El Chapo’s opium heart is being deprived as the Mexican cartels embrace fentanyl

An eerie silence hangs over the village that was home to one of Mexico’s most notorious drug clans, occasionally interrupted by the buzz of a passing motorcycle through the deserted streets.

The hallmarks of antitrust control in La Tuna remain. Masked gunmen with AK-47s stop vehicles on the mountain road leading to the isolated community, while spotters on quad bikes set up patrols to intercept unwanted visitors.

But the opium and marijuana wealth – which earned the 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 did not want to be identified, told the Financial Times over a homegrown lunch of dried beef, cheese and beans. “Synthetic drugs have taken over from natural drugs.”

The same story is being repeated in towns and villages in the municipality of Badiraguato, which stretches over an area twice the size of Luxembourg in the northwestern state of Sinaloa and has spawned a generation of drug lords who became infamous for their outsized fortunes and horrific violence. .

A map of Mexico showing the states of Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua and the region known as the

Powerful new illegal drugs such as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be manufactured in a small apartment using chemicals imported from China, have achieved in a few years a result that has eluded U.S. and Mexican drug enforcement agencies for decades: the end of the large-scale drug control. poppy cultivation dates back to the 1940s.

An ongoing collapse in opium paste prices has forced Sinaloa growers to acknowledge a permanent shift in the market. According to Romain Le Cour, a senior expert at the Geneva-based Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, the price of poppy gum has fallen by up to 90 percent in the past five years.

“Fentanyl (brings) a radical reduction in raw material costs to the opioid supply chain,” said Jonathan Caulkin, a drug policy expert and professor at Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College. “The farmers . . . have just been left behind by changing technology.”

Juan Carlos Ayala, a professor at the University of Sinaloa and an expert on local culture, said the state’s criminal economy model had changed with the shift to lower-volume synthetics. “It is much safer to transport 50 grams 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 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 been handed to four of his sons, known as “Los Chapitos,” who have controlled the fentanyl trade in cities like the capital Culiacán and have little interest in La Tuna or its rural areas, residents said.

“The Chapitos sent three boys here last month who caused a disturbance – they were eventually beheaded and their bodies dumped there,” said one resident, pointing to the mountains.

The Guzmáns’ main remaining tie to 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 townhouse in the village, near the church where she prayed every Sunday, is now empty.

La Tuna’s fame was so great that Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s populist president, visited in 2020. He got out of his car to talk to Loera, who had asked him to help her arrange a family visit to her son in prison. . “An older person deserves all my respect, regardless of who her son is,” López Obrador said after the meeting, which sparked outrage among his critics.

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

The US has not reported figures on poppy cultivation in Mexico since 2021, while the UN is reportedly preparing updated figures for 2021/2022, to be published this summer. But synthetic drugs are not the only reason for the collapse of narcotics production in Sinaloa and neighboring states.

The legalization of marijuana in most US states and Canada deprived growers of what was once a highly profitable export market. Growing cocaine to make cocaine is not an option in the Sierra Madre: the land is too dry.

Farmers in Tameapa, a town near La Tuna, recalled how opium poppies were so abundant in the area that they spontaneously sowed around houses. The money flowed freely within the local community.

“They were such good times, and there was no suffering,” said a former poppy grower, sitting on her patio. According to residents, in some villages up to three-quarters of residents have left in the past three years to look for 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 the most notorious narcos are in prison or dead, the cartels that spawned them are flourishing.

“Drug cartels just evolve,” Caulkin said. “They won’t go away.”

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland last April described the Sinaloa cartel as “the largest, most violent and most prolific fentanyl smuggling operation in the world,” while Anne Milgram, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said the Chapitos had “pioneered in the production 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, killing more people each year than died in the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan combined.

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But the huge profits from the synthetic drug trade bypass mountain villagers and flow straight to major cities like Culiacán, where locals say the Sinaloa cartel has around a thousand heavily armed gunmen on its payroll.

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

López Obrador ordered the military to release Ovidio, saying he wanted to prevent 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 brutal wars between rival gangs, mean an early death for many traffickers. Some of the most infamous graves are buried in the rapidly growing Jardines del Humaya cemetery in Culiacán, whose grandiose tombs are considered monuments of bad taste.

Mausoleums at the Jardines del Humaya cemetery in Culiacán – the resting place of many slain cartel members
Mausoleums at Jardines del Humaya Cemetery in Culiacán – the resting place of many slain cartel members © Christine Murray/FT

A replica of the Taj Mahal sits a few blocks away from a mausoleum built as a Renaissance-style church, with its colonnaded facade adorned with larger-than-life statues of saints. Almost all buildings bear no inscription to identify the dead, a precaution against retaliation by rival gangs in the afterlife.

Among the grand monuments, more modest kiosks house the remains of cartel gunmen; their murderous trade is easily recognized by large photos of them brandishing their weapons.

But as millions of dollars from the fentanyl trade pump through Culiacán’s economy, the dwindling number of rural residents face a bleak future.

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