point out that consumption levels in the region, as measured by the UNODC's 2010 report (see p.158), were largely steady during the time period the United States and the United Nations say production levels of poppy and heroin were skyrocketing.

If we dig a little deeper, the U.S. and UN numbers become even more questionable. The UN estimates the U.S. market consumes between 20 tons of heroin per year (see p.41 of UNODC report). Of this, the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to its heroin signature program, tracked 39 percent back to Mexico. If you add Mexican domestic consumption (1-2 tons), exports to third countries (very little, according to intelligence officials), and the estimated 2.5 tons seized on both sides of the border, we reach a total of just over 13 tons of Mexican product available to the market. Yet the United States says Mexico produced 38 tons in 2008, and 30 percent more than that in 2009.

In essence, the United States and the United Nations are saying that the Mexican drug traffickers are producing more than three times what their market share is, which should result in a significant drop in prices, a hike in the number of overdoses registered in hospitals, an uptick in people seeking treatment, and other indicators, something U.S. authorities have not seen.

"The estimate is massively off-base," one Mexican official, who requested anonymity, told InSight. “What we have here is the mysterious case of the invisible heroin."

But while in private, Mexican authorities are seething, in public, they have taken a more subtle approach.

Instead of referring to what they see as skewed production figures that do not match consumption in the region, Mexican National Security Advisor Alejandro Poire said in a press conference (see minute 4:00 of video below) last week that the government of Mexico has seized 16 percent more heroin than the previous administration and 68 percent more than the period 1994 - 1999.

Measuring poppy and coca production has always been an inexact science. As InSight illustrated last week, the figures surrounding coca production are constantly at the center of a debate, even if there is a consensus about the tendencies.

The subjects of these studies -- especially those in source countries -- say that the results are politicized in order to justify continuing intervention in their public security policies and obtain continued support domestically for said policies.

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