Stories from Sullivan

The Invisible: The Forced Displacement of Poppy Growers in Mexico

By Angélica Ospina-Escobar and Juan Camilo Pantoja-García

After interviewing dozens of people in rural Sullivan County about the opioid epidemic, it’s clear that the people on the frontlines cleaning up the problem are not the ones who created it. As one person in Sullivan told us, the great poppy fields of Sullivan County are not feeding the problem. So, what is? Where does heroin come from? In this piece, Angélica Ospina-Escobar and Juan Camilo Pantoja-García provide insight into the state of Guerrero, and the impoverished rural communities in Mexico that produce heroin. Caught between poverty, a government that prohibits poppy production, and the violence of drug cartels who want control over poppies, farmers must choose to grow poppies or leave their homes. Translated by Elizabeth Pérez-Chiqués.


The prohibitionist regime against drugs has turned users and growers of the illegalized plants into scapegoats of a bloody — and, to all effects, lost — war. And, as if that were not enough, in the specific case of poppies, people who require access to opioid-based medicines to control pain have been affected. For this reason, it is paradoxical that Mexico — the third largest illegal poppy-producing country in the world — suffers from a problem of scarcity, high costs, and little accessibility to palliative pain medications, and to medications for treating opioid dependence, because Mexico lacks the required certification to cultivate and process poppy for medicinal purposes.

Photo above: “Desplazados,” from Cuartoscuro Archivo

In this analysis, we focus on the disastrous effects that the illegalization of poppy has on the growers of this plant in Mexico, taking as an example the difficult situation facing a rural community in Guerrero. As the case of the Guerrero farmers shows, the prohibition of poppy has had different negative impacts on their community. Pressured by various circumstances to cultivate this illegalized plant, they end up between a rock and a hard place, trapped between the violence exerted by the criminal organizations who dispute control of this lucrative business and a state policy that considers them criminals and that does not offer viable alternatives so they can dedicate themselves to other economic activities that satisfy their basic needs.

Although there are multiple negative conditions faced by these producers, such as environmental impacts from the deforestation generated by the expansion of poppy fields and the pollution caused by aerial spraying campaigns that affect their water sources and other subsistence crops, in this analysis we focus on the internal forced displacement experienced by these communities. We also discuss the organizing efforts made by poppy producers who — in order to exit the vicious circle generated by the global prohibitionist regime — are proposing that the production of poppy be regulated for scientific and medicinal purposes.


The Negative Effects of an Ineffective and Counterproductive Prohibitionist Policy

Despite the enormous resources that the Mexican state dedicates to campaigns to eradicate poppy crops, practical results have been disappointing. Between 2006 and 2015, poppy production in Mexico increased by 422 percent, from 12,355 to 64,495 acres. The case of the state of Guerrero, located in the south of the country, is paradigmatic because even though Guerrero has been targeted by much of the eradication efforts (33,908 acres were destroyed between 2014 and 2017), the state was the leading producer of poppy during these years.

Additionally, Guerrero is the second most-affected state in terms of population by the phenomenon of forced internal displacement in the Republic. This is a problem that, although it has been downplayed in Mexico, has continued to increase in tandem with the escalation of violence related to the illegal production and trafficking of drugs — as the case of the poppy producers in the municipality of Leonardo Bravo shows.

“Nobody wants to be displaced, we’re not here for pleasure. If we left our communities it is because we did not want to die.”

On February 8, 2019, Francisco, 54, leader of a rural community in the municipality of Leonardo Bravo, located in the highlands of Guerrero, died in Mexico City. According to Crescencio Pacheco González, another leader of this community, Francisco “was killed by stress, fatigue and not knowing what was going to happen.” In fact, Francisco had been displaced for several months and had been in Mexico City for about four weeks, along with 300 other residents of his town, including 84 children and four people over 90. Displaced from their communities and faced with neglect by all authorities, they opted to march to Mexico City for the purpose of installing a camp outside the National Palace, seat of the executive power, and ​​obtaining an audience with Andrés Manuel López Obrador, president of the Republic.

Forty-five days after the installation of the camp, in which they had no access to drinking water, enough bathrooms, or food, they reached an agreement with representatives of the federal government to return to the seat of their municipality, with the promise that they would receive housing rental assistance and, eventually, the necessary security conditions to return to their communities of origin.[1]

Before arriving in Mexico City, the farmers of the Guerrero mountains spent three months crammed into the seat of their municipality because the presence of criminal organizations in their communities since November 2018 made it impossible for them to remain in their homes.


The case of Guerrero, however, is not an isolated one. Forced internal displacement is a phenomenon that has been increasing in the country over the last 10 years.


An abandoned house in Filo de Caballos. Source: Informador de Guerrero/Facebook.


Many of them left with the clothes that they were wearing, leaving their property, documents, animals, and crops behind, for fear of dying in the crossfire. However, no authorities made themselves available to guarantee their safety. To date, months after starting their protest, the farmers are still waiting for the national government to honor its commitments and restore the security that would allow them to return to their homes. As two local residents observed:

Until now, the surveillance measures we agreed with the government have not been put in place. They only do patrols in the mountains, but the agreement was to create a security perimeter with surveillance points by the army on the routes through which the armed groups that displaced us could enter. Without this, we have no guarantees for our return.

— Cresencio Pacheco González

They told us to return to the municipal seat and rent houses, that once we rented, they were going to deposit the money and they were going to give us food aid, but to date, and despite having done all the paperwork that they asked us, we have not received any money from the government.

— Arturo López Torres

The case of Guerrero, however, is not an isolated one. Forced internal displacement is a phenomenon that has been increasing in the country over the last 10 years. Official data recognize that, between 2002 and 2017, almost 330,000 people, mostly farmers, were displaced. In 2017 alone, 20,390 displaced persons were reported, with the state of Guerrero having the second largest number of documented cases in Mexico. However, these figures are likely an underestimate because there are no official registration mechanisms in Mexico to account for the displaced population, nor a legal framework that recognizes internal displacement as a serious violation of human rights and that offers remedies.

The forced displacement of poppy farmers by organized crime reveals the fragility of the existing order in rural territories, with little presence of the state and where the search for survival is the engine that drives individuals to cultivate an illicit plant as well as leave their belongings when an armed group violently takes over their territories. Poppy growers are the weakest link in the heroin trafficking chain and face, in state abandonment, multiple forms of violence, starting with poverty.


“We planted poppy out of necessity, not by choice”

Considering the negative effects that poppy producers face, including forced internal displacement, it is worth considering why they assume both the risks and the burdens of engaging in an activity that turns them into criminals in the eyes of the state. The difficult socioeconomic conditions experienced by these communities generate favorable conditions for the development of illegal economies because they cannot find other viable alternatives to satisfy their basic needs. The farmers in Guerrero’s mountains face the dilemma between emigrating and cultivating poppy to survive.

In 2015, 67 percent of the population of the state of Guerrero was poor,[2] 23 percent lived in conditions of extreme poverty,[3] and 44 percent in moderate poverty. The municipality of Leonardo Bravo is classified as highly marginalized with 87 percent of the population below the poverty line, 33 percent are extremely poor, and 54 percent are moderately poor. Conditions of scarcity created favorable conditions for Guerrero to become a central state in supplying the demand for the poppy flower, and to become a processing and transit zone for the drugs derived from this plant — 18 of the 31 rubber laboratories in the country that were dismantled between 2010 and 2015 were in Guerrero. Therefore, it is not unsurprising that, according to some estimates, 80 percent of the people of Guerrero’s mountains supplement their income with the cultivation of poppy.


The farmers in Guerrero’s mountains face the dilemma between emigrating and cultivating poppy to survive.


They also plant avocado, peaches, corn, beans, and peanuts, and have small businesses. However, as the growers themselves say, the geographical characteristics of Guerrero’s highlands, together with the historical lack of public investment in infrastructure such as roads and irrigation systems, make it difficult for any crop other than poppies to be profitable enough for these farmers. As Yuritzia López Gómez, a leader of poppy grower communities in Guerrero, observed:

The process of poppy harvesting lasts three to four months,[4] tell me what could be a profitable crop for farmers that had that harvesting time and that would have buyers for their product. Where, in addition to that, we have an infrastructure in roads that is very deteriorated … when the product already goes down to the city, it comes shaken, the avocado arrives as guacamole.

Because of the number of annual harvests (up to three), the little water that it requires, and the ease with which it grows in the highland soil, the poppy is a crop that allows farmers to access the income necessary to cover basic needs such as buying medicine or getting medical tests — services that should be public, but that the state does not guarantee. The United Nations has recognized that the problem of poppy cultivation is not only a matter of security, but is intimately linked to the development of the cultivating communities.

However, poppy cultivation does not always guarantee a secure income. Between 2000 and 2016, Guerrero experienced a boom in poppy cultivation due to, among other things, an 88 percent fall in coffee prices. The price of opium gum has also fallen, from between 15 and 20 thousand pesos per kilo until 2018 (between $790 and $1,000 in US dollars) to 3 and 5 thousand pesos in 2019 (between $158 and $263).

In addition, the illegal nature of this crop, which turns into criminals those who are dedicated to its production, throws farmers into a situation of marginalization, not only judicially, but also politically and socially. As the leader of the poppy growers explained, there are many misconceptions and stigma surrounding these communities:

Poppy has turned — within our state, Guerrero — in the economic sustenance for at least 1287 communities … you think of Guerrero, well, they produce opium gum, they [surely] have big houses, big cars and more, you go there and you realize that’s not the case.… And on top of that society demonizes them by saying “poppiers” (“amapoleros”), when they do not even know … how they are living in that region.

State presence in these communities has been basically limited to military operations, which have exacerbated the problems of their already fragile economies. The Mexican federal government’s strategies to decrease the presence and strength of criminal organizations throughout the republic had the unintended effects of splitting existing cartels, multiplying the number of criminal organizations operating in the state, and profoundly altering the structure of organized crime in Guerrero. In 2005 the Sinaloa cartel was the only organization operating in the state of Guerrero, but by 2016 there were no less than 50 criminal organizations operating in the state. These smaller criminal organizations lack the logistical capacity for international drug-trafficking operations of the larger cartels, and supplement their income with other, more violent, criminal activities, such as kidnapping and extortion, which require greater territorial control over the communities where they operate.

The difficult conditions of access to the communities of the highlands, given the lack of infrastructure on the roads and the geographic complexity of the territory, together with the stigmatization of the communities and the lack of state presence, are conducive for criminal groups to acquire and exercise control over these areas with fatal consequences for the communities. The case of the community of Leonardo Bravo shows how violence exerted by criminal organizations in rural areas results in internal displacement. Such phenomenon sharpens the conditions of vulnerability, already extreme, faced by its inhabitants.


“We are promoters.” Organize and Resist in Order Not to Die

In 2013, the Union of Sheriffs for Peace, Security, and Development of the Sierra de Guerrero was formed as a response to the violence exercised by criminal actors who were trying to control the sale of opium gum. As Arturo López Torres, leader of the Union explained:

Kidnappings, extortions, threats and even deaths took place because these gentlemen came to impose who we should sell the rubber to or simply would not let us leave with the product.… Before, the highlands were free, but as new smaller criminal organizations appeared, life in the sierra became more complicated, more violent.

Faced with the increased presence of criminal actors in their territories, each community established its own “rural police” through the Union of Sheriffs. Initially, the rural police were people from the communities who patrolled the corridor that leads to the mountains — a strategic territory for the trafficking of opium gum and marijuana because it connects the Pacific Coast with the central roads towards the north. Since they were armed, this desperate attempt at survival generated tensions with the state, which decided to incorporate the rural police under a community policing program in 2016. From the perspective of Arturo López Torres, leader of the Union, incorporating the rural police under the community policing program effectively decreased the efficacy of the rural police because they were no longer residents of the communities they patrolled and no longer received orders from local commissioners, but from the state. Under the direction of the state, they began responding less and less to the particular needs of each community.

Additionally, to prevent people foreign to the community from entering the territory to buy opium gum, the Union created a committee that collects opium gum and sells it through representatives from the communities. The committee ensured that strangers do not come in to the communities and that farmers were paid a price for opium gum that not only guaranteed a small profit, but also helped raise funds for infrastructure works not carried out by the state. Through these strategies, the communities managed to reduce violence and insecurity in their territories, while investing in infrastructure such as roads, health centers, and schools. In the words of Arturo López Torres, poppy was not the cause of violence; violence was caused by the organized crime disputes over the control of crops.[5]

The Union has a key role in the dialogue between communities and the federal, state, and municipal governments. They advocate for the regulation of marijuana and opium poppy crops as the policy that would result in dignified living conditions for these communities, and as a policy that recognizes the organizational capacity of the communities and their active role in the search for alternatives to prohibitionism. For poppy growers in Guerrero, the regulation of this crop is an alternative that would allow them to mitigate some of the most negative consequences generated by the illegal market for opium gum. At the national level, a pilot project to regulate poppy crops in the Sierra de Guerrero could help cover the internal demand for opiate-derived drugs, making it easier for millions of people who require medicines for chronic or acute pain and for dependence on opiates to have access to these medications.



[1] José Antonio Belmont, “Displaced people return to Guerrero hostel,” Milenio, March 29, 2019.

[2] A person is in a situation of poverty when their income in insufficient to satisfy their basic needs, and when they have a deficiency in one of six indicators, including access to health services, education lag, access to housing, and access to food. See “Medición de la pobreza–Glosario,” Coneval, accessed May 29, 2019,

[3] “A person is in a situation of extreme poverty when they have three or more deficiencies, of six possible, within the Social Privation Index and which, moreover, is below the minimum welfare line. People in this situation have such a low income that, even if they dedicate it completely to the acquisition of food, they could not acquire the necessary nutrients to have a healthy life” (as defined by Coneval in “Medición de la pobreza—Glosario”).

[4] In contrast, the cultivation of avocado requires, in addition to abundant water, manure, and fertilizers, five years to have a harvest and other plants such as peaches only have one harvest season per year.

[5] Leonardo Bravo, José Joaquín de Herrera, Metlatónoc, and Acatepec, are municipalities in which, despite the importance of poppy cultivation, they have homicide rates systematically lower than the state average. See Pierre Gaussens, “The other red mountain: opium poppy cultivation in Guerrero,” Textual 71 (January-June 2018): 33-69.



Special thanks to Froylán Enciso and Amaya Ordorica for giving us the contacts with Leonardo Bravo’s leaders and to Leonardo Bravo’s leaders for their testimonies that enrich this analysis.



Angélica Ospina-Escobar is assistant professor in the Drug Policy Program at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económica (CIDE), Región Centro and a member of the Mexican Harm Reduction Network (Redumex).

Juan Camilo Pantoja-García is a PhD student at Centro de Estudios Históricos of El Colegio de México.




The Rockefeller Institute’s Stories from Sullivan series combines aggregate data analysis with on-the-ground research in affected communities to provide insight into what the opioid problem looks like, how communities respond, and what kinds of policies have the best chances of making a difference. Follow along here and on social media with the hashtag #StoriesfromSullivan.