TELOLOAPAN, MEXICO — In this skittish town on Mexico’s heroin highway, civilians with rusty shotguns shake down passing cars for contributions to the public defense. The police were disbanded years ago. The mayor recently got a death threat and fled in the governor’s helicopter.
But it’s when Highway 51 drops down from the rolling hills, and runs west in two lonely lanes across the scorched valley floor, that danger really starts to poison people’s lives. Drug bosses known as “the Tequila Man”and “the Fish” rule like feudal lords, at war with each other and the vigilante groups that have risen against them. Residents get kidnapped in groups. Tortured corpses are discarded in the valley, left to sear on hot pavement.
The opioid epidemic that has caused so much pain in the United States is also savaging Mexico, contributing to a breakdown of order in rural areas. Heroin is like steroids for drug gangs, pumping money and muscle into their fight to control territory and transportation routes to the United States.
Mexico provides more than 90 percent of America’s heroin, up from less than 10 percent in 2003, when Colombia was the main supplier. Poppy production has expanded by about 800 percent in a decade as U.S. demand has soared. The western state of Guerrero is the center of this business, producing more than half of Mexico’s opium poppies, the base ingredient for heroin. Guerrero also has become the most violent state in Mexico, with more than 2,200 killings last year.