Saturday, April 2, 2011

Over and over

Each night, deep in the sierra, the soldiers put up their tents. A dozen men altogether, they take turns sleeping – four doze off, another four stand guard, another four patrol the area, their guns at the ready.

Who knows what they'll meet. They might meet nothing more than a squirrel. They might meet a group of migrants hiking through the hills in hope of making it to the United States. They might meet a few gomeros walking back from the poppy and marijuana fields. They might run into a group of narcos.

If they do, they must make a judgment call. Are the narcos trigger happy? Can they be approached without firing first? Can the soldiers be certain they are indeed narcos?

If the narcos are in a vehicle, the chances of them firing back are higher – they have a getaway car and a small height advantage over the soldiers, who are patrolling on foot on the road. If they're on foot, they can be cornered and then corralled.

The soldiers end their night patrol, exhausted and soaking wet from the rain. They return to camp, and sleep for a few hours.

They are awoken at dawn. They have a breakfast of rice and beans, or tamales. They put on their boots, and start walking up the nearby hill. Intelligence has pointed them in the direction of a poppy field about 3 kilometers away, up a hill, down along a small ridge and then up another hill.

Having located the field, hidden in a small clearing on the side of the mountain, they separate, forming a line. They begin to pull up the poppy plants, one by one. Sometimes they grab a few at a time, but the lieutenant in charge jumps in: you can't pull them out like that, or they grow back right away. You must pull them out with the root.

Within a few hours, the soldiers have uprooted thousands of poppy stems, and piled them in a corner of the field. They light a bonfire, and begin to burn them.

They hear a whistle from across the valley – a local gomero is signaling to his buddies that the soldiers are nearby. The lieutenant in charge takes note of where the whistle is coming from – that will be tomorrow's mission.

Having burned the poppy plants, the soldiers file down the mountain. They stop at a marijuana field on the way down, and proceed to tear it up and burn it down just as they had the poppy field. Two soldiers stop to talk to a local farmer living nearby. Does he know anything about the marijuana? No, the man says. Has it been there long? No, the man says. How long, then? I don't know, the man says. "Do you know of any narcos living nearby? No, the man says.

The soldiers don't believe him, but there's little they can do; he glares as they leave. His wife pops her head out of the window as they drive off – she is glaring too.

Night is approaching. The soldiers return to base camp. Some have naps, others sit around and play cards. They talk and eat dinner, meat and potatoes.

One by one they drift off to sleep. Another group takes the night patrol.

The next morning, they begin again, heading off to the marijuana plantation they spotted the day before.

Two weeks later, they head back to base in the city, a few hours drive by humvee. Most of them have families waiting. They all live together on the base.

Some of them head home within the city to their families. They were raised here, and are proud to be part of the military unit stationed in their hometown. On the drive back into town, a small boy playing on the street had yelled and smiled at one of the young soldiers in the humvee – "My son," the man had said.

Two weeks later, these same soldiers will head once again into the hills. They will have been briefed by their general, as well as military intelligence officials. They will once again be seeking out marijuana and poppy plantations. They will once again tear them up and burn them down. Every morning, they'll eat their rice and beans; every night, before going on patrol, they'll feast on meat and potatoes.

In a year, they'll tear up and burn down 17,998 hectares of marijuana throughout Mexico.

They'll destroy 15,330 hectares of poppy.

They won't make a dent in drug production.


  1. Malcolm,

    I have been following your blog for several months, and recently read The Last Narco. This post is stellar. Great work and journalism you are doing. Just wanted to give a pat on the back. I'll keep reading.


  2. thanks for the feedback Nathan, much appreciated.