The United States has reportedly offered to help fund Mexico's eradication of opium poppy, raising questions about the efficacy of the supply-focused approach to drug control that both countries have adopted.
If the United States and Mexico can reach an agreement on how the major heroin-producing nation would do more and better eradication in the future, then the United States would be prepared to help fund it, US Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) William Brownfield said in recent comments to Reuters.
"That is on the table, but I don't want you to conclude that it's a done deal, because we still have to work through the details," added Brownfield, without putting a figure on how much the United States may be willing to provide Mexico.
His comments come at a time when relations between Mexico and the United States have been strained by President Donald Trump's plan to increase the length of the wall on the border between the two nations, as well as his insistence that Mexico will pay for it.
Despite that, bilateral cooperation on "the heroin challenge" is "better than it has been in the past," according to Brownfield.
Mexico's heroin trafficking and production levels have become a huge public health problem and law enforcement challenge for the United States. Overdose deaths related to heroin have soared, and heroin use has tripled since 2007. US heroin seizures have grown year on year, fed largely by Mexican production and trafficking efforts. In an interview with Bloomberg earlier this month, Brownfield -- who was appointed in 2011 by the Obama Administration, but has remained in his post since the arrival of President Donald Trump -- said that as much as 94 percent of the heroin entering the United States is trafficked from Mexico.
Recent reports suggest that much of the heroin arriving in the United States from Mexico is now also produced south of the border, and that Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are rivaling Colombian groups in terms of both market share and production volume. Fentanyl, a sometimes-deadly synthetic opioid that is much stronger than heroin, is also being produced in and trafficked through Mexico, although it is mostly manufactured in Asia.
Last year, the Mexican government published its first data on opium poppy cultivation, estimating that there was an average of 24,800 hectares of illicit poppy crops being grown between July 2014 and June 2015, figures that exceeded the most recent US government figures at that time.
The southern coastal state of Guerrero in Mexico, home to the popular yet extremely violent tourist resort of Acapulco, has become the epicenter of the country's heroin production boom, with many producers abandoning traditional crops like coffee and avocado to plant opium poppy instead. The state is also one of the country's most violent, and a battleground for competing criminal groups. Guerrero's Attorney General recently said that the state doesn't have the means to confront organized crime.
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Official figures from Mexico for 2015-2016 poppy cultivation have yet to be released. But a US official told Reuters that the area dedicated to growing poppies in Mexico reached 32,000 hectares in 2016, signalling a significant year on year increase. In contrast, Mexican security forces eradicated fewer hectares of poppy last year (22,235) than they did during 2015 (26,249), according to the latest figures from the National Secretary of Defense (Secretaría de la Defensa Nacional – SEDENA), which could also be a factor driving the US push for more eradication.
The United States has spent billions of dollars on aid to countries in Latin America to combat organized crime and drug trafficking, through vehicles such as the Mérida Initiative, Plan Colombia and more recently the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). In recent years, more of this money has focused on institutional capacity-building and other "softer" forms of aid, showing a shift away from the militaristic approach as the guiding principle of such packages exemplified in countries such as Mexico and Colombia. However, the pendulum could swing the other way under the Trump Administration, which is reassessing the amount and nature of this sort of funding.
SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles
Suggestions that the United States could now fund poppy eradication efforts in Mexico should be viewed in light of the case of Colombia. The United States has contributed billions of dollars to Colombia's coca eradication efforts, which boomed between 2006 and 2008. But those eradication efforts have had little long-term effect; Colombia today is producing more coca and cocaine than ever before, and use of the drug is rising both in the United States and South America.
In Mexico, the effectiveness of eradication efforts could vary regionally. In states such as Sinaloa, the planting of opium poppy is as much result of tradition as economic need. In Guerrero, on the other hand, where opium poppy cultivation is a more recent development, acute poverty is the driving force behind many farmers' decisions to grow the illicit crop. Thus, it is arguable that eradication efforts in Guerrero, if combined with poverty alleviation programs, could have more impact on convincing farmers to dedicate themselves to other crops than such programs would likely have in Sinaloa.
There is growing evidence that attacking the supply side of drug production can be counterproductive, and can even make the drug trade more profitable to criminal organizations. Some experts suggest that supply-side efforts need to be smarter and more strategic, while others now favor decriminalizing drug use altogether, as laid out in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times.
The US government needs to do more to address the root causes driving the demand for heroin at home if it wishes to seriously impact the current public health problem. InSight Crime Co-director Steven Dudley cited increased opioid prescriptions as a factor contributing to increased heroin consumption in the United States in May 2016 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Western Hemisphere subcommittee about Mexican drug cartels. Subsequent independent reports have also drawn this link.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin
Sam Quiñones, who follows the trend of users switching from powerful prescription narcotics such as OxyContin to high-quality Mexican heroin in his book "Dreamland," told InSight Crime via email that there are no easy answers to the heroin epidemic.
Although he thinks eradication in Mexico is important, Quiñones added that the "market has rapidly evolved in the last couple years, as Mexican traffickers have looked for new non-plant alternatives to heroin. Now we also have illicit fentanyl and carfentanyl increasingly all over the [United States], causing rapid overdosing and death. Eradicating crops in Mexico may well push traffickers even more to using those substances, which are cheap to make, very easy to smuggle, and horribly potent."
The United States has had some success in cracking down on pharmaceutical companies pushing painkiller subscriptions. But there is evidence that the US pharmaceutical industry has already poured millions of dollars into an effort to stop public health measures aimed at curbing over-prescription of opioid drugs. Moreover, there are emerging indications that the industry is planning to take its game plan global.
At the same time, there are also currently concerns that a health care plan proposed by members of the Republican party could reduce or abolish funding for opioid addicts. And there are lingering questions about the responsibility of private companies to take action on this issue.
"People wonder what the government has done to combat this. The government was the only entity battling this problem for years. The question is really, what has the private sector done, especially the pharmaceutical industry, to combat this? The answer is not much," said Quiñones.