The fall in heroin prices in the United States and the devastating economic effect this has had on poppy-growing communities in Mexico has been widely discussed and often attributed to the rise of cheaper chemical alternatives, such as fentanyl.

But a new international research project believes the real problems and eventual solutions to this crisis lie much deeper. Romain Le Cour Grandmaison and Cecilia Farfán-Méndez from Noria Research are spearheading the Mexico Opium Network, launched in July 2020, which aims to provide a complete, data-driven panorama of Mexico’s opium economy to then help guide public debate.

InSight Crime sat down with the two researchers to discuss just how complex and misunderstood the dynamics driving Mexico’s struggling opium economy really are.

InSight Crime (IC): In 2019, Noria Research looked into the opium economy in Mexico today and the pressures it came under due to the rise in fentanyl use in the United States. A year on, you have launched the Mexico Opium Network. What factors have led to the creation of this research project and why is it needed today?

Romain Le Cour (RLC): In 2019, we published a report on what we call the “opium crisis” in Mexico, meaning the economic crisis of the production of opium and heroin. We had been documenting this through fieldwork. We wanted to provide a dose of reality to the huge economic figures usually associated with the discussion of illegal drugs.

We hear about opium in Mexico in terms of drug trafficking, violence and internal security. We don’t hear much about the social, economic and political realities of the regions that live from the opium economy.

SEE ALSO: Small Farmers Hurting in Mexico’s Poppy Growing Heartland

There has been an evolution in the opium economy, going from a highly profitable era for 15-20 years where prices reached their highest peak. Those prices have now gone down. What we documented last year was that the evolution of this opium economy was not really well known in Mexico.

The Mexico Opium Network is meant to fill this gap. We don’t know enough about what is going on in these rural, marginalized areas of Mexico. And that means we are less able to propose any possible policy solutions.

IC: Why do you think public policies to address a reduction in opium crops or to reduce violence linked to this crop have failed in Mexico? Why can the Network succeed where others have failed?

RLC: The actions taken by public authorities towards opium production in Mexico have never really changed. From the 1930s to now, the priority has always been the suppression of crops. The response has been militarized, accompanied by destruction and fumigation campaigns.

But these actions were never intended to destroy the opium economy altogether. It is too important for the survival of these regions. The opium economy does not only maintain drug traffickers and farmers. It sustains the local economy and serves a political system, which relies on it to gain money and to govern these regions in Mexico.

The objective was never to reduce violence. Violence is not an obstacle to political power in Mexico. Therefore, governments, including the current one, criminalize farmers and eradicate the poppies. But without proposing real economic, social and political situations, the opium economy will remain as it is fueled by foreign demand, mostly in the United States.

A soldier stands guard in a poppy field. Source: AP

We need to study these questions through cultural, economic, political and social-political lenses. This is what Noria Research and the Mexico Opium Network want to achieve. We are not looking for the silver bullet in terms of public policy. We want to produce robust, evidence-based knowledge on the state of the opium economy in the states of Guerrero, Nayarit, Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango.

Cecilia Farfán-Méndez (CFM): Public policies need to be evidence-based. One of the key functions of the network is to produce information that can help guide policy decisions. As occurs in other parts of the world, the decision to grow opium is not solely based on prices. We need to understand what factors incentivize a given farmer to enter the opium economy. Until we have this information, data on crop destruction will provide an incomplete picture.

IC: What are the major challenges facing the development of alternative economic strategies for rural communities depending on opium production?

RLC: Crop substitution programs have shown results around the world but they can often be used as a simple solution to a complex issue. Farmers have told us that they have specialized in farming only opium for over 20 years.

You once had people who grew legal crops such as coffee, maize or melon in certain areas but then specialized in opium poppy because it was more profitable.

The younger generation has only ever worked in opium poppy production. It’s hard for them to think about growing something else. The knowledge has disappeared. That’s the first big challenge.

The second challenge is that fumigation and eradication policies have involved tremendous use of chemicals. And then farmers have used even stronger fertilizers and chemicals in turn to counter the impact of fumigation and eradication. The ecological effect of this has been catastrophic. The land has been contaminated by all this.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin

And real alternatives cannot be provided without support from public authorities, which is another problem. Some of these isolated areas have only been more marginalized by state policies like militarization. You need to reintegrate them into formal economies through public investment and providing alternatives. This could be facilitated by the fact that opium poppy is currently not as profitable as before. If the state had the political will to go in and offer solutions, now would be the time to do so. But we don’t see that political will.

CFM: Development strategies cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach. An area of focus for the network is to better understand female participation in the opium economy. In Mexico, 15.2 percent of families who depend on the agriculture and fishing industries have a woman as the head of the household. By learning what other tasks they perform [such as household tasks and dependent care], it will be possible to also design development strategies that keep these women in mind.

Cautionary tales abound, however, such as monocropping not being a viable alternative.

IC: The Mexico Opium Network states that what is known about the social dynamics of opium production has been a result of local media coverage. Why do you think these dynamics have not received the same attention internationally as, for example, the dynamics of coca production in Colombia?

RLC: We have very good media coverage and academic research into opium poppy dynamics in Mexico. But there is no systematic data about the structural parameters of the opium economy within the different regions of production. We don’t have reliable data, we don’t have historical perspectives on what’s going in specific regions and the social, cultural, economic and political dynamics embedded in the opium economy.

One of the main objectives of the Mexico Opium Network is to first gather the information we already have, systematize it and produce much more robust evidence-based knowledge to make comparisons with other countries that grow poppy, such as Colombia, Myanmar and Afghanistan.

IC: The United States’ strategy against cocaine has been to finance coca eradication campaigns, despite significant evidence of human rights abuses and real doubts about their effectiveness. How do you compare this to the pressure it has placed on Mexico about poppy?

RLC: The US strategy in Mexico has been the same as in other countries. There has been significant pressure on Mexico to eradicate poppy. There has been political and economic pressure as well as material support for eradication and cooperation in locating the crops.

This pressure to eradicate illicit crops has existed for decades and it doesn’t work. There is more illicit crop production anywhere you look.

Again, the model is not based on making these economies disappear, it’s based on pushing the war on drugs. If these economies disappeared, the war on drugs would disappear. That’s not the objective.

Everyone knows where the poppy fields are in Mexico and how the poppy is being transformed into heroin. There is no political will to fully eradicate this illicit economy.

CFM: I don’t think this is the entire explanation, but historically, there are precedents of eradication campaigns in Mexico that have had negative consequences for drug users in the United States. Furthermore, I wouldn’t state that heroin per se has been the threat so much as contaminated heroin with other synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and fentanyl analogues. Eradication, therefore, wouldn’t eliminate the problem.

IC: Fentanyl and the popularity of chemical drugs has played a part in the drop in opium prices, but isn’t it overly simplistic to view this as the only reason behind this drop?

RLC: The opium economy in Mexico is more fragile than before and chemical drugs are a major reason why. But they are not the only factor. There has also been significant overproduction in Mexico in recent years.

It has been widely reported that chemical drugs will replace natural drugs but I’m not sure it’s a zero-sum game. It’s a question of cohabitation between natural and chemical drug production, they are affected by a complicated market which is always evolving.

The Mexico Opium Network wants to document these variations in illicit economies. We know so little about it, but we want to go beyond the oversimplified narrative of chemical drugs replacing natural drugs. It’s too early to say that.

CFM: Markets for drugs are more complex than just cost reductions on the supply side. While we may see a rise in other synthetic drugs, I do not believe heroin will fully go away. There is a consumer side we do not fully understand, and this is just as relevant to price differentials as how cost changes due to the production of synthetics.

SEE ALSO: Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl

IC: The current Mexican government has claimed to be pushing initiatives to try and provide economic alternatives for poppy growers in Guerrero. Is there any evidence that these can make a difference?

RLC: The current Mexican government has made such claims in Guerrero and other parts of the country. But we haven’t seen them.

On the contrary, these communities are highly economically and socially marginalized, it’s been that way for decades and it hasn’t changed with the current administration.

Right now, we can’t say the government is changing anything in those areas. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated these dynamics. These regions are incredibly isolated and so far from the state’s reach. The presence of the state there can usually be seen through teachers and soldiers, and that hasn’t changed. We haven’t seen a plan that would really affect these criminal economies, just more militarization.

IC: The opium economy has been a major source of income for criminal groups in areas like Tierra Caliente, Guerrero, but as it dries up, they are likely to turn to other forms of income. What reaction have you witnessed from these groups adapting as heroin income dips?

RLC: In Tierra Caliente, you may have other economies like drug trafficking, but this project wants to go beyond Tierra Caliente. In Guerrero alone, you have so many realities outside Tierra Caliente, you have so many realities between Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango and Nayarit. We have to go inside those different realities to understand the political economies of opium production in Mexico. It goes beyond criminal groups and the “narco-narratives.”

The opium economy in Mexico is based on political power and control. Criminal groups will suffer from the economic crisis of opium production but the impact on the political power will be far wider and more complex. Criminals are not autonomous from political power, it’s never the case. It’s not that a criminal group will just move from drug trafficking to extortion. If a group is moving into extortion, it’s because it has the political protection to do so. The interaction between the legal and illegal worlds at that level is very interesting. We need to understand those relationships.

IC: And while this is very early days for the Mexico Opium Network, do you have an understanding of how much poppy cultivation is needed to sustain fentanyl, which is being produced and then cut with heroin?

RLC: The Mexico Opium Network wants to connect opium production in Mexico with consumption in Mexico and the United States. We want to carry out an investigation on the production side in Mexico, including trafficking, and do the same on the consumption side in the United States. We want to achieve a level of collaboration with researchers and analysts on consumption and trafficking in the United States. Through these connections, we’ll be able to fully connect the dots.

We talk so much about the opium economy, but we actually know so little about it.

*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Main Photo: AP