Advocates Fear Chemicals Used on Mexico’s Drug Crops Cause Cancer

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An advocacy group says exposure to chemicals used by criminal groups to help grow marijuana and opium poppy plants could be behind a surge in the incidence of cancer among indigenous children in northern Mexico.

Antonio Hernández, the director of the Mexican Association to Help Children With Cancer (Asociación Mexicana de Ayuda a Niños con Cáncer – AMANC), told El Universal that the Tarahumara indigenous group has experienced a rash of cancer cases in the last year. All of the cases reportedly involve children in the mountains of Chihuahua whose mothers work in marijuana and poppy fields.

As babies, the mothers brought the children to the fields with them while they worked, exposing them to chemicals known as “accelerators,” which criminal groups use to help the illicit plants grow quicker and bigger, Hernández said. 

The municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo has been hit the hardest, according to the AMANC, with seven reported cancer cases last year. The town is also a major producer of marijuana crops; according to official statistics cited by El Universal, authorities destroyed 600,000 plants in a single operation last September. 

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The causal relationship between the chemical “accelerators” and cancer in children has not yet been proven, meaning authorities should consider investigating the AMANC’s concerns. In 2015, Colombia banned the use of the herbicide glyphosate after the World Health Organization found that it may cause cancer. Reducing the use of the accelerators would be more difficult in Mexico, however, as it is not the authorities but rather the criminal groups who are spraying them.  

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While organized crime’s impact on public health is usually measured in homicide rates and drug consumption figures, these examples demonstrate that it could also be considered in terms of physical illness and disease.  

In addition, El Universal’s report underscores the myriad ways that organized crime can negatively impact indigenous communities in Latin America. The Wounaan group in Panama has documented how illegal logging and cattle ranching have led to the deforestation of their lands and the pollution of their rivers. In Brazil, illegal diamond mining is pushing the Cinta-Larga tribe “to the brink of extinction,” according to one local prosecutor. And the drug trade has had serious consequences for indigenous communities in several parts of the region, such as Venezuela and Honduras.

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