NOGALES, Mexico – The mountains of Guerrero in southwestern Mexico produce about 50 percent of the opium gum that reaches the United States. Hidden in deep gullies and under dense canopies, fields of poppies provide the essential component for heroin sold on U.S. streets.
Starting when he was 13 years old, and up until March, Misael Oláis farmed multiple poppy fields in those mountains, the main source of income for him and his parents throughout their lives.
“Over there, most of the people grow poppies. If you don't plant, there's no money. How are you going to feed your family? You have to work,” said Oláis, 26, who for the past two months has been staying in the San Juan Bosco shelter in Nogales, Mexico, across the border from Nogales, Arizona.
So many Guerrero natives have come to the shelter in recent days that they now equal the number of Central Americans trying to get to the United States because of the gangs and poverty in their own countries. Their misfortunes coincide in the shelter.
Oláis said some of his relatives passed through the same shelter after abandoning the poppy fields in the mountains of Guerrero and before settling in Arizona. He also has run into others at the shelter who produced opium gum.
Ironically, the villages they left behind are increasingly losing population because of the violence generated by the heroin traffic. Just in October of 2018, about 1,600 residents fled the mountains after thousands of armed men, calling themselves self-defense militias, entered the region, according to local news reports.
“There are deaths, shootouts, and you're afraid of going outside because a stray bullet can take your life at any time. There are no more teachers. The children don't go to school. They are afraid,” said Oláis, who lived in the Eliodoro Castillo municipality.
The area is under intense pressure from the Guerreros Unidos drug cartel, whose power has grown because it controls large poppy fields, according to a report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). The cartel was blamed for the disappearance of 43 students at a teachers' school in Ayotzinapa in the fall of 2014.
Oláis said he left his home in early March, along with his wife and their three children, one, six and eight years old, and a few belongings. But he does not acknowledge that he bears part of the blame for the move, arguing that he only joined that first link of the trafficking chain to provide a better life for his family. He said he doesn't know what happened with the opium gum he produced.
“All you want is to get the product out, for them to come and buy it,” he said. “No idea at all what happens from there.”
The only thing he knows, Oláis added, is that the farmers in his village who only grow beans and corn are very poor.
“We planted (poppies) because we could make a living from it. At that time, the product was worth more. Now it's dropped a lot. Before, they paid 15,000 pesos ($780) per kilogram and now it's about 5,000 pesos ($260),” he said. “It doesn't even cover costs.”
The opium traffic in Mexico is worth millions, but those who grow the poppies live in extreme poverty.
Cultivating the world's most expensive drug
Oláis said his own father taught him the poppy business. He was 13 years old when he learned how to plant fields in remote areas and gullies where the military could not find them. In his best years, he harvested three kilos of opium gum every three months and earned 45,000 pesos, or $2,300, per harvest. He claimed he did not know which cartel bought his gum – and made huge profits.
Authorities catalog heroin as the most expensive drug in the world. One gram of pure heroin can sell for more than $450 on the streets of the U.S. One single dose costs about $50, adding up to about $27 billion per year, according to the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy.
In Guerrero, that money means death. The murder rate there in 2018 stood at 70 per 100,000 residents, making it one of Mexico's three deadliest locations. It's worth noting that during that same period, crime related to drug trafficking dropped by 27 percent.
The Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace, in a report titled Peace Index Mexico 2019, concluded that the drop in crime may be the result of the drop in the demand for opium.
"Guerrero has been historically a producer of poppies, so the increase in the use of synthetic opioids around the world has led to a drop in the farming of that product throughout the state,” the report noted.
That's part of the explanation for the exodus. While the poor farmers in Guerrero are paid less and less for their product, the attacks by armed groups in their area has not halted.
“There's a lot of crime around my town. They go in, fight and kill a lot of innocent people. We came before something could happen to us, accidentally, during some shootout. We were afraid,” said Oláis wife, Ericka Faustino.
“I don't want my children to farm poppies”
The family has been waiting in Nogales for a long time. They have been waiting for two months for the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agency to review their application for asylum. They were assigned number 1,382, and the CBP was at 1,228 on Friday. The agency usually calls two families per day, and sometimes none at all. Oláis estimates they have another 50 days to wait.
“It's tiring, because we're going up and down,” said Faustino as she carried her one-year-old son. “My children cry sometimes, because they want to go home. I tell them that we have to wait, because we're already here and far from our own place.”
Oláis said close relatives had recently been victims of that violence. “One time, a convoy of armed men came and kidnapped and beat my family. It was good that it was just that. They had scars,” he said.
The San Juan Bosco shelter has also been the temporary home of Alma Moreno for the past month. She used to live in Tlacopetepec, near Chilpancingo, which has become one of the most dangerous Mexican cities.
“There are a lot of armed men. It's scary. Because of that, the teachers stopped teaching and the children don't go to school. It's difficult to live there. There's no work, because they're often shooting at each other,” she said.
Moreno arrived with her husband, two children and a son-in-law. They want to go to Alabama. She said they left their town after some neighbors were kidnapped. “They sent word to look for them near there, and they had been burned. They weren't doing anything wrong.”
Her daughter, Melissa Alía, 20, said it was hard to leave behind the place where she was born, raised and started her own home. “It's sad. I feel bad, being here. Leaving what you have, your home, your car, your things, everything.”
The children playing in the San Juan Bosco shelter are the motivation that drives the parents to seek a better life.
Oláis turned to look at his three children when he spoke of wanting a better future for them. If he's denied asylum, he will stay in Nogales because he's not going back to Guerrero, he said.
“I took my children out of the mountains because I don't want them to do what I did, to grow poppies,” he said. “I want to help them get ahead, to become doctors, lawyers, to get their (U.S.) papers, to become part of that country,” he said. “I want the best for them.”