MEXICO CITY, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- Mexico's outgoing Secretary of National Defense Salvador Cienfuegos recently lent his support to a growing chorus of Mexican officials calling for legalization of opium for medical purposes.
Mexico currently depends on imports of medical-grade opiates, something legalizers, including Cienfuegos, want to change.
"The issue is already on the table," Cienfuegos, the country's most senior army general, said, speaking at the opening of a new army barracks in Guerrero state's Teloloapan in early October.
The general's remarks have not been seen as going out on a limb. Olga Sanchez, a former Supreme Court justice and soon-to-be interior minister in Mexico's new government said she favors legalizing marijuana and opium. Lawmakers in Guerrero state also have spearheaded an initiative for regulated opium production for medical purposes.
Still, observers say, legalization is a striking proposal because opium poppies currently grown in Mexico are the raw material for heroin trafficked to the United States.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ranks Mexico's opium production after Afghanistan and southeast Asia and the Drug Enforcement Agency reports Mexico is the leading supplier of heroin consumed in the United States.
Guerrero state devotes 34,303 hectares annually to poppy cultivation, with most turned into black tar opium for U.S. consumers.
"This is one of the first legalization overtures for a crop that is potentially heroin or opium more generally," said Gladys McCormick, a professor of history at Syracuse University in New York. "It is broadening legalization in ways which aren't common in the western hemisphere."
A new take on the drug war
McCormick, an expert in the war on drugs in the Americas said "it's a new way of tackling the drug war that's more than just the guns-a-blazing strategy they've been practicing."
In 2006, then President Felipe Calderon ordered the Mexican army into the streets to fight drug production and trafficking. Enrique Pena Nieto, Calderon's successor, continued the strategy, and violence and human rights abuses have persisted. In 2014 the Mexican army is alleged to have participated in the enforced disappearance of 43 trainee teachers in rural Guerrero.
High levels of criminal violence and serious human rights abuses perpetrated by the military have damaged the army's image.
In 2017, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C., repeated its concern for the military's role in drug war human rights violations like "extrajudicial executions, torture, forced disappearances, as well as higher levels of impunity."
Commentators think the defense minister's remarks are strategic.
"Cienfuegos is cognizant of the need to shore up the military's legitimacy and this statement is connected to that effort," Thomas Rath said, a historian at University College London.
Human rights advocates welcome the army's support for legalization. They see it as a positive change because it will result in fewer human rights abuses, sending a message to the troops and certain sectors of society.
"Everybody can see the armed forces are lining up behind the new government's drug policy reforms," said José Guevara, director of the Mexican Commission for the Defense and Protection of Human Rights, an organization representing victims of human rights abuses in Mexico's drug war.
Legalization as pacification
Cienfuegos suggested the regulated production of opium might be "a way out of insecurity in this region of Guerrero."
Linking legalization to violence reduction in Mexico is a welcome change for some observers of Mexico's security policy.
"This is especially important in Guerrero where violence has been so persistent and widespread and the ability to get that violence under control has proved to be really difficult," Eric Olson said, deputy director of the Latin America program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. Olson welcomes Cienfuegos' willingness to discuss the issue of violence in the drug war.
Guerrero is one of Mexico's most violent drug war states. Official statistics show its homicide rate was 67.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in August 2018 -- more than double Mexico's national average of 27.2 homicides per 100,000.
The general's remarks about legalization turned immediately to how to confront organized crime when cultivators reject them to produce legal opium in a regulated market for the government to make morphine.
The defense minister said the new barracks he opened in Guerrero were part of a network of new military installations currently under construction in four states affected by the drug war. The new barracks in Guerrero cost $15 million and were expected to house 520 soldiers, 35 officers and three chiefs.
A salve to crop eradication in rural farming communities
Guerrero's inaccessible, fertile mountains have made it a prized place for illicit poppy cultivation since the 1960s and also a place of intense anti-narcotic efforts.
To curtail poppy cultivation, Mexico's army responded with manual and aerial crop eradication beginning in the 1970s. Army abuses prompted resistance among Guerrero's farming communities, and the beginnings of Mexico's Dirty War, with executions, enforced disappearances and torture.
"So the purpose of legalization of opium is pacification," Carlos Bravo said, associate professor and research coordinator of the journalism program at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas in Mexico City.
Between 2000 and 2015 the army destroyed 39,328 hectares of poppy farms, according to data provided to Mexico's attorney general, a strategy unlikely to continue when the illicit crop becomes licit for medical purposes.
Crop eradication "produces a great deal of enmity amongst peasant populations because it is not accompanied with viable livelihood alternatives. Farmers relocate elsewhere to keep on producing poppies," McCormick said, "so Cienfuegos is addressing some of the critiques of the army as a retrograde presence."
The Wilson Center's Eric Olson also emphasized the endless futility of crop eradication.
"For every poppy plant you pull up or chop down or burn, people plant two or three more," he said.
"We need to rethink this issue of eradication as the solution or main element of our policy. It's not really working. You are focusing all of your efforts on small farmers selling to middlemen who sell the product on until it makes its way into the United States. Small farmers aren't the big problem," Olson said.
When the military targets small farmers and commits human rights abuses in Guerrero, observers say the armed force's social legitimacy suffers and also hits soldiers' morale.
"Eradication efforts are very difficult for the Mexican military," Rath said. "It suffers very high rates of desertions. It is an institution that recruits voluntarily from rural men who have to go into rural communities and destroy crops."
Official data shows more than 8,000 members of Mexico's military deserted between 2013 and 2017.
The war on drugs is not dead in Mexico
Proposals to legalize marijuana and opium in Mexico suggest the war on drugs have failed.
"There hasn't been a lot of success," Olson said. "Violence is up. Consumption is up. The problems of crime and corruption remain strong so it is time to start looking at alternatives. I want to emphasize the Secretary was only talking about legalizing opium cultivation for medical purposes."
Bravo, the journalism professor at the CIDE, observed the armed forces will still be needed because organized crime has diversified its illicit activities beyond drug trafficking.
Legalization does not mean the war on drugs in Mexico is dead and while plans exist to create regulated production for medical purposes, no infrastructure currently exists to stop poppy cultivators selling onto a black market run by organized criminals.
"There will continue to be a focus on high-value targets, and putting people in prison, and less so on the state-building construction of capacities and alternatives to violence and migration," Olson said. "There will be a lot of pressure, and from the Mexican people themselves, to continue to focus on the high value targets and the drug kingpins."
Jose Guevara, the human rights advocate expects legalization will not challenge the army's power and does nothing to deliver justice for abuses committed in the drug war.
"The army is going to continue their policing tasks of detaining people, of intelligence gathering and of being on the streets patrolling. They have not said they will do anything different, just not destroy poppy and marijuana crops," Guevara said.
Gen. Cienfuegos' term as defense minister ends when the newly elected government of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador comes into office Dec. 1.