A soldier advances through a poppy field

As criminal groups in Mexico rush to meet the growing demand for heroin in the United States, InSight Crime looks at the production chain from poppy farms to heroin laboratories.

Faced with declining marijuana prices and growing demand for opium paste, farmers along Mexico's Pacific Coast appear to be increasingly turning to poppy crops as a source of revenue, feeding the country's multibillion-dollar opium trade.

Wholesale marijuana prices in the so-called "Golden Triangle" region -- which includes parts of the states of Sinaloa, Chihuahua, and Durango -- have dropped from $100 a kilo to less than $25 over the last five years, according to The Washington Post. In contrast, a kilo of the opium paste used to produce heroin fetches $1,500 in the region, almost double the value in 2012, according to the newspaper.

Further south in Guerrero state, the price for marijuana has dropped even lower -- to around $17 a kilo, according to the Associated Press -- while a kilo of opium paste sells for close to $900.

These price changes reflect shifts in demand for drugs in the United States. According to William Brownfield, the US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, cocaine and methamphetamine consumption have been cut in half, while heroin use has shot up some 65 percent over the last few years. In 2013, 681,000 people reported using heroin in the past year, compared to 373,000 in 2007. 

From Pot to Poppies

Mexican cartels are only too happy to meet the increased demand for heroin. "These criminals are businessmen," Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spokesman Rusty Payne told InSight Crime. "They're interested in the bottom line and when they see the skyrocketing demand for heroin in the US, they're going to adjust accordingly."

Payne said the Mexican cartels -- which once produced low-grade black tar heroin and trafficked the higher quality Colombian varieties -- are now producing brown heroin and higher-grade white heroin as well.

In fact, Mexico appears to be surpassing Colombia as the main producer of heroin for the US market. Brownfield recently stated that the majority of the heroin sold in the United States comes from Mexico, where US authorities have seen an increase in poppy cultivation and heroin production.

Payne told InSight Crime that although the numbers fluctuate slightly, the DEA has arrived at a similar conclusion. "For the most part we're seeing a huge rise in Mexico-produced heroin in the US to the point where we think it's eclipsed Colombia," he said.

SEE ALSO: Mexico News and Profiles

In Mexico, heroin, opium paste, and opium poppy seed seizures have increased enormously in a short amount of time. According to Mexico's National Defense Secretariat (Sedena), the armed forces seized 259 kilos of heroin in 2014, 42 percent more than the previous year. Opium poppy seed seizures more than tripled -- from 871 kilos in 2013 to 3,600 kilos in 2014 -- and opium paste seizures increased over fivefold during the same period (see graph below).

Meanwhile, cocaine seizures dropped by close to 64 percent, from 3,052 kilos in 2013 to 1,100 kilos the following year, while marijuana seizures fell by almost 12 percent (see graph below). 

Opium Paste Franchises

Opium poppies are grown in mountain valleys along Mexico's Pacific Coast, planted by farmers who have few alternative sources of income. The Golden Triangle region and the state of Guerrero are two hubs of poppy production, but the crops are also grown in the states of Michoacan and Oaxaca.

As the dominant criminal group along Mexico's Pacific Coast, the Sinaloa Cartel appears to be the major player in North America's heroin trade. However, the cartel does not directly oversee most of the opium paste production, delegating this task instead to smaller criminal groups, according to the Associated Press. This system has led to fighting between rival groups, especially in Guerrero state, where numerous smaller criminal gangs -- including the Guerreros Unidos, the Rojos, and the Pelones -- are reportedly battling for control of poppy growing regions.

As a result, entire villages have been driven from their homes in Guerrero and the Golden Triangle region. In Guerrero alone, the fighting forced over 2,900 people to flee between January 2013 and July 2014, according to official figures reported by El Universal, although local media claim the actual number is much higher. One local official told El Universal there are also numerous mass graves hiding the bodies of those who weren't lucky enough to escape.

While the Sinaloa Cartel reportedly allocates much of the opium paste production in the region, there are other groups with a stake in the trade, according to Payne. "Sinaloa is not the only game in town when it comes to heroin trafficking," Payne told InSight Crime. "There are definitely others, as well as smaller networks that have looser affiliations with cartels."

Sean Waite, the DEA Assistant Special Agent in charge of the Albuquerque District Office, told InSight Crime that the Mexican organizations that provide heroin to the southwestern region of the United States "tend to be relatively small" and typically pay taxes to larger criminal organizations in order to operate. This dynamic is similar to the one seen in Colombia, where around 28 smaller criminal groups with ties to larger organizations control the heroin trade, according to one 2012 report

The Harvest

During the winter, harvesters known as "rayadores" (scratchers) use razors to slice into the green seedpods of flowering poppies and collect their sap. When the sap dries and turns brown, the harvesters roll it into balls or cakes, which are sold to criminal groups or their middlemen. In Guerrero, according to the Associated Press, buyers affiliated with local criminal groups reside in most of the villages in poppy growing areas and serve as lookouts until harvest time. The buyers use short-wave radios to communicate with their bosses and schedule a pickup when they have bought enough opium paste.

The opium paste is then shipped to laboratories, where it is processed using chemicals like acetic anhydride, and dried to produce powdered heroin or kept in the dark, sticky form characteristic of black tar heroin, according to The Washington Post.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Heroin

Payne told InSight Crime that although there are some heroin laboratories in the United States, for the most part heroin production takes place south of the border. He said the DEA has seen a range of operations, from small-scale production to larger laboratories, but that in general the heroin production capabilities of Mexican criminal groups have increased and grown more sophisticated in recent years.

As demand for heroin continues to rise, Payne said there is no question Mexican producers will find a way to keep up. "They're going to try to enhance and strengthen their capabilities for production," he told InSight Crime. "They're going to hire the best chemists, and they're going to do anything they can to acquire their chemicals from places across the globe […] to produce massive amounts of heroin."