On The Hunt For Poppies In Mexico — America's Biggest Heroin Supplier : Parallels As the heroin business booms, driven by U.S. demand, Guerrero has been one of Mexico's most violent states. The Mexican army is demonstrating efforts to eradicate the flowering crop at the source.

On The Hunt For Poppies In Mexico — America's Biggest Heroin Supplier

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And now we have an update on the fight against the heroin supply. Heroin is made from poppies. Some are grown in Mexico. And the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently criticized Mexico's effort to destroy them. The Mexican military says it is trying and invited NPR's Carrie Kahn to see.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: The mountains of the southwestern state of Guerrero are ideal for growing crops. They get warm coastal humidity up here, says Lieutenant Colonel Juan Jose Orzua Padilla. And there's plenty of water, as evident by the network of rubber tubing crisscrossing the rugged dirt roads we're traveling on in the back of a military jeep.


KAHN: You can't compare it with any other region in the Republic, says Orzua, the spokesman for the Mexican military's 35th zone. Guerrero is now Mexico's biggest opium poppy supplier. It's heroin, also increasingly made in a growing number of clandestine laboratories in the state, is some of the world's most potent after China or Afghanistan. But the lieutenant colonel adds solemnly this is nothing to be proud of. We stop the engine and look over a small canyon.

It's everywhere. (Speaking Spanish).

PADILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Yes, says Orzua, as he points out one to two-acre patches of poppies in the distance on the steep hillsides. Closer to the road, the crops distinctive deep-red flowers can be spotted. Orzua sends his soldiers out quickly to secure a perimeter.


KAHN: Given the all-clear, the soldiers start ripping out the green plants from the roots then throw their bundles on a small fire in the middle of the field.


KAHN: Lt. Col. Urzua says despite the farmer's hard work, he's not the one making the big money here. His take is about 750 dollars a harvest.

PADILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The farmers barely survive, says Lt. Col. Orzua. They are exploited by the criminal groups - at least 15 now operating in the state. The gangs are the ones who make the real profits, he adds - up to tens of thousands of dollars once the heroin gets across the border to the U.S. Orzua says this plot will probably be replanted with poppies once his soldiers move on. Critics say eradication isn't denting Mexico's opium poppy harvest mainly because local poor farmers aren't given incentives or help to plant anything else. Deborah Bonello is an investigator with Insight Crime, a nonprofit studying organized crime in the Americas.

DEBORAH BONELLO: There haven't really been any genuinely successful efforts in terms of offering alternatives.

KAHN: And she says if eradication efforts were working, street-level heroin prices would be rising. Clearly they're not, says Bonello. A cheap and plentiful heroin supply in the US has been blamed mostly for some 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016. The DEA says 93 percent of heroin used in the U.S. is now coming from Mexico. Eradication in Guerrero is also complicated by high levels of corruption and collusion among local police and politicians with the criminal gangs. Despite the challenges, Lt. Col. Orzua says he's confident his soldiers will destroy record amounts of poppies this year.


KAHN: A soldier sends an update on the eradication unit's progress back to headquarters from the mountain base camp. It's pretty bare bones, just a few tents and coolers. The men, 28 per unit, spend up to two months covering about five miles a day ripping out poppy plants. Orzua says he knows his small band of soldiers isn't going to end poppy production here.

PADILLA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: We are eradicating more than ever, but it's still not enough. It takes all parts of the government working together, he says, stopping corruption, creating more jobs and providing better education if we are really going to solve drug trafficking here. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, high in the mountains in Guerrero, Mexico.


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