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US has been quietly helping Mexico with new, high-tech ways to fight opium

A woman scratches a poppy pod to extract opium crude in Xalpatlahuac, Mexico. (Rodrigo Cruz/Copyright 2018 The New York Times)

MEXICO CITY - In the past few opiate-soaked years, U.S. officials say, nearly all the heroin coursing through American cities has come from one place: Mexico.

U.S. authorities have expressed alarm at what they call an explosion of opium poppy in their southern neighbor. Echoing a federal drug agency assessment, President Donald Trump has declared that "an astonishing 90% of the heroin in America comes from south of the border" and cited that as one reason to build a giant border wall.

Yet Mexican and U.S. officials have struggled in recent years to answer some basic questions about Mexico's illegal poppy crop: How much is actually being grown? How much of it is the Mexican government destroying? And how much is being turned into heroin?

Now the Trump administration is intensifying its efforts to help Mexico get a more detailed picture of its poppy problem. It has begun to supply Mexican authorities with drones and geolocation technology and is funding studies to pinpoint how much poppy is being planted and how much heroin is produced from it.

The new initiatives emerged from several high-level meetings between Mexican and U.S. officials last year, as well as a trip in July by then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who flew to see poppy fields in Guerrero state with Mexican military leaders, according to Mexican and U.S. officials.

Trump's harsh rhetoric about Mexico on illegal immigration, trade and the wall could jeopardize that kind of security cooperation. On Monday, President Enrique Peña Nieto's office said he has instructed cabinet secretaries to review their bilateral programs with the United States, following a tense week in which Trump criticized Mexico about a caravan of migrants heading toward the U.S. border.

But on certain issues, such as poppy, the two sides have already quietly made progress. With Trump as president, "we thought that there would have been a chilling of relations," said Juan Carlos Silva, chief of the anti-drug division of Mexico's federal police. "On the contrary, we have grown closer."

The Drug Enforcement Administration said in a report last year that Mexico supplies 93 percent of all heroin consumed in the United States, up from half of it in 2012 - even though it lags far behind Afghanistan and Burma as an opium poppy producer, according to U.N. figures.

The DEA also reported that production more than tripled in Mexico between 2013 and 2016, to 79,000 acres, in part because of "reduced poppy eradication."

But there is no consensus on those estimates, particularly the production numbers.

Mexican military officials deny that poppy production has tripled and say they have increased eradication efforts, deploying more than 20,000 soldiers on ground or aerial missions. The troops destroyed about 71,000 acres last year and are on pace this year to surpass that, the officials said.

A decade ago, Mexico eradicated 27,000 acres, according to the United Nations.

There are several reasons for the disparate assessments.

Poppy, which is often cultivated in remote mountain areas, is harder to identify from aerial imagery than coca, the base ingredient of cocaine. In Colombia, once a major source of U.S. heroin, it is often grown in forests under cloud cover. In Mexico, where it is mainly grown in the western states of Guerrero, Sinaloa and Durango, it can also be interspersed with other crops, such as peach trees, making it difficult to detect.

And since poppy has such a short growing cycle - from seed to harvest in just four months - intermittent photography might miss certain fields, experts say.

"There are still a lot of question marks around the figures," said Martin Jelsma, director of the drug program at the Transnational Institute, a research organization based in Amsterdam, and the co-author of a forthcoming study on Mexican and Colombian poppy production.

Equally challenging, Jelsma said, is identifying the source country of a heroin sample. He doubts that the DEA can always tell whether heroin is made from Mexican or Colombian poppy, given that Mexican drug traffickers in some cases have hired Colombians to teach heroin-production techniques, so the product is similar.

"There is a gross underestimate of the poppy cultivation in Colombia," he said.

Lawrence Payne, a DEA spokesman, acknowledged that it was hard for the agency's scientists to distinguish between heroin varieties when Mexico first adopted Colombian recipes but said laboratory methods have been modified to address the problem.

DEA scientists can now determine a sample's variety and origin "at the 95% confidence level," Payne wrote.

For the past year, U.S. officials have focused on trying to help Mexican authorities establish an accurate picture of how much poppy is being grown and a system for verifying the amount Mexican security forces have destroyed.

"They've not had that in the past," one U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of a lack of authorization to comment publicly.

Until 2016, Mexico did not provide verifiable statistics on the size of its poppy crop. That year, working with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, it produced its first such report, relying on aerial and satellite imagery that found that about 61,000 acres of poppy was being grown. This summer, Mexico and the U.N. agency are expected to publish updated information and the first estimates of "yield," or how much poppy paste and heroin result from the crop. The U.S. government has helped fund that study, known as MEXK-54.

In addition, U.S. authorities have given the Mexican military several drones to help identify fields, according to a senior Mexican military official. They have also provided handheld equipment that uses GPS coordinates to locate poppy fields that have been destroyed, then sends the data via satellite to the Mexican attorney general's office, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. The Mexican army has the primary responsibility for eradication.

Mexican military officials describe these as test "projects" that have not been formally adopted but say more information about the "new gadgets" may be public soon.

Mexico has long been wary of allowing U.S. security agencies too much access. That has made it hard for the United States to evaluate the scope of poppy production or verify Mexican eradication efforts, said David Murray, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former chief scientist with the Office of National Drug Control Policy during the George W. Bush administration.

"It's just been a very difficult thing to get full Mexican cooperation because of their concerns about their own sovereignty," he said.

Military-to-military relations have improved in recent years, with Mexico taking a more active role in hemispheric defense forums. Even amid the tensions with the Trump administration, top Mexican military leaders have met regularly with their U.S. counterparts.

In July, during Kelly's visit to the Guerrero opium fields, he watched Mexican soldiers uproot and burn crops.

"The Mexican government eradicates a tremendous amount of opium," Kelly said in an interview at the time. "In fact, I believe something on the order of about 90 percent of the poppies that are under cultivation they eradicate. By contrast, I think, Afghanistan eradicates about 2 percent.

"The problem, of course, is there's five crops a year," he added.

After that visit, the two countries began developing new ways to work together on the issue, including boosting the use of technology.

"As a result of that trip and those conversations, these projects came about," a Mexican official said.

The DEA has added staff in Mexico to work on the opioid problem. U.S. law enforcement officials also said Mexican authorities appear to be stepping up efforts to combat it.

"I have seen, definitely, an increase in poppy field seizures," one official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share candid views.

Others, however, remain skeptical that Mexican authorities will do much more to curb opium poppy production.

"No matter how much money we pump into that, they're still going to do what they want to do," a second U.S. official said. "They might take all that equipment we throw at them and use it for something else."

Security experts in both countries question whether the Trump administration's drive against poppy will fare any better than previous attempts. Even though the U.S. government spent decades discouraging the flow of cocaine from Colombia, coca is again being cultivated there at record levels.

"It's undeniable there's a stepped-up attempt to refocus efforts on this particular problem," said Eric Olson, a Latin American security expert at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. "I just don't have a sense that there are any new ideas."

In Mexico, some analysts played down the Peña Nieto government's contributions to the anti-heroin fight during its five years in power, arguing that little effort has been made to develop programs for alternative crops or maintain security there as the cartels wage war, driving violence to record levels last year.

Eradicating poppy, said Alejandro Hope, a security expert and former intelligence official, "has not been a priority for this government."

Washington Post graphic

  

Story by Joshua Partlow. Partlow is The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Mexico. He has served previously as the bureau chief in Kabul and as a correspondent in Brazil and Iraq.

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