Photos: Mexico’s war on heroin stamps on poppy farmers

In the mountains of Mexico's tropical sierra, an ever-growing expanse of pink poppy flowers has pushed prices so low for opium paste, the gummy raw ingredient of heroin, that farmers like Santiago Sanchez worries how he will feed and clothe his family. Despite unprecedented violence across the country, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week that the government had "officially" ended its war against drug trafficking.

UPDATED ON FEB 08, 2019 12:10 PM IST 14 Photos
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Soldiers cut opium poppies as they destroy a field of illegal plantation in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico. The area of Mexico that illegally farms opium poppies grew by more than one-fifth last year, to an area of 30,600 hectares, according to a UN-backed study published in November. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Soldiers cut opium poppies as they destroy a field of illegal plantation in the Sierra Madre del Sur, in the southern state of Guerrero, Mexico. The area of Mexico that illegally farms opium poppies grew by more than one-fifth last year, to an area of 30,600 hectares, according to a UN-backed study published in November. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

UPDATED ON FEB 08, 2019 12:10 PM IST
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Poppy farmer Santiago Sanchez holds opium paste in Santa Cruz Yucucani in the Sierra Madre del Sur. That, along with a trend toward mixing synthetic opiate fentanyl in Mexico’s tarry black heroin, has slashed what criminal gangs pay farmers like Sanchez for a kilo of opium. Now, Sanchez earns about $260 per kilo, a fifth of the average price two years ago. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Poppy farmer Santiago Sanchez holds opium paste in Santa Cruz Yucucani in the Sierra Madre del Sur. That, along with a trend toward mixing synthetic opiate fentanyl in Mexico’s tarry black heroin, has slashed what criminal gangs pay farmers like Sanchez for a kilo of opium. Now, Sanchez earns about $260 per kilo, a fifth of the average price two years ago. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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While Mexico’s top drug traffickers still make billions of dollars supplying US addicts, at the bottom of the supply chain, the villagers are hardly surviving. “We can’t keep living like this,” said Sanchez, who is a local leader in the remote Mixtec Indian village of Juquila Yucucani, where hundreds of poppy farmers have seen already meagre incomes shrivel. “We can barely afford our food.” (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

While Mexico’s top drug traffickers still make billions of dollars supplying US addicts, at the bottom of the supply chain, the villagers are hardly surviving. “We can’t keep living like this,” said Sanchez, who is a local leader in the remote Mixtec Indian village of Juquila Yucucani, where hundreds of poppy farmers have seen already meagre incomes shrivel. “We can barely afford our food.” (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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Heroin from Mexico accounted for 86% of the heroin found on US streets, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most recent annual narcotic report. The heart of illegal poppy cultivation is in the hills of Guerrero state, in some of the poorest mountain districts - such as Juquila Yucucani. Guerrero is now among the country’s bloodiest states. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Heroin from Mexico accounted for 86% of the heroin found on US streets, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s most recent annual narcotic report. The heart of illegal poppy cultivation is in the hills of Guerrero state, in some of the poorest mountain districts - such as Juquila Yucucani. Guerrero is now among the country’s bloodiest states. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week that the government had “officially” ended its war against drug trafficking, a military-led offensive launched in 2006. The government’s focus will now be on meeting the needs of marginalized communities as part of a broader strategy to curb an illegal drug trade that is thriving despite the capture of high-profile kingpins like Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last week that the government had “officially” ended its war against drug trafficking, a military-led offensive launched in 2006. The government’s focus will now be on meeting the needs of marginalized communities as part of a broader strategy to curb an illegal drug trade that is thriving despite the capture of high-profile kingpins like Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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Soldiers destroy an illegal opium plantation. Lopez Obrador has not entirely turned his back on using soldiers to tackle violence stemming from drugs - he plans to create a new militarized National Guard police force. But he is also exploring a crop substitution program, relaxing prohibition and amnesties for low level drug dealers and farmers. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Soldiers destroy an illegal opium plantation. Lopez Obrador has not entirely turned his back on using soldiers to tackle violence stemming from drugs - he plans to create a new militarized National Guard police force. But he is also exploring a crop substitution program, relaxing prohibition and amnesties for low level drug dealers and farmers. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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Poppy farmer Francisco Santiago Clemente walks with his gun on his back in a corn field. On a visit to Guerrero in January, Lopez Obrador pledged price supports for grains, including around $300 a tonne for corn, part of a strategy meant to give farmers alternatives to planting illicit crops. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Poppy farmer Francisco Santiago Clemente walks with his gun on his back in a corn field. On a visit to Guerrero in January, Lopez Obrador pledged price supports for grains, including around $300 a tonne for corn, part of a strategy meant to give farmers alternatives to planting illicit crops. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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Seeds of the opium poppy plant. Lopez Obrador has backed a legislative bill to legalize marijuana, and along with the former head of Mexico’s military and other members of his team, he suggested last autumn that legalizing medical opium could be part of the solution. The government appears to be backing away from that idea after opposition from the United States. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Seeds of the opium poppy plant. Lopez Obrador has backed a legislative bill to legalize marijuana, and along with the former head of Mexico’s military and other members of his team, he suggested last autumn that legalizing medical opium could be part of the solution. The government appears to be backing away from that idea after opposition from the United States. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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A woman tends to her opium poppy plant outside her house in Juquila Yucucani. The farmers in Juquila Yucucani do not consider themselves criminals, and say current poppy eradication efforts by the army also sometimes destroy legal crops. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

A woman tends to her opium poppy plant outside her house in Juquila Yucucani. The farmers in Juquila Yucucani do not consider themselves criminals, and say current poppy eradication efforts by the army also sometimes destroy legal crops. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

UPDATED ON FEB 08, 2019 12:10 PM IST
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Soldiers cut opium poppies as they destroy a field of illegal plantation. “They have killed the food crops that my family use to eat,” said Lazaro Lopez, 65, who said the military should apologize. Although Reuters could not independently verify Lopez’s account, human rights groups have documented military abuses in parts of Guerrero. The army did not respond to requests for comment. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Soldiers cut opium poppies as they destroy a field of illegal plantation. “They have killed the food crops that my family use to eat,” said Lazaro Lopez, 65, who said the military should apologize. Although Reuters could not independently verify Lopez’s account, human rights groups have documented military abuses in parts of Guerrero. The army did not respond to requests for comment. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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Other than poppies, few plants take to the thin soil on Juquila Yucucani’s stony slopes. Some land is apt for planting mango or avocado trees, Sanchez said, but they would take years to mature. The narrow ribbon of twisted dirt road connecting the village to the outside world would make it almost impossible to transport bulky or delicate crops to markets, he added. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

Other than poppies, few plants take to the thin soil on Juquila Yucucani’s stony slopes. Some land is apt for planting mango or avocado trees, Sanchez said, but they would take years to mature. The narrow ribbon of twisted dirt road connecting the village to the outside world would make it almost impossible to transport bulky or delicate crops to markets, he added. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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A soldier burns an illegal opium plantation. Arturo Garcia, a farmers rights activist in the state, said the government’s new ideas would only work if a really sustained and well-funded effort were made to offer residents a way out of the drug trade. “The state must throw all its weight into this region so that it begins to alleviate the conditions that have allowed violence,” he said. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

A soldier burns an illegal opium plantation. Arturo Garcia, a farmers rights activist in the state, said the government’s new ideas would only work if a really sustained and well-funded effort were made to offer residents a way out of the drug trade. “The state must throw all its weight into this region so that it begins to alleviate the conditions that have allowed violence,” he said. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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A man walks in front of a local church of Santa Cruz Yucucani. For now, several hours journey from the nearest hospitals or schools, Juquila Yucucani’s poppy farmers say they have two choices to make a living: sneak illegally into the United States, or grow poppies. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

A man walks in front of a local church of Santa Cruz Yucucani. For now, several hours journey from the nearest hospitals or schools, Juquila Yucucani’s poppy farmers say they have two choices to make a living: sneak illegally into the United States, or grow poppies. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

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“We are not drug traffickers, we want a dignified life,” said elderly Nieves Garcia (L), who has grown poppies since she was a child and speaks a variant of the indigenous Mixtec language, but no Spanish. “My kids have left this place because there’s no way of getting ahead,” she said. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

“We are not drug traffickers, we want a dignified life,” said elderly Nieves Garcia (L), who has grown poppies since she was a child and speaks a variant of the indigenous Mixtec language, but no Spanish. “My kids have left this place because there’s no way of getting ahead,” she said. (Carlos Jasso / REUTERS)

UPDATED ON FEB 08, 2019 12:10 PM IST
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