18 May 2016
Catholic News Service
Church must not condemn opium farmers, says Mexican bishop
Mexico produces nearly half of the heroin found in the United States, up from 39 per cent in 2008
A Catholic bishop in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero has called for compassion towards the impoverished populations harvesting opium poppies used in the production of heroin.
Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza of Chilpancingo-Chilapa told the newspaper El Universal that opium farmers were growing the plants used for heroin out of necessity because they had no other option.
He asked the army to stop fumigating small farmers' poppy fields "until there are other options for opium poppy growers" and said the practice was "taking food out of their mouths [and] starving them to death."
"People who grow opium poppies are the most marginalised people in the state and the country. ... It is campesinos [peasant farmers] who plant the flower, not narcotics traffickers," Bishop Mendoza said. "Those that plant [opium poppies] are somewhat enslaved, receiving a minimal benefit, and they grow it to get by. ... The Church must not condemn it because the majority of people [growing poppies] do it because of a lack of options."
Priests in drug-producing Mexican states often confront the realities of local people growing illegal cash crops such as marijuana and opium poppies to put food on the table. The state of Guerrero, which lies south of Mexico City includes some of the country's most marginalised municipalities.
The state is still reeling from the kidnapping and murder of 43 students by police in 2014 as they commandeered buses to travel to protest in Mexico City. One of the buses may have been transporting opium paste, provoking the attack. Experts from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, who reviewed the case, called on Mexican investigators to probe that angle.
For decades, Guerrero has been coveted as a trafficking corridor and a site for planting and harvesting opium poppies. Increased heroin use in the United States is believed to be driving a demand for opium poppies produced in Mexico, which are processed into paste and smuggled to the United States. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency’s 2014 National Drug Threat Assessment, Mexico produces nearly half of the heroin found in the United States, up from 39 per cent in 2008.
"Growing is nothing new," said Father Mario Campos, a priest in the Diocese of Tlapa, which serves the marginalised La Montana region, populated by isolated and impoverished indigenous communities sustained by illegal cash crops and remittances.
"The problem is not the growing of opium poppies," Father Campos said. "The problem is unemployment. People have to work. They need economic resources so that their children go to school. They need income to buy the basics."
Guerrero Governor Hector Astudillo is floating the idea of decriminalising some poppy production and selling the crop to the pharmaceutical industry for medicinal purposes as a way of reducing violence among the criminal groups buying and processing opium poppies.
Bishop Rangel supports decriminalisation, but said he wanted to see more alternatives offered to farmers.
"If the government invested a little more ... and paid closer attention to education, invested in highway infrastructure, health centers and hospitals, it would be different," he said.
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