Mexican bishop calls for compassion for people growing poppies

IMAGE: CNS photo/Watan Yar, EPA

By David Agren

MEXICO CITY (CNS) — A Catholic
bishop in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero has called for compassion
toward the impoverished populations harvesting opium poppies out of necessity,
saying such people are not sinners and are neglected by the government.

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 marginalized people in the state and the country. … It’s
campesinos (peasant farmers) who plant the flower, not narcotics traffickers,”
Bishop Salvador Rangel Mendoza of Chilpancingo-Chilapa told the newspaper El
Universal. “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. Bishop
Rangel made his comments as violence consumed the state of Guerrero, which lies
south of Mexico City and includes some of the country’s most marginalized

The state is still reeling from
the attack on 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.

“Growing is nothing new,”
said Father Mario Campos, a priest in the Diocese of Tlapa, which serves the
marginalized 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 Gov. Hector Astudillo is
floating the idea of decriminalizing 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.

Antonio Mazzitelli, the U.N.
Office on Drugs and Crime representative in Mexico, told the Associated Press
that demand was lacking to justify producing more opium poppies.

Bishop Rangel supported the
decriminalization idea, but said he wanted to see more alternatives offered to

“If the government invested
a little more in the Sierra … and paid closer attention to education,
invested in highway infrastructure, health centers and hospitals, it would be
different,” he said.

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