Operations in the drug production region called the Golden Triangle, coveted by warring drug cartels, are proving dangerous for Mexico’s armed forces.
Since the beginning of the term of the current federal administration in December 2012, 17 of the 130 casualties reported by the Mexican Army have occurred in the contested marijuana and opium poppy production area, which takes in parts of the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua.
Even so, the Defense Secretariat deploys 5,000 officers to the area every year to locate and destroy the drug plantations.
One of those soldiers, interviewed by the newspaper El Universal, explained that the Army’s operations in the mountainous region coincide with the harvest times of either marijuana or the opium poppy: between January and early March, late March and June, and October and December.
The soldiers, said Jesús (not his real name), are sent in by land, leaving the capital city of Sinaloa, Culiacán, aboard pickup trucks. After long hours on unpaved, one-lane roads, the officials arrive at rancherías, or small settlements that lack the most basic of services: sewers, running water, health clinics, public transportation and internet connectivity.
Upon arrival the soldiers continue either by foot or by helicopter to the areas where the illegal plantations have been detected, said the soldier.
The three-month ordeal means camping for weeks at a time in remote areas, trekking five to 10 kilometers per day while carrying up to 20 kilograms of equipment. At night, they sleep with their uniforms on and their weapons ready.
A weekly rendezvous with a helicopter provides them with supplies.
The plantations, Jesús explained, are becoming harder to get to; some have been found on sloping hillsides accessible only by rappelling down to them.
And through it all they’re never alone.
“We’re being followed from the moment we set foot in the sierra.”
“They set up halcones, or lookouts, on each hill. They have installed solar-powered short-wave repeater systems that allow them to communicate and warn each other about our presence and whereabouts. We can’t see them, but they see everything we do”
While teams like that of Jesus destroy the plantations they find by hand, “tearing the plants out, roots and all, so they won’t grow back up again,” other teams fly over other fields fumigating between 30 and 50 plantations a day.
The fumigation flybys occur at low altitude, so drug producers have adopted low-tech mechanisms to defend their plantations such as “barbed wire stretched between hills at a height of 30 meters.”
“They’ve thrown stones at us and shot their firearms. At other times they have signs asking us to ‘let them work,’ or families join hands and form a human shield, all to stop the fumigation,” said Jesús, a father of three.
“Here in the sierra, everybody has a job, including women and children. They’re the best harvesters of the opium poppy,” he added.
By selling one kilogram of opium gum a farmer can earn close to 15,000 pesos, an amount that is sometimes enough to cover the most basic of a family’s needs for a year.
The Army’s incursions have also resulted in the discovery of narco-laboratories where synthetic drugs are fabricated. The number of these, and the plantations, increases every year.
Jesús finds a silver lining to his work: “There’s a good side to all this. I’m from a poor family, and if it weren’t for the Army I wouldn’t get the chance to see the ocean or board a plane.”
Source: El Universal (sp)