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Mexico Drug Growers Switching to Heroin

Monday April 21, 2003 6:49 AM


TLAPA DE COMONFORT, Mexico (AP) - Marijuana has long been the main illegal crop on Mexico's Pacific coast, but now growers are switching to a more deadly and profitable product: high-grade opium poppies used to make heroin.

Mexican growers are using super-productive hybrid poppies from Colombia, and traffickers have also adopted some of the Colombians' more violent tactics - like shooting down police fumigation aircraft.

The rise in opium production, refining and smuggling is not only proving deadly for Mexican police; it also threatens to bring purer, more dangerous heroin to the United States.

In recent weeks, suspected drug growers shot down two government fumigation helicopters in southern Guerrero state, killing all five crewmen aboard. While routine in Colombia, those were the first such deaths in Mexico.

Suspected drug gunmen also killed a forestry inspector who was looking into reports of illegal timber cutting in Guerrero's mountains, where drug growers have hacked thousands of small plots into federal forests.

In the cash-strapped rural communities of the mountains inland from Acapulco, farmers often look to illicit plants when prices drop for traditional crops like coffee, corn and coconuts.

Residents of Tlapa, a largely Indian town about 20 miles east of where the helicopters were shot down, said recruiters show up with opium seeds and offer local farmers large payments to grow the crops.

``Marijuana was always around, but prices for it are pretty low, so now opium is the new thing,'' said Miguel Guadalupe Guadalupe, a rural political activist.

In the town square, people said a farmer can get $1,300 for 2.2 pounds of raw opium gum, hundreds of times what they can earn for marijuana.

Local officials did not respond to requests for comment on the reports about opium growing.

Juan Navarro Solano, a schoolteacher and the son of a coffee farmer, said coffee isn't worth the effort anymore. ``People basically have two choices: Either they leave - they emigrate - or they turn to illicit crops,'' he said.

Mexican drugs gangs have long produced a poorly refined ``black tar'' heroin that is normally injected by addicts. It has traditionally accounted for about 30 percent of the heroin sold in the United States.

In the 1990s, Mexico also became a transit point for a pure, potent white Colombian heroin that can be sniffed. That type accounts for roughly 60 percent of the U.S. heroin supply, and it is the type Mexican gangs are beginning to produce.

A Drug Enforcement Administration report warned last year that ``the increasing purity of Mexican heroin, as well as ready supplies of high-purity white heroin, may result in geographic 'pockets of overdoses' in the United States.''

The stakes are high. The number of heroin addicts in the United States rose from 630,000 in 1992 to an estimated 977,000 in 2002, the DEA says. That increase was largely fueled by Colombian growers, who began elbowing Asian producers out of the U.S. market in the late 1980s.

Now the Mexican traffickers are looking to move in. In late March, soldiers patrolling in Guerrero found two heroin processing labs that held 265 pounds of opium gum, enough for about 120,000 street doses. And Mexican ``mules'' - low-level smugglers - are increasingly replacing Colombians in the heroin trade.

In 2001, the last year for which estimates are available, Mexico produced an estimated 7.8 tons of heroin, well above its average yearly output of 6.8 tons over the preceding five years.

The hybrid poppies coming from Colombia have many more bulbs per plant and can boost yields up to 50 percent.

Estuardo Bermudez, the former head of Mexico's federal anti-narcotics agency, said the government is now destroying almost as many acres of opium poppies as marijuana. ``There is still more marijuana, but the gap is closing,'' he said.

Bermudez notes that opium thrives on high coastal mountainsides - the same kind of land where coffee once flourished.

Finding and eradicating those crops is a daunting job. Former U.S. drug czar Barry McCaffrey once described Mexico's poppy fields as ``some of the best concealed in the world,'' hidden under jungle canopy, on steep mountainsides and in narrow gorges.

Bermudez painted a daunting picture of the gauntlet of snipers and steel cables traffickers string over fields to protect poppy crops.

``They (fumigation pilots) have to fly very low, about five meters (yards) above the treetops, and very slow, usually into a head wind,'' Bermudez said. ``So they are flying almost stationary in high mountain gorges, where a gunman can be on a hillside, almost level with the aircraft, where he can get a head shot on the pilot.''

On March 13, a federal police helicopter crashed after its rotors became entangled in high-tension wires, killing the pilot. The accident came three days after the two helicopters were shot down.

``These men are the bravest we have,'' Bermudez said.





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