October 26, 2021

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The village that abandoned drug trafficking for tourism

LLANOS DE TEPOXTEPEC, MEXICO – During Alejandro Solano González’s childhood, the fields of this mountain village woke up three times a year to red and pink poppies. Each flower hid a pod full of goo that the farmers drained, packaged and sold. That stuff was opium gum, the base of heroin.

Without it, this community of 163 people probably wouldn’t exist. “They label us bad and violent, but we have to survive,” says Solano.

Solano, 41, says his family didn’t grow poppies. As a young man he left Llanos de Tepoxtepec to become a civil engineer, but his wife and children remained. He wanted to stop commuting, but how could he make a living? The village is about an hour from Chilpancingo de los Bravo, the capital of the southern state of Guerrero. The road to the city is unpaved. Do you have to make a phone call? Good luck. But the forest – it’s breathtaking. Pines, cedars, oaks, crisp air. So the Solanos decided to attract city dwellers with a restaurant and rented cabins.

For years, Mexico’s illicit farming communities have struggled to envision a poppy-free future. Much discussion has centered on whether the government should legalize opium for medicinal use or subsidize crop replacement. If the Solanos managed to attract tourists, they could offer another road map: to reinvent the purpose of a village.

Mexican poppies have fueled US heroin use since the 1940s, but production increased towards the turn of the century. One of the main causes was the North American free trade agreement. The trade pact inundated Mexico with US-grown economic corn, according to a study in the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development, affiliated with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, a civil society organization based in Geneva, in Swiss. Beans, pumpkins, and peaches weren’t bringing in enough money, particularly for raising large families. Poppies did it.

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Avigaí Silva, GPJ Mexico

Gael Solano brings firewood to his family’s restaurant in Llanos de Tepoxtepec. His father, Alejandro Solano González, initiated the community’s transition to ecotourism, which commercializes the natural splendor of a place.

At one point, Mexico produced more than 90% of the heroin consumed in the United States; Guerrero was probably the epicenter. In 2017, the state was ranked as the second most violent in Mexico. Although villagers say Llanos de Tepoxtepec was spared, they couldn’t help but notice armed opium buyers prowling the town.

“As long as there is no economic investment in communities … our governments will always continue to fight the problem of drug cultivation,” says Solano.

Solano heard of ecotourism, or commercializing the natural splendor of a place, while working for municipal governments. He had no experience in restaurants or lodgings, but he thought the village could offer a respite from city life. In 2018, as president of the local civil association, he won federal funding to build huts and a restaurant, serving typical Mexican products such as pozole, a meat stew.

At first, the Solanos only invited relatives and friends – the village’s reputation was too harsh to attract many others. But the rumor of her beauty spread. About halfway up the mountain, the air cools, the capital recedes, and the Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl volcanoes engulf the horizon. Soon runners and cyclists snorted through the forest.

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Avigaí Silva, GPJ Mexico

Sandy Salazar prepares pancita de res at the Solano family restaurant. Earlier this year, locals estimated that up to 1,000 people visited the community each week.

Laura Alejandra Caballero de la Concha and her family recently spent a weekend in the village. “At first I was afraid to go up,” says the 50-year-old, “but being there and meeting people, you realize it’s a very safe place because the people themselves provide that security.” Before his trip, his friends had fainted from the serenity of the village. They didn’t lie, he says.

It wasn’t long before Solano’s venture seemed more profitable than drug trafficking. In recent years, many US traffickers have switched from heroin to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, which is up to 50 times stronger. Opium prices plummeted. In another Guerrero village, according to the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development study, a kilogram of opium-based pasta was once worth at least 20,000 Mexican pesos ($ 1,000), sold in 2018 for a third of that.

“For the first time in modern Mexican history,” the researchers wrote, “illicit natural drugs have ceased to be profitable income crops.”

The federal government had launched a program years earlier to encourage forest communities to find more sustainable economic options. Due to the success of the Solanos, in 2019, Llanos de Tepoxtepec launched its own ecotourism project. The village is an ejido, or communal land, which means that the residents would share in the profits. It received nearly 3 million pesos ($ 150,000) over five years as long as the project did not disturb the landscape.

As tourists pour in, local fishing falters

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Poppy growers cut down trees and burn crop residues, so ejido has banned poppy cultivation entirely. Mockers face fines or even exile from the community, says ejido commissioner Laureano Mosso Guzmán. Although the price of opium is rising again, villagers say, no one has been disciplined. Leonel Solano Flores, cousin of Alejandro Solano González, says: “We want to create a better future for our children, away from problems, violence and drug addiction”.

Last year, ejido began advertising cave tours, horseback riding, off-roading, and camping. Earlier this year, locals estimated that up to 1,000 people visited each week, providing jobs for community members who moved for work but returned home during the pandemic.

María Guadalupe Martínez Solano, 22, worked in a nursery in the state of Mexico until the pandemic reduced her hours and income, and her mother fell ill. It now sells elaborate turkey figurines on the main dirt road of Llanos de Tepoxtepec. Other craftsmen offer flowerpots, coat racks and benches. “I feel happy”, says Martínez, who is Alejandro Solano González’s granddaughter, “because I have a job and I am with my parents”.

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Avigaí Silva, GPJ Mexico

Abel Solano Antaño offers horse riding services. Visitors to Llanos de Tepoxtepec also camp, visit the caves and go 4WD.

The continued success of the project is far from certain. Luis Federico Gutiérrez Garduño, an official of the State Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources, says that in the last two decades at least 30 ecotourism projects in Guerrero have failed.

“If there isn’t a community spirit to make the project work, the project fades,” he says. “And the life cycle is so short that everything can be destroyed in a year, including the desire to carry out the project.”

Ejido has already faced challenges. Due to the pandemic, the government failed to pay part of the grant, delaying plans to add a cable car and fireplaces. A recent fire burned a swath of forest, which could affect the size of future payments. And coronavirus closures could mean smaller crowds when Guerrero’s beaches reopen. However, Omar Solano Flores, a member of the ejido council and brother of Alejandro Solano González, says the village is committed to the project.

On a recent morning, the ecotourism business arose with the sun. These days, Solano is mainly in charge of administrative duties, while his wife takes care of the rentals and the restaurant. A small crew poked the fire, washed the dishes and boiled pozole in a giant pot. Outside, the townspeople had wrapped themselves in thermal garments and watched the sky glow orange.

[ https://globalpressjournal.com/americas/mexico/village-ditched-drug-trade-tourism/ https://d26toa8f6ahusa.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/30214746/a-quiet-place-part-2-bigs-16.pdf