Confrontation over Poppy Eradication in Guerrero Highlights Shifting Trends in Drug Production

Photo: Jorge Lezama, Cuartoscuro
Photo: Jorge Lezama, Cuartoscuro

02/05/2021 (written by rramos) – A hostile encounter between opium poppy farmers and military personnel in the southern state of Guerrero illustrates the increasingly difficult plight of Mexico’s rural poppy growers, a situation that reflects broader shifts in the nature of drug production in the country. 

Farmers Resist Eradicators to Defend Crops

The confrontation took place on the morning of January 24 in the town of San Miguel Totolapan, where a group of roughly 200 farmers gathered in an attempt to thwart a forced eradication operation being conducted by the Army. Equipped with clubs and sticks, the farmers tried to block the path of troops moving towards fields of opium poppy they had been cultivating. Shortly after the soldiers came upon the farmers’ blockade, a brawl involving pushing and shoving between the two groups ensued. In a phone interview with Sin Embargo, one of the farmers stated that some of the troops, estimated to number around 150, aimed their firearms at the growers, ultimately forcing them to desist and allow the soldiers to proceed toward the poppy fields. The farmer went on to claim that peasants in the area were motivated to challenge the troops because in the days preceding the January 24 encounter, the Army had destroyed 50 hectares of poppy plants that local residents had been cultivating across seven rural communities in the San Miguel Totolapan municipality.

Clashes between poppy growers and security forces looking to carry out crop eradication operations are not without precedent. Residents in poppy-producing areas, which are largely impoverished and marginalized, often feel compelled to defend poppy fields from destruction by authorities because these represent the only meaningful source of income for their families. However, disputes between poppy farmers and government forces appear to be occurring more regularly in Guerrero, which has long been an important hub of poppy cultivation in Mexico. Last year, farmers in the town of Heliodoro Castillo attacked Army helicopters with rocks and various types of projectiles in an attempt to ward off aerial fumigation of poppy fields in the area. In December 2020, poppy growers managed to drive away government eradicators following a tense standoff in San Miguel Totolapan, the same municipality in which the January 24 confrontation would take place only a month later.

Worsening Situation for Opium Poppy-Growing Communities

The growing number of incidents in which farmers have organized themselves to disrupt eradication efforts may be an indication of the increasing desperation felt by poppy-growing communities in the wake of deteriorating economic conditions. In particular, regions of Guerrero that have relied on poppy cultivation have been severely impacted by a dramatic collapse in the price of opium gum, which is extracted from poppy plants to be used in the production of heroin. Throughout the state, farmers have been forced to find other sources of income as earnings from growing poppy have dried up. According to the New York Times, the price of opium gum in Mexico has plunged rapidly, falling from a peak of up to $1,300 per kilo in 2017 to roughly $110 by mid-2019. This has set off a widespread exodus from rural towns and villages in Guerrero, with large numbers of farmers worried that the precipitous drop in the value of opium gum will push them further into poverty and leave them with no means to earn a sufficient living.

Criminal Focus Shifting in Favor of Synthetic Drugs

The significant decline in the price of opium gum has been attributed to drug trafficking organizations shifting their attention away from traditional, plant-based drugs like heroin, and toward synthetic drugs, such as fentanyl. Analysts have argued that this growing preference is due partly to the belief that synthetic drugs are considerably cheaper and less time-consuming to produce compared to plant-based drugs. In an interview with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Cecilia Farfán-Méndez, a researcher at the University of California, San Diego’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, explains that the production of heroin depends on labor-intensive and expensive tasks that take place over prolonged periods of time, such as tending to large fields of poppy plants and processing opium gum. In contrast, synthetic drugs like fentanyl can be manufactured much more rapidly in clandestine labs because their production “doesn’t have to rely on acreage, farm laborers, pests, and weather,” all of which are critical factors in producing heroin. Along with reducing operational costs, a further advantage of fentanyl for drug trafficking organizations is its ability to generate larger profits, as the drug is significantly more potent than heroin, even in small quantities. 

This new emphasis on synthetic drugs and decreased interest in heroin seem to be reflected not only in falling prices for opium gum, but also in remarkable fluctuations in the levels of poppy cultivation in Mexico. Data from the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) showe that opium poppy cultivation in Mexico had skyrocketed from roughly 10,500 hectares (ha) to over 44,100 ha in the five-year period between 2012 and 2017. By 2018, however, poppy levels began to drop back down as fentanyl surged in popularity among drug traffickers and users, with the ONDCP estimating in July 2020 that poppy cultivation had fallen to 30,400 ha by 2019. If this downward trend continues, poppy farmers in Mexico may find themselves under greater financial strain, heightening the risk of more clashes with authorities over eradication as growers strive to preserve their dwindling source of livelihood.


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Villegas Moreno, Carmen Leticia. “Lanzan cohetes a helicópteros del Ejército por fumigar amapola.” Debate. January 24, 2020. 

Cuvillier, Laurence & Comin, Mathieu. “En México, el fentanilo acelera el éxodo rural de los cultivadores de amapola.” France 24. April 21, 2020. 

Davis, Kristina. “What does the future hold for Mexico’s opium poppy farmers?” San Diego Union-Tribune. July 3, 2020. 

Esposito, Anthony & Cortés Fernández, Raúl. “Cultivo de amapola cae en México, mantiene producción droga sintética : EEUU.” Reuters. July 31, 2020. 

De Dios Palma, Arturo. “Amagan con impedir destrucción de amapola en Guerrero.” El Universal. October 8, 2020. 

Agustín Esteban, Rogelio. “‘Es lo único que tenemos’: campesinos impiden destrucción de plantíos de amapola.” Milenio. December 6, 2020. 

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The Role of Mexico’s Drug Cartels in the U.S. Fentanyl Crisis


Todd Heisler/The New York Times

Todd Heisler/The New York Times

05/13/19- (written by Aitanna Ferrez) The surge of opioid overdoses in the United States has killed tens of thousands of people in recent years and, according to the New York Times, has become the leading cause of death for U.S. citizens under the age of 55.  In particular, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin and has been a major contributor to the crisis. Fentanyl is often used by drug traffickers and dealers as an additive to enhance the effect of other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, MDMA, and even counterfeit prescription drugs. In recent years, numerous opioid deaths have been attributed to the proliferation of fentanyl, because even small variations in quantity can lead to overdoses.


Historically, fentanyl has been predominantly manufactured in China and often directly shipped to the United States. Mexican drug cartels have predominantly functioned as intermediaries in the distribution of fentanyl. Following an April 1st decision by the Chinese National Narcotics Control Commission to regulate fentanyl and all chemically similar variants as a class of controlled substances, it is possible that Mexican cartels will now become more important suppliers of illicit fentanyl. According to an InSight Crime report focused on the severity of Mexico’s contribution to the deadly rise of fentanyl, Mexico has become not only a major transit country, but also a key production point for fentanyl and its chemical variants. Furthermore, Insight Crime’s investigation shows that Mexican traffickers appear to be playing a role in the distribution of fentanyl within the United States, with Mexico’s two largest criminal organizations—the Sinaloa Cartel and the Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG)—being the two most prominent purveyors of the drug. According to the report, these and other Mexican criminal organizations continue to transport and distribute fentanyl using the same routes employed for other illicit drugs.


According to the Insight Crime report, the Mexican government “does not see fentanyl as an important issue yet and has not devoted significant resources towards finding the principal drivers of the trade inside its borders.” This is a serious concern given the degree to which fentanyl is dramatically reshaping the illicit drug trade. Simultaneously, this is having disastrous effects in Mexican drug producing regions, according to a report produced by the Wilson Center, NORIA, and Justice in Mexico. This report emphasizes that with “the upsurge in fentanyl use, the demand for Mexican heroin has sharply fallen,” causing village economies to “dry up” and “out migration” on the upward trend. Altogether, the report highlights the how a modernization of Mexico’s drug policies would solve problems to a wealth of unanswered questions and help bring marginalized regions into the country for good.


The new paradigm, created by the rise of fentanyl, may require Mexico and the United States to move away from past approaches dealing with drugs. As fentanyl begins to atomize the market, it will be more difficult to identify and arrest major traffickers like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, a practice that has not been particularly effective in preventing drug use. According to Insight Crime founder Steven Dudley in a contribution to Foreign Affairs Magazine, “Dealing with illicit drugs requires a holistic approach dedicated to understanding the complexity of drug use and its ripple effects on everything from the rule of law to democracy.”



Dudley, Steven, et al. “Mexico’s Role in the Deadly Rise of Fentanyl – Investigation.” InSight Crime, Wilson Center: Mexico Institute, Feb. 2019

Dudley, Steven. “The End of the Big Cartels.” Foreign Affairs, Foreign Affairs Magazine, 4 Mar. 2019,

Hassan, Adeel. “Deaths From Drugs and Suicide Reach a Record in the U.S.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Mar. 2019,

Le Cour Grandmaison, Romain, et al. “The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?” Wilson Center, 12 Feb. 2019,






New Justice in Mexico and Wilson Center Report: The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?


02/11/19- Fentanyl overdoses in the United States have risen tenfold in just four years and are now related to 60% of total opioid deaths. According to a working paper by Romain LeCour Grandmaison, Nathaniel Morris and Benjamin T. Smith, the dramatic increase of fentanyl use in the United State is generating a parallel and rapid collapse in the price offered for raw opium in rural Mexico. In the working paper titled “The U.S. Fentanyl Boom and the Mexican Opium Crisis: Finding Opportunities Amidst Violence?” the authors utilize the case studies of two villages in Nayarit and Guerrero, Mexico, respectively, to analyze the socio-political effects of U.S. fentanyl use on the opium and heroin economy in Mexico. The findings of this study have important implications for public security in Mexico, as well as major ramifications for international counter-drug efforts.

The authors provide historical context to illustrate the trends in the Mexican opium markets. There were various increases and declines in the production of the drug within Mexico before the 1990s. A notable change to opium production came with the introduction of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994, which gradually increased price competition until 2008, thereby negatively affecting Mexican rural communities. As a result, many farmers turned to the cultivation of narcotics. According to United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the number of hectares of opium poppies in Mexico increased from 1,900 hectares in 2000 to 44,100 hectares in 2017.


The authors illustrate the effects of the shift from heroin to fentanyl through two case studies: Village A, located in Nayarit, and Village B, located in Guerrero. Both villages are poorer than the national average with 61.6% of the population of Village A and 33% of the population of Village B living in extreme poverty. Additionally, both villages are located in states that face high levels of violence.

The people of Village A have traditionally depended on agriculture for their livelihoods. Beginning the in mid-1980s, the inhabitants began depending on the cultivation of opium poppies and, to a lesser extent, marijuana to supplement their income with very little knowledge of the laws prohibiting these narcotics. However, with the fentanyl crisis, the last year has seen a more than 50% decline in the price of opium in Village A from 18,000 – 20,000 pesos ($950 – $1,050 dollars) per kilo in early 2017 to 8,000 pesos ($420 dollars) per kilo by mid-2018. As a result, some villagers have emigrated while other have become wage-laborers for drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) that they previously had little contact with.

According to the authors, 95% of males in Village B are involved in poppy production. While most people are involved in cultivation, a substantial number is also involved in the processing of opium paste into heroin. Local drug bosses sell the pure heroin to bigger organizations that are capable of selling and transporting the drug. Before the fentanyl crisis, a local farmer could make around 80,000 pesos ($4,230 dollars) a year through poppy cultivation. However, between October 2017 and the summer of 2018, prices dropped to 6,000 pesos ($315 dollars) a kilo. As with the case of Village A, locals are concerned that should the decline in prices continue, they would be forced to leave their village. The problems confronting the inhabitants of Village A and B signal larger trends, such as the value of opium to rural communities in Mexico and the radical decrease of value of opium over the past year.



The authors offer that the current opium crisis may provide an opportunity to shift from their dependency on illicit crops and away from drug trafficking. The high risk involved in the production of narcotics that was previously outweighed by large returns may no longer be worth it as a result of price declines. In their paper, the authors examine two alternatives widely touted by politicians as solutions to poverty and violence: drug legalization, which could convert the cultivation of opium into morphine production for Mexican hospitals, and crop substitution, or the replacement of the cultivation of illicit crops for food cultivation. The authors find neither of these solutions are “silver bullets.” Additionally, although there has been a reduction in heroin production, this will not likely lead to lasting peace, as DTOs are liable to move to other illicit activities. Despite these concerns, if legalization and crop substitution are properly implemented and combined with broader security policies, they could integrate rural areas into the country for good.