CHIHUAHUA, Mexico — As more U.S. states legalize the use of marijuana, Mexico's violent drug cartels are turning to the basic law of supply and demand.
That means small farmers, or campesinos, in this border state's rugged Sierra Madre who long planted marijuana to be smuggled into the United States are switching to opium poppies, which bring a higher price. The opium gum harvested is processed into heroin to feed the ravaging U.S. opioid crisis.
“Marijuana isn’t as valuable, so they switched to a more profitable product,” said Javier Ávila, a Jesuit priest in this region rife with drug cartel activities.
Laws allowing marijuana in states like Colorado, Washington and California are causing shifts in the Mexican underworld that have also led to increased violence as the cartels move away from its cash cow of marijuana to traffic more heroin and methamphetamines.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection statistics show that marijuana seizures fell by more than half since 2012, while heroin and methamphetamine seizures have held steady or markedly increased.
The switch in illegal drugs coincides with Mexico hitting a record 29,168 murders in 2017, the most since the country started keeping homicide statistics in 1997.
The jump in violence stems from several factors: cartels splintering into smaller factions, power struggles within the formidable Sinaloa Cartel after leader Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested and extradited to the U.S., plus the rise of the violent Jalisco New Generation Cartel, which expanded nationally and moved in on El Chapo’s turf.
Few attribute Mexico's rising violence just to legalized marijuana north of the border or the increasing opioid crisis, but those changes in the U.S. are causing problems here.
In Chihuahua, state prosecutor César Peniche said criminal groups on Mexico’s Pacific Coast used to traffic marijuana to California. Now those groups are “looking for other routes to continue their trafficking” by using border crossings farther inland, he said.
“Criminal groups … enter the state of Chihuahua, and this causes confrontations,” Peniche explained. “It’s creating conflicts between criminal organizations to win control of the routes because some markets have closed, but others have stayed open. This sparks violence.”
In Mexico’s heroin-producing heartland of southern Guerrero state, the violence is so bad that the morgues are full and unable to handle all the bodies brought in for autopsies.
The U.S. government recently toughened its travel warning to Americans against visiting Guerrero, which includes the tourist resorts of Acapulco and Ixtapa, in addition to remote villages that rely on planting opium poppies.
Growers in Guerrero, like those in northwest Mexico, also moved away from marijuana to focus on opium poppies. And they have no problem selling their harvests.
“In talking with middlemen and others (selling illegal drugs), the U.S. has an almost insatiable demand. ... The cartels are never sitting on product,” said Myles Estey, producer of the Showtime series The Trade, which filmed in Guerrero.
He said the cartels “saw a lot more demand for heroin (in the United States) and responded.”
The cartels also freelance in non-drug crimes, such as kidnapping and extortion, to make quick money and “meet payroll” for their foot soldiers, said Guerrero state government spokesman Roberto Álvarez Heredia.
Álvarez also blames Mexico's northern neighbor for Guerrero's increased violence, saying it stems from lax U.S. gun laws and “a public health problem from the consumption of heroin.”
“Guerrero’s problem is not a problem originating in the (Mexican) state. It’s a problem linked to what happens in the United States,” Álvarez told USA TODAY.
But Catholic Bishop Salvador Rangel and others criticize the Mexican and local governments, pointing to corruption and accusing police of colluding with criminals.
Rangel, in the state capital of Chilpancingo, claimed “all of Guerrero is in the hands of narcotics traffickers” and called for the army to stop eradicating poppy crops until the government offers campesinos another way to make a living.
“Kids don’t know how to read, but they know how to pick poppies,” said Abel Barrera, director of the Tlachinollan Mountain Human Rights Center in Guerrero.
“People speak of plant varieties, how one variety produces more than another. There’s a specialization,” Barrera said. “It’s all become a culture. And it’s become deeply rooted.”