El Chapo’s opium heartland bereft as Mexico cartels embrace fentanyl

An eerie silence hangs over the village that was home to one of Mexico’s most infamous drug clans, broken occasionally by the buzz of a passing motorbike along the deserted streets.

The trappings of cartel control in La Tuna remain. Masked gunmen toting AK-47s stop vehicles on the mountain road leading into the isolated community, while spotters on quad bikes mount patrols to intercept unwanted visitors.

But the opium and marijuana wealth — which gave the surrounding area the nickname “Golden Triangle” and made Joaquí­n “El Chapo” Guzmán, La Tuna’s most famous son, a criminal legend — has evaporated.

“Ten years ago people stopped growing marijuana and three years ago they stopped growing opium poppies,” one of the villagers, who asked not to be identified, told the Financial Times over a homegrown lunch of dried beef, cheese and beans. “Synthetic drugs have taken over from natural ones.”

The same story is repeated in towns and villages across the municipality of Badiraguato, which sprawls over an area twice the size of Luxembourg in the north-western state of Sinaloa and spawned a generation of drug lords who became infamous for their outsized fortunes and grisly violence.

A map of Mexico showing the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua and the region known as the “Golden Triangle”

Potent new illegal drugs such as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid which can be manufactured in a small apartment using chemicals imported from China, have achieved in a few years a result that eluded US and Mexican drug control agencies for decades: the end of large-scale opium poppy growing dating back to the 1940s.

A sustained collapse in opium paste prices has forced growers in Sinaloa to acknowledge a permanent shift in the market. In the last five years, the price of poppy gum dropped by up to 90 per cent, according to Romain Le Cour, senior expert at the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime.

“Fentanyl [brings] a radical reduction in raw material costs for the opioid supply chain,” said Jonathan Caulkin, drug policy expert and professor at Carnegie Mellon university’s Heinz College. “The peasants . . . just got left behind by the changing technology.”

Juan Carlos Ayala, professor at the University of Sinaloa and expert on local culture, said the model of the state’s criminal economy had changed with the shift to less bulky synthetics. “It is much safer to move 50 grammes of fentanyl than 500 kilos of marijuana or 10 kilos of opium paste,” he said.

A member of the Sinaloa cartel in a safe house in Culiacán
A member of the Sinaloa cartel in a safe house in Culiacán © Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters

A generational shift among the drug lords has contributed to the changes. Former Sinaloa cartel boss El Chapo, 67, is serving a life sentence plus 30 years in a maximum-security prison in Colorado. Control of the cartel has passed to four of his sons, known as “Los Chapitos”, who have driven the fentanyl trade in cities such as state capital Culiacán, and have little interest in La Tuna or the rural areas, residents said.

“The Chapitos sent three guys here last month who were being a nuisance — they ended up decapitated and their bodies were dumped over there,” said one resident, pointing towards the mountains.

The Guzmáns’ principal remaining link with La Tuna was severed last December, when the capo’s 94-year-old mother, María Consuelo Loera, died of complications from Covid-19. Her orange-painted single-storey mansion in the village, located close to the church where she used to pray every Sunday, now lies empty.

Such was the fame of La Tuna that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s populist president, paid a visit in 2020. He got out of his car to speak to Loera, who had asked him to help her arrange a family visit to her son in jail. “An older person deserves all my respect, independently of who her son might be,” López Obrador said after the encounter, which sparked outrage from his critics.

A bullet-hole ridden sign for the town of El Crucerito in the municipality of Badiraguato
A bullet-hole ridden sign for the town of El Crucerito in the municipality of Badiraguato © Christine Murray/FT

The US has not reported figures for opium poppy cultivation in Mexico since 2021, while the UN is understood to be preparing updated numbers for 2021/22 to be published this summer. But synthetic drugs are not the only reason for the collapse of narcotics farming in Sinaloa and neighbouring states.

The legalisation of marijuana in most US states and Canada robbed growers of what used to be a highly profitable export market. Growing coca to make into cocaine is not an option in the Sierra Madre: the land is too dry.

Farmers in Tameapa, a town close to La Tuna, recalled how opium poppies were so abundant in the area that they used to seed spontaneously around homes. Money flowed freely in the local community.

“They were such good times, and there was no suffering,” said a former poppy grower, as she sat on her patio. According to residents, up to three-quarters of inhabitants in some villages have left in the past three years to seek work in the cities.

A view of the mountains from Badiraguato
A view of the mountains from Badiraguato © Christine Murray/FT

But while the “golden triangle” no longer grows drugs in commercial quantities, and some of its most infamous narcos are either in jail or dead, the cartels they spawned are flourishing.

“Drug cartels are just evolving,” Caulkin said. “They’re not going to disappear.”

US attorney-general Merrick Garland described the Sinaloa cartel last April as “the largest, most violent, and most prolific fentanyl trafficking operation in the world”, while Anne Milgram, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the Chapitos had “pioneered the manufacture and trafficking of fentanyl” and “flooded” the US with the drug. 

Fentanyl and other synthetic drugs are now the leading cause of death for American adults under the age of 49 and kill more people every year than died in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

But the enormous profits from the synthetic drug trade bypass the mountain villagers and flow directly into big cities such as Culiacán, where locals say the Sinaloa cartel keeps around 1,000 heavily armed gunmen on its payroll. 

That private army hit the streets after the military arrested one of the Chapitos, Ovidio Guzmán, in 2019. Eight people were killed and 51 injured; 19 streets were blocked in Culiacán and 68 army vehicles peppered with bullets as the cartel stepped up pressure on the government.

López Obrador ordered the military to release Ovidio, saying he wanted to avoid further bloodshed. Ovidio was later arrested in January 2023 and extradited to the US. The remaining three Chapitos are still at large.

Bloody battles like the 2019 clashes with law enforcement, or vicious turf wars between rival gangs, spell an early death for many traffickers. Some of the most infamous have been laid to rest in the rapidly expanding Jardines del Humaya cemetery in Culiacán, whose grandiose tombs stand as monuments to bad taste.

Mausoleums in Culiacán’s Jardines del Humaya cemetery - the resting place of many slain cartel members
Mausoleums in Culiacán’s Jardines del Humaya cemetery — the resting place of many slain cartel members © Christine Murray/FT

A replica Taj Mahal lies a few streets away from a mausoleum built as a Renaissance-style church, its colonnaded facade topped with larger-than-life statues of saints. Almost all the edifices carry no inscription to identify the dead, a precaution against afterlife retaliation by rival gangs. 

Between the grand monuments, more modest kiosks house the remains of cartel gunmen, their murderous trade easily identifiable from large photographs showing them brandishing their weapons.

But while millions of dollars from the fentanyl trade pump through the economy of Culiacán, the dwindling number of rural residents are left to contemplate a bleak future.

“The money came and went,” one villager said wistfully. “This is now the end.”

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