Mexico has for the first time released its own estimates for the amount of land dedicated to poppy cultivation, and the figures contradict expectations that the government would downplay the extent of its poppy problem.

Authorities said on June 22 that Mexico averaged 24,800 hectares of illicit poppy crops between July 2014 and June 2015. That average is based on maximum cultivation of 28,100 hectares in peak growing season and a minimum of 21,500 hectares dedicated to the flower.

Mexico is now the world’s third largest producer of opium poppies. According to data from this week’s World Drug Report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Mexico accounted for 9 percent of territory dedicated to poppy cultivation around the world in 2015.

The clandestine poppy plots — or gardens as theyre often called by the humble poppy farmers that tend them — are concentrated in the northern states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, Durango and Nayarit and the southern states of Guerrero and Oaxaca, according to the newly published (pdf) findings.

The figures — which exceed the most recent US government estimates for poppy crops in Mexico — were the result of a three-year research project carried out using a methodology developed jointly with the UNODC.

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Antonio Mazzitelli, representative for the UNODC in Mexico, said that the new data is an important step towards transparency on the part of the Mexican authorities.

In the past, the Mexican government had only published eradication figures for poppy crops. The latest eradication stats from SEDENA, Mexicos Defense secretary, say that between January and May of this year soldiers cut down just over 15,000 hectares of poppy plants across the country.

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Figures on poppy cultivation and heroin production have become an increasingly political issue in Mexicos relationship with its northern neighbor.

Drug-related violence in Mexico stoked by an increasingly militarized government crackdown on organized crime, a strategy that is partly funded by the US, continues to be a major public security problem.

Booming demand for heroin on the streets of US cities and growing heroin-related deaths makes Mexico’s poppy cultivation an important issue in Washington. Mexican heroin now dominates street markets in many cities in the United States, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), so an update to the statistics was long overdue.

The most recent US government figures are for 2014 and estimate that there were 17,000 hectares of poppy in Mexico, a 59 percent increase from the 2013 estimate of 11,000.

The latest UNODC estimates are for 2012, when the body calculated that there were 10,500 hectares of illicit poppy crops in Mexico. While the US government figures pointed to a big increase in Mexican poppy production between 2013 and 2014, UNODC figures indicate that the amount of land dedicated to cultivation fell between 2009, when it was 19,500 hectares, and 2012 (UNODC World Drug Report, 2015, pdf).

That the fresh Mexican government estimate indicates a spike in poppy cultivation may come as a surprise to some, who might have expected the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto to play down that figure. Mexican officials have in the past described US government estimates as massively off-base.

However, the new figures do provide justification for Mexico’s controversial crackdown on drug cartels.

The hardline strategy, started by Peña Nietos predecessor Felipe Calderon, has put Mexicos army on the streets to fight the country’s powerful organized crime networks. But both soldiers and police at all levels have been accused of grave human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances. A recent study by Open Society Foundations concluded that Mexicos government might be guilty of crimes against humanity, and there has been pushback both at home and abroad against the policy.

Corruption within the police — at least at a state and municipal level — is so endemic that state agents have sometimes acted as the armed wing of criminal gangs, as the mass disappearance of 43 students from a rural teachers college in Guerrero in September 2014 showed.

But the presidency has been making efforts to change its tone on illicit drugs, the most striking example being President Peña Nietos about-face on marijuana legalization. He voiced staunch opposition to legalization right up until he proposed legalizing medical marijuana.

Despite skepticism that the Mexican government means what it says, it would be cynical not to give it credit for its efforts to quantify, for the first time, the illicit poppy crops growing in its territories.

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