EL CALVARIO, Mexico — With her nimble hands, tiny feet and low center of gravity, Angelica Guerrero Ortega makes an excellent opium harvester.
Deployed along the Sierra Madre del Sur, where a record poppy crop covers the mountainsides in strokes of green, pink and purple, she navigates the inclines with the deftness of a ballerina.
Though shy, she perks up when describing her craft: the delicate slits to the bulb, the patient scraping of the gum, earning in one day more than her parents do in a week.
That she is only 15 is not so important for the people of her tiny mountain hamlet. If she and her classmates miss school for the harvest, so be it. In a landscape of fallow opportunities, income outweighs education.
As heroin addiction soars in the United States, a boom is underway south of the border, reflecting the two nations’ troubled symbiosis. Officials from both countries say that Mexican opium production increased by an estimated 50 percent in 2014 alone, the result of a voracious American appetite, impoverished farmers in Mexico and entrepreneurial drug cartelsthat straddle the border.
Abusers of prescription pharmaceuticals in America are looking for cheaper highs, as a crackdown on painkiller abuse has made the habit highly expensive. And the legalization of marijuana in some states has pushed down prices, leading many Mexican farmers to switch crops. Cartels, meanwhile, have adapted, edging into American markets once reserved for higher quality heroin from Southeast Asia while pressing out of urban centers into suburbs and rural communities.
“The cartels have a pretty good handle on the appetite in the U.S.,” said Jack Riley, the deputy administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “They understand the prescription drug issue here, and that is one of the major reasons why you are seeing the expansion of poppy production.”
The results have rattled both nations. In the United States, where deaths from heroin overdose surged 175 percent between 2010 and 2014, politicians and drug enforcement agents are scrambling to respond. In Mexico, where cartel violence has pulsed through the nation, bringing the deaths and disappearances of thousands, the government reports that it eradicated a record number of hectares of poppy crops last year.
Nowhere is the toll of that surge more apparent than in Guerrero, the country’s most violent state, where rival drug factions perpetrate a war of bloody competition and silent disappearances that have paralyzed the region. Here, farmers are increasingly opting to grow poppies, cloaking remote mountainsides in the robust crop to eke out a living in places like Calvario where, as far as most are concerned, the government barely exists. To meet the demand, children are enlisted in the harvest, out of necessity and convenience. The money is too much to ignore for most, and the tricky terrain more manageable for those with slighter frames.
The governor of Guerrero recently likened his state to Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer.
“We are pretty much in the same place, even though we are just one state and they are a country,” said Gov. Rogelio Ortega Martínez, whose state has seen the sharpest increase in opium production nationwide.
But unlike Afghanistan, a nation writhing under the weight of more than three decades of conflict, Guerrero is not an all-out war zone. The state capital has a Burger King and a McDonald’s. Guerrero is also home to the famous beaches and resorts of Acapulco.
But where children like Angelica scale steep mountainsides to lance poppies and collect the gummy brown opium that seeps out, there is an eerie similarity with Afghanistan. In both places, the near absence of the state allows the industry to flourish.
“It is not the drug production that generates underdevelopment,” said Antonio Mazzitelli, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in Mexico. “It is the lack of development that generates the opium cultivation.”
Or, in the words of one farmer in Calvario: “There is no real order here. We are governed by narcos.”
Not that anyone in Calvario much cares for — or even knows — of the broader debate over the drug trade. Villagers see little harm in cultivating opium. No one here uses the drug, or its derivative heroin, and the day rate for labor in the poppy fields is many times what is paid for shucking corn.
Isolation breeds a certain detachment. Calvario, though just a few miles from the state capital, is marooned an hour’s drive up unpaved mountain switchbacks littered with boulders and ruts. In the village of around 100 people, there is limited awareness of the outside world. Some farmers are not entirely clear what opium is even used for.
José Luis García, a farmer in Calvario who leases his land for opium cultivation, asked more than once what exactly it was about poppies that drove Americans so crazy. After hearing of the epidemic of addiction in the United States, Mr. García paused for a moment to reflect on the ethics of growing poppies.
“The fault is not with those who cultivate the opium,” he said. “It’s with the idiots who consume it.”
For years, Mexico has operated as much more than just a transport hub for drugs bound for the United States. In addition to opium poppy, the cartels grow marijuana and manufacture methamphetamines, textbook examples of the backward and forward links that business students might encounter in their coursework. By both growing and distributing, the drug cartels can keep more of the profit.
For farmers living in remote Calvario, opium cultivation has a certain logic. It is a hardy plant, with two growing seasons that yield a modest harvest in the summer and a more substantial one in the winter. Getting goods to market is also simple: The traffickers come to them, driving their flashy trucks into the remote village outposts and buying directly from the farmers.
Farmers and officials say the trade falls under the control of the Sinaloa cartel, the most sophisticated and organized of Mexico’s drug gangs. The group is led by Joaquín Guzmán Loera, better known as El Chapo, arguably the world’s most notorious kingpin, who tunneled his way to freedom last month from Mexico’s most secure prison.
His return to the drug game is seen as a good thing in the mountains of Guerrero.
“He will bring more money to the area,” Mr. García said. “He will make things easier.”
As it stands, there is nothing easy about cultivating opium poppies in this unforgiving stretch of the country, stationed above the clouds at more than 10,000 feet. Perhaps the most tangible sign of the government’s presence in Calvario is the lengths to which farmers must go to hide their opium cultivation.
Getting to Mr. García’s plot, which he used to cultivate himself but now leases, involved an hourlong, four-wheel drive obstacle course along chewed roads, followed by a nearly two-hour hike over hidden trails scratched into the remote folds of the Sierra Madre del Sur.
There, a mosaic of color blankets a vast hillside: emerald stalks dappled with purple, white and pink flowers. The hiss of an automatic sprinkler pierces the air, as water is spewed up and down the sheer incline. Dried, blackened tree stumps convey the land’s recent clearing to make way for the field.
The steep grade and loamy earth make standing upright difficult, and on occasion adults tumble down the hillside and are injured, villagers say. That is where the children come in: Their slightness is an advantage come harvest time.
The children do not seem to mind. Several said opium was like any other crop they might be told to farm for their parents. Only it pays better.
“There aren’t a lot of opportunities to earn money,” said Arturo Guerrero, 13, seated with his two cousins early one morning this month. “We can’t help support our families if we don’t work.”
The need to work is paramount — it is why both Arturo and his cousin Agustín, 17, dropped out of school this year. To attend high school, students from Calvario must live in the nearby town of Mazatlán because there is no daily transportation. The expense, combined with their lost wages, proved too much for their parents. The boys decided to quit school and return home to farm.
“We couldn’t go and come back from the fields, and then also make it to school anymore,” Agustín said.
The boys speak of the decision in a matter-of-fact way, without a trace of self-pity. They have dreams, of course. If they had their choice of careers, they would join the army, they said, again using the brutal calculus of poverty.
“Any other profession would require time, preparation and money,” Angelica said. Being a soldier is “the easiest, shortest way to make money and help out my family.”
But the aspiration is also a matter of exposure. They know soldiers. The Mexican Army turns up once a year in Calvario to conduct eradication campaigns, which helps explain why the villagers opt to grow their poppy crops in such remote areas.
While seemingly stationed on opposite sides of a heated divide, the villagers and the soldiers respect one another. The soldiers do not hassle them, villagers say, even if they suspect them of growing opium. The farmers, in turn, share their water with the teams of men, who camp on the outskirts of the village.
It was in this context that the children first encountered the soldiers. For a moment, the young boys in the village sounded their age when they described how, beyond a good salary, the idea of flying in helicopters and planes and carting around heavy weapons sounded like fun.
But they quickly jettisoned such frivolous talk.
“If I had the chance to keep studying, I would have liked to have been a soldier,” Arturo said. “But that’s all behind me now.”