Cash From Marijuana Fuels Mexico's Drug War

Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Obama i i

hide captionMexican President Felipe Calderon met with President Obama on Wednesday at the White House. On Calderon's agenda: Mexico's increasingly violent drug war.

Win McNamee/Getty Images
Mexican President Felipe Calderon and President Obama

Mexican President Felipe Calderon met with President Obama on Wednesday at the White House. On Calderon's agenda: Mexico's increasingly violent drug war.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

About 24,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in December 2006.

But Calderon's war is not just about cocaine, heroin and other "hard" drugs. Mexican troops are also fighting gun battles to stop the trafficking of marijuana — the weed that might be legalized later this year across the border in California.

As Mexico's biggest agricultural export, marijuana generates billions of dollars in revenues each year for the brutal narcotics cartels. By some estimates, it is the most profitable product for the Mexican drug gangs.

Mexico Troops Seek And Destroy Plants

Mexico, the world's largest exporter of marijuana, sends almost all of its crops to the U.S. Cannabis also accounts for almost half the cartels' revenues, according to an estimate from the Mexican attorney general's office.

And the Mexican gangs have also established sophisticated networks to grow marijuana in national parks inside the U.S., thus avoiding the difficulty of smuggling it north across the border.

Mexican soldiers destroyed the field in the state of Michoacan where workers were harvesting pot. i i

hide captionMexican soldiers destroyed the field in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan, where workers were harvesting marijuana. The soldiers rip up the plants before burning them because the weeds don't burn well.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Mexican soldiers destroyed the field in the state of Michoacan where workers were harvesting pot.

Mexican soldiers destroyed the field in the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan, where workers were harvesting marijuana. The soldiers rip up the plants before burning them because the weeds don't burn well.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

In the southwestern Mexican state of Michoacan, heavily armed Mexican troops trudge across pastures, streams and wheat fields on a marijuana-eradication mission. Spotters in a Cessna flying overhead have radioed down GPS coordinates for a suspected pot patch.

Even before the soldiers reach the plot, the air is thick with the pungent smell of marijuana. Many of the plants are more than 6 feet tall. Workers had been in the midst of harvesting this crop moments before the soldiers arrived. Their lunch of rice, stew and tortillas sits abandoned along with a pile of freshly picked purplish buds.

Capt. Oscar Salas Cordoba orders his men to rip up the plants. The soldiers build several fires with wood from the surrounding trees and then hurl the marijuana plants into the flames.

"Pull them up!" Salas barks. In order to completely destroy the plants, he says, you have to yank out the roots. The green weeds don't burn very well, and the field is soon filled with clouds of grayish-white smoke.

By The Numbers

  • Last year, marijuana production in Mexico increased 35 percent.

  • Mexico had nearly 30,000 acres planted in cannabis last year.

  • Roughly 24,000 people have been killed in drug-related violence in Mexico since December 2006.

The patch is in the foothills of the Sierra Madre. Farmers grow small plots of corn, wheat, beans and vegetables. There are also groves of peach and avocado trees. Some skinny cattle wander amid the poorly fenced fields.

Salas says the soil is ideal for marijuana.

"Normally, from the moment the marijuana is planted until it's harvested is about two or three months," he says.

The marijuana plants are spread out in three different areas. If they had been adjacent, the plots might have covered a third of a football field. The crop would be worth about $4,000 to the local growers, Salas estimates.

And, says Salas, the value of the marijuana obviously goes up the closer the product gets to its primary market: the U.S.

Last year, marijuana production in Mexico increased 35 percent, according to a U.S. State Department report. The report said the country had nearly 30,000 acres planted in cannabis.

The Real Problem: Organized Crime

Despite an all-out war by President Calderon against the drug cartels, marijuana eradication efforts are down as the Mexican government focuses more effort on dangerous methamphetamine labs.

Marijuana and cocaine are the two largest sources of revenue for the cartels, generating billions of dollars in illicit profits each year. But some analysts say marijuana may be the cartels' greatest source of cash in part because the Mexican gangs control the production, trafficking and distribution of the drug. The cocaine they move has a higher street value, but they initially have to buy it from the Colombians.

Marijuana buds being harvested in southeastern Mexico i i

hide captionSome analysts say marijuana may be the cartels' greatest source of cash, in part because the Mexican gangs control the production, trafficking and distribution of the drug. The cocaine they move has a higher street value, but they initially have to buy it from the Colombians.

Jason Beaubien/NPR
Marijuana buds being harvested in southeastern Mexico

Some analysts say marijuana may be the cartels' greatest source of cash, in part because the Mexican gangs control the production, trafficking and distribution of the drug. The cocaine they move has a higher street value, but they initially have to buy it from the Colombians.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

At the soldiers' base in the state capital of Morelia, Brig. Gen. Raul Guereca Valenzuela says his troops spend much of their time destroying pot plants.

But, he adds, "Marijuana cultivation isn't the problem, organized crime is the problem."

The narcotics traffickers intimidate and threaten the population, he says. They bribe politicians. A few months ago, they gunned down a local mayor. In April, they ambushed the state security chief's convoy and sprayed the vehicles with more than 2,000 rounds of ammunition. The security chief miraculously survived, but four other people were killed in the attack.

Eduardo Guerrero, a security analyst in Mexico City, says the marijuana trade is incredibly violent. In Mexico, the cartels don't traffic in a single product; instead, they control territories and specific smuggling routes into the U.S.

"The same organizations, the Zetas or the Gulf cartel, the most violent ones, they deal with all drugs — not only marijuana," Guerrero says.

And the heavily armed gangs don't limit their criminal activities just to narcotics. They're also involved in the sale of pirated goods, extortion and kidnapping.

Recently in Nuevo Leon, the Mexican army stormed a ranch and freed 16 people who were being held for ransom. Among the captives were a mother and her 3-year-old son.

Along with the terrified hostages, the soldiers found assault rifles, handguns, a grenade launcher — and more than 2 tons of marijuana.

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