U.S., Afghan forces strike opium factories to curb Taliban funds

U.S. Army General John Nicholson, Commander of Resolute Support forces and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, speaks during a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan November 20, 2017.

By Girish Gupta

KABUL (Reuters) – U.S. and Afghan forces have launched joint attacks on Taliban opium factories to try to curb the insurgent group’s economic lifeline, officials from both countries said on Monday.

U.S. Army General John Nicholson showed videos at a press conference of targeted aerial strikes against what he described as Taliban drug factories.

“Last night we conducted strikes in northern Helmand to hit the Taliban where it hurts, in their narcotics financing,” said Nicholson, flanked by Afghan Army Lieutenant General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali.

The southern province of Helmand suffers heavy fighting and is the single-largest producer of opium.

Opium production in Afghanistan reached record highs this year, up 87 percent on last year, the United Nations said last week.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said output of opium made from poppy seeds in Afghanistan, the world’s main source of heroin, stands at around 9,000 metric tons this year.

UNODC has warned in the past that Kabul’s weakening grip on security was contributing to a collapse in eradication efforts.



Nearly half of Afghan opium is processed, or refined into morphine or heroin, before it is trafficked out of the country, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

“We’re determined to tackle criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force,” said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Twitter.

Nicholson said the attacks were part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new policy toward Afghanistan as he boosts troop numbers.

The four-star general showed one video of an F-22 fighter jet dropping 250-pound bombs on two buildings, emphasizing that a nearby third building was left unscathed.

U.S. troops have long been accused of causing unnecessary collateral damage and civilian deaths. The United States says it takes every precaution to avoid civilian casualties.

The United Nations said at least 10 civilians may have been killed by a strike in Kunduz earlier this month, contradicting a U.S. investigation that found no civilian deaths.


(Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by James Mackenzie)


Mexican army fights surge in violence for control of poppy country

A soldier walks among poppy plants before a poppy field is destroyed during a military operation in the municipality of Coyuca de Catalan, Mexico

By Lizbeth Diaz and Michael O’Boyle

COYUCA DE CATALAN, Mexico (Reuters) – The Mexican army says its fight against surging opium production that feeds U.S demand is increasingly complicated by the rise of smaller gangs disputing wild, ungoverned lands planted with ever-stronger poppy strains.

The gangs have engulfed the state of Guerrero in a war to control poppy fields, turning inaccessible mountain valleys of endemic poverty and famous beach resorts into Mexico’s bloodiest spots.

Colonel Isaac Aaron Jesus Garcia, who runs a base in one of the state’s most unruly cities, Ciudad Altamirano, told Reuters on an operation to chop down poppies high in the Guerrero mountains that violence increased two years ago when a third gang, Los Viagra, began a grab for territory.

Bodies are discovered almost daily across the state, tossed by roads, some buried in mass graves. In Ciudad Altamirano, the mayor was killed last year and a journalist gunned down in March at a car wash.

“These fractures (in the gangs) started two years ago, and that caused this violence that is all about monopolizing the production of the drug,” Jesus Garcia said.

From this frontline of the fight against heroin, Jesus Garcia sees a direct link between a record U.S. heroin epidemic that killed nearly 13,000 people in 2015 and violence on his patch.

“The increase of consumers for this type of drug in the United States has been exponential and the collateral effect is seen here,” Jesus Garcia said.

Heroin use in the United States has risen five-fold in the past decade and addiction has more than tripled, with the biggest jumps among whites and men with low incomes.

Jesus Garcia said the task of seeking out poppy fields in one of Mexico’s poorest and least accessible regions, rising above the beach resorts of Acapulco and Ixtapa, was practically endless.

His 34th Battalion and others send platoons of troops on foot for month-long expeditions every season. They set up camps and fan through treacherous terrain, part of a campaign that destroys tens of thousands of fields a year.

One such field visited by Reuters was deep in a lawless region six hours from Ciudad Altamirano through winding dirt roads thick with dust that rose into the mountains.

It was irrigated by a lawn sprinkler mounted on a pole that spritzed water over less than a hectare of poppies and fertilizer bags were piled nearby, basic farming techniques the soldiers nevertheless said were a sign of growers’ new sophistication.

A dozen troops fanned out, chopping down the flowers with machetes.

Soldiers stand guard as they destroy poppies during a military operation in the municipality of Coyuca de Catalan, Mexico

Soldiers stand guard as they destroy poppies during a military operation in the municipality of Coyuca de Catalan, Mexico April 18, 2017. Picture taken April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Henry Romero


Army officials said gangs use poppy varieties that produce higher yields and more potent opium from smaller plots, and that its higher value is driving violent competition between gangs.

“Now we see more production of poppy in less terrain, and it has to do with the quantity of bulbs each plant has,” said Lieutenant Colonel Jose Urzua as he showed bulbs oozing valuable gum from slits. He explained opium is often harvested by families.

In these tiny mountain hamlets opium has grown for decades, officials said, but a coffee plague and the U.S. opiate epidemic has led farmers to plant much more.

The harvest has become central to Guerrero’s economy, also dependent on cash sent home by immigrants.

One army official said the field seen by Reuters could produce around 3 kilos (6.6 lb) of opium, fetching up to $950 per kilo from traffickers who sell it for up to $8,000.

“There aren’t many alternatives here,” said a woman selling soft drinks and snacks from a pine shack by a dirt road. Her husband grows poppies, and she said anyone who runs a business faces extortion by gangs.

(Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Chris Reese)

Exclusive: U.S. offers to fund Mexico heroin fight as 2016 output jumps – U.S. official

FILE PHOTO: Policemen keep watch on the perimeter of a scene during a shooting with federal forces in Tepic, in Nayarit state, February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Hugo Cervantes/File Photo

By Gabriel Stargardter

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – The United States has offered to help fund Mexico’s efforts to eradicate opium poppies, the U.S. assistant secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) said on Friday, as Mexican heroin output increased again last year.

“We would be prepared to support (opium eradication efforts) should we reach a basic agreement in terms of how they would do more and better eradication in the future,” William Brownfield of INL, part of the State Department, said in an interview.

“That is on the table, but I don’t want you to conclude that it’s a done deal, because we still have to work through the details,” he said, without specifying how much money the United States could provide.

The United States is in the midst of an opiates epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of people, and with much of its heroin coming from the mountains of Mexico, the issue has become a key topic of discussion between the Mexican government and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump.

The U.S. offer to help fund Mexico’s war on poppy cultivation stands in stark contrast to Trump’s threats to rip up the North American Free Trade Agreement and force Mexico to pay for a wall along the U.S. border, and reveals the more subtle discussions taking place between the two governments.

Mexico’s president’s office, the Interior Ministry and the Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Speaking on condition of anonymity because the figures are not yet public, a U.S. official said separately that the area of opium poppies under cultivation in Mexico reached 32,000 hectares in 2016, equivalent to about 81 tonnes.

In 2015, Mexico had 28,000 hectares under cultivation, almost triple the area in 2012, according to U.S. data.

Support for eradicating Mexico’s opium crop could come in various forms, Brownfield said. For example, the U.S. government could provide more vehicles, or pay for helicopter flights to access the isolated, mountainous regions where poppy is grown.

“If it’s a matter of having other sorts of equipment, we could talk about support in terms of equipment,” he said.

The INL will not write Mexico a blank check but is willing to help fund specific units involved in eradication, he said.

Mexico is engaged in fraught discussions with the Trump administration over drug trafficking, trade and immigration, and Trump focused on the heroin scourge in his election campaign.

Nonetheless, Brownfield said the two governments were making substantial progress.

“Our cooperation with the Mexican government on the heroin challenge is in fact good, and it is better than it has ever been in the past,” he said.

Brownfield also confirmed a Reuters report that Mexico’s army is allowing the United States and the United Nations to observe eradication efforts.

(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)