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Textual: análisis del medio rural latinoamericano

versión On-line ISSN 2395-9177versión impresa ISSN 0185-9439

Textual anál. medio rural latinoam.  no.71 Chapingo ene./jun. 2018 

Economics and public policies

Forest fires and illicit crops in Mexico, an approach to the problem1

Eugenio E. Santacruz De León*  2 

Víctor H. Palacio Muñoz3 

2Investigador Asociado al Grupo de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias en Estudios Socioambientales (GIEES) del Centro de Investigaciones Económicas, Sociales y Tecnológicas de la Agroindustria y la Agricultura Mundial (CIESTAAM) de la UACh.

3Profesor-Investigador del Centro de Investigaciones Económicas, Sociales y Tecnológicas de la Agroindustria y la Agricultura Mundial (CIESTAAM) de la UACh.


An approach is made to the possible link between forest fires and illicit crops. For this purpose, data and statistics on forest fires and the geographic areas and dates in which they occur are reviewed. An overlap is made between this information and that related to the municipalities, where, according to official information, marijuana and opium poppy are produced. This paper focuses on an analysis of the municipalities located in the so-called Golden Triangle. As a preliminary conclusion, it can be assumed that there is a possible causal link between the production of illicit crops and forest fires.

Keywords: Opium poppy; fire; drug trafficking; marijuana


Se hace una aproximación al posible vínculo entre los incendios forestales y los cultivos ilícitos, para ello se revisan datos y estadísticas sobre los incendios forestales y las áreas geográficas, fechas en que se presentan; se realiza un traslape entre dicha información y la referida a los municipios, donde de acuerdo a información oficial se producen marihuana y amapola; el trabajo se centra en un análisis de los municipios que se localizan en el llamado triángulo dorado. Como conclusión preliminar se puede suponer que se presenta una posible línea de causalidad entre la producción de cultivos ilícitos y los incendios forestales.

Palabras clave: Amapola; Fuego; Narcotráfico; Marihuana


Fire is considered as an ecological factor in the diverse ecosystems of the world where it occurs (Rodríguez, 2012 citing Agee, 1993; Waring & Running, 1998; Whelan, 1997). It is considered a natural process that has played and plays an important role in the evolution of species (Pausas & Schwilk, 2012); in the global environmental configuration and in the conservation of biological diversity on the same scale, it has benefits and impacts of considerable magnitude in a significant number of habitats and in terms of ecological sustainability (Shlisky et al., 2007). It has also been studied to understand the use given to it by different human groups in different territories (Rodríguez, 2001). As it seems natural, fire is researched fundamentally from an ecological, biological and chemical perspective, among other knowledge areas. In the context of a socio-economic perspective, it has been analyzed from the point of view of history (Araque, 1999; Pyne, 2001), sociology (Priego and Lafuente, n.d.) and economics (Merino, 2008), among other social sciences. This paper falls within this perspective.

Traditionally, fire causes are categorized as those of a natural, accidental, negligent and intentional character; in the typology of intentional causes, we can mention among other types: a) to change the use of forest land to agricultural, livestock or urban use and b) to take advantage of the wood affected by fire (Rodríguez, 1994).

In Mexico and several other countries, another intentional type of cause is slowly being mentioned: those produced by interests linked to the production of illicit crops (Rodríguez, 2001; Carrera, Morales and Gálvez, 2002; Jardel, 2006; Pava, 2011). In Mexico, the National Forestry Commission (CONAFOR for its initials in Spanish) for a few decades used illicit crops as a cause of fire in its statistics; however, for security reasons, it stopped directly attributing fires to this activity. In this sense, this paper aims to analyze from a socio-eco-environmental perspective the possible link between forest fires and the production of illicit crops.

Methodological approach

CONAFOR, through the Management Office for Protection Against Forest Fires, under the General Coordination Office for Conservation and Restoration, gener ates global data on forest fires that occur throughout the length and breadth of the country, presenting it broken down by states, by vegetation stratum affected and by fire size and duration, among other in dicators (CONAFOR, 2012); CONAFOR also handles information at the municipal level, but it is detectable that in states where there is a high incidence of illicit crops, statistical data refer to “unknown causes” or “indeterminate causes.”

Since this paper is focused on showing a link between forest fires and the production of illicit crops, a brief analysis of the production of these crops was carried out. For this purpose, statistics from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) were used. For other countries, this source breaks down information on the production of illicit crops, for example, planted area, prices and, in some cases, cultivation areas (states and municipalities); however, in regard to Mexico, this source does not provide a statistical breakdown to that degree of detail (UNODC, 2011). Mexican sources only present information regarding illicit crops in a global way, for example, the size of eradicated marijuana (Cannabis sativa L.) and opium poppy (Papaver somniferum L.) areas, and weapons and vehicles seized, among others (Gobierno de los Estados Unidos Mexicanos, 2017). For this reason, a Google search was carried out using the names of the municipalities and the region as search engine keywords to locate information that made reference to the municipalities and region of analysis. Thus, a combination of primary and secondary information sources was used.

The study region

Colloquially known as the “Golden Triangle,” it is an area of the Sierra Madre Occidental in which the states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Durango converge. It consists of, among others, the municipalities of Batopilas, Guadalupe y Calvo, Guazapa and Morelos, belonging to Chihuahua; Tamazula, Canelas, Topia, Ocampo, Otáez, Tepehuanes and Santiago Papasquiaro of Durango, and the municipalities of Badiraguato, Choix, Concordia, Cosalá, Rosario and Sinaloa, located in the state of Sinaloa. This “Triangle” covers an approximate area of 63,426 square kilometers (Table 1 and Figure 1).

Table 1 Golden triangle. Poverty rate: 2010 (in percent). 

State Municipality Area km2 Poverty Extreme poverty
Chihuahua 39.2 6.6
Guadalupe y Calvo 9,165 89.8 47.1
Morelos 1,336 90.4 60.5
Batopilas 2,064 91.1 55.4
Guazapares 2,145 83.7 40.5
Durango 51.3 10.3
Tamazula de Victoria 5,188 82.1 35.9
Canelas 683 83.3 34.1
Topia 1,617 78.7 29.0
Ocampo 3,208 61.8 8.7
Otáez 906 88.1 38.4
Tepehuanes 6,401 70.6 18.3
Santiago Papasquiaro 7,238 64.3 15.0
Sinaloa 36.5 5.4
Badiraguato 5,865 74.8 21.1
Choix 4,512 79.1 28.4
Concordia 1,524 52.6 12.2
Cosalá 2,665 66.1 17.6
Rosario 2,723 59.5 13.0
Sinaloa 6,186 63.0 17.4

Source: Made from CONEVAL (2010).

Since the 1970s it has been known as the “Golden Triangle,” since drug traffickers, by taking advantage of its rugged terrain, have established it as one of their centers of opium poppy production and operations (Astorga, 2010; CNN México, 2011; Sandoval, 2017) and, more recently, as a location for methamphetamine production laboratories (León, 2012). Most of the municipalities mentioned above are among the poorest of the aforementioned states (Table 1). This poverty situation can help explain why the people in these places are engaged in this activity.

Forest fires

According to information from CONAFOR (2012), in the decade between 2002 and 2012, an average of 8,368.2 fires occurred annually, affecting on average 301,242.1 hectares. Of this period, 2007 was the year with the lowest number of fires re corded with 5,893, and 2011 is the most conspicuous year in terms of the number of fires recorded with 12,113. As for the area affected, in that period, 2004 was the year with the lowest number of hectares affected with 81,322, whereas 2011 was when the most hectares were burned, reaching the significant figure of 956,405 ha (CONAFOR, 2012).

CONAFOR data also indicate that for the period 2013-2016 a total of 27,821 fires occurred, affecting an area of 912,509 hectares; of this period, 2013 was the year in which the largest area, 411,250 hectares, was burnt.

The most damaged vegetation types are grasslands, shrubs and scrublands. The affected wooded area has decreased appreciably in the first decade of reference, since in 2003 it accounted for 27.4 % of the total area affected and in 2012 it constituted 7.7 % of the total (CONAFOR, 2012). With regard to the period 2013-2016, the tendency for the wooded area to decrease as the most affected stratum is reinforced, being significantly reduced (CONAFOR, 2016).

In 2012, Chihuahua had the highest number of fires, followed in descending order by the State of Mexico, Michoacán, Jalisco and Puebla. However, Sonora, Chihuahua, Durango, Coahuila and Baja California are the states with the most area affected. In the period from 2013 to 2016, the most affected states changed, but Chihuahua and Durango remained among the ten states most affected by fires. As can be seen, Chihuahua and Durango, two of the three states that make up the region under analysis, stand out in this area. It is also clear that the fires are not wholly located in them and neither can they be said to have drug trafficking as their main causal agent. It is also important to note that in recent years CONAFOR has stopped reporting the cause of the fires.

Opium poppy production in mexico

Mexico has been a producer and consumer of opium since the 19th century (Astorga, 2010); the same author points out that the sowing of illicit crops and the trafficking of the resulting production were born under the protection of political power. In the 1940s, Mexico was the main supplier to the United States (Astorga, 2010).

After a little more than a century has passed, has Mexico’s role in the production of illicit crops changed? In the 21st century, what is Mexico’s role in the world opium poppy market? Does the poverty situation in large areas of the country catalyze the development of the crop? Although those questions will not be answered in the present paper, it is important to take them into account.

According to Astorga (1999 and 2010), what has changed in the scenario is the mediation between the political and drug trafficking fields. This is a scenario in which a relevant actor also emerges in a more explicit way, namely the U.S. government, in such a way that the intervention via certification gave way to the militarist strategy imposed in the Fox government (2000-2006), which was deepened with Calderón (2006-2012) and has taken on tragic overtones in the administration of Peña Nieto (2012-2018) (Freeman and Sierra, 2006).

In the current context, and even though Mexican opium poppy production barely accounts for 5 % of world production, it is noteworthy that it has nonetheless sur passed the production levels of Myanmar, Laos and Colombia in the last two years. In the last decade, it has displaced Colombia as the top producer in Latin America and as the third biggest in the world (Table 2). It is important to keep in mind that Mexico has historically been a producer of heroin and marijuana destined for the North American market.

Table 2 Percentage of hectares used for illicit global poppy cultivation (1996-2015). 

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015a
Afganistán 22.05 25.28 26.77 41.89 37.02 5.35 41.11 47.45 66.85 68.64 82.09 81.88 73.70 66.15 62.85 63.13 65.56 70.77 70.73 71.40
Pakistán 0.34 0.34 0.40 0.13 0.11 0.15 0.34 1.48 0.76 1.61 0.77 0.72 0.89 0.95 0.88 0.17 0.16 0.16 0.06
Subtotal 22.39 25.62 27.17 42.02 37.13 5.5 41.45 48.93 67.61 70.25 82.86 82.60 74.59 67.10 63.73 63.30 65.72 70.93 70.79 71.40
R.P.D. Laosa 8.38 9.56 11.28 10.42 8.58 12.14 7.76 7.11 3.36 1.19 1.24 0.63 0.75 1.02 0.88 2.0 2.90 1.32 1.95 2.02
Myanmara 63.27 61.60 54.79 41.39 48.97 73.89 45.16 36.89 22.55 21.65 10.69 11.75 13.38 17.04 19.47 21.91 21.71 19.57 18.18 19.71
Tailandiab 0.14 0.14 0.30 0.32 0.40 0.57 0.41 0.14 0.08 0.09
Vietnamb 0.93 0.13 0.18 0.20
Subtotal 72.47 71.43 66.55 52.33 57.95 86.6 53.33 44.00 25.91 22.84 11.93 12.38 14.13 18.06 20.35 24.05 24.69 20.98 21.73
Colombia 1.91 2.61 3.09 3.00 2.93 3.02 2.30 2.38 2.01 1.28 0.51 0.30 0.18 0.19 0.18 0.16 0.13 0.10 0.12 0.21
Méxicoc 1.98 1.59 2.31 1.66 0.85 3.09 1.50 2.84 1.81 2.18 2.49 2.93 7.04 10.48 7.34 5.78 4.47 3.72 5.36 9.27
Subtotal 3.89 4.20 5.4 4.66 3.78 6.11 3.80 5.22 3.82 3.46 3.00 3.23 7.22 10.67 7.52 5.94 4.60 3.82 5.48 9.48
Otros países d 1.24 0.81 0.86 0.95 1.11 1.76 1.38 1.82 2.65 3.44 2.20 1.77 4.03 4.14 5.11 7.62 4.88 4.14 3.28 3.76
TOTAL 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100.00 100 100.00 100.00 100.00

Source: Made from the appendix "Cultivation of opium poppy in selected countries, 1998-2015 (hectares)" in UNODC (2016)

Paradoxically, although in the Mexican government discourse a frontal fight against illicit drugs has been launched, their production has actually grown; as a result, several academics have analyzed the “war on drugs” of the Felipe Calderón regime and the continuity by the Peña Nieto government and have insisted that the war had the purpose in the case of the first to “legitimize” a government that assumed the reins of the country in a strongly questioned manner after the eventful elections of 2006, whereas in the case of the second, the aim was to keep social discontent at bay. Added to this, the government of the former subordinated itself to increasingly questioned US hegemony by signing, in June 2008, the so-called “Mérida Initiative” (Chabat, 2010), and the latter as well. The state of Guerrero and the so-called “Golden Triangle” region are the areas that provide the largest opium poppy production.

Forest fires and opium poppy production: a more explosive mixture

The link between the production of il licit crops and forest fires has been documented by several studies; for example, in the case of Colombia, Álvarez (2003) notes the conversion of forests into agricultural areas, particularly for coca (Erythroxylum sp.), and Armenteras et al. (2013) documents a similar situation for the Amazon. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2016:189) in its 2016 report notes that: “Farmers may encroach upon forest to illicitly cultivate crops such as coca bush, opium poppy or cannabis plant in remote areas for two reasons: the poor socioeconomic conditions of farmers at the agricultural frontier may push them to look for cash crops; and the illicit nature of this activity and the necessity to keep it a clandestine activity may spur a move to relatively remote areas.”

In the case of Mexico, authors such as Jardel (2006) characterize narcoproduction as one of the new problems facing the Mexican forestry sector and indicate that several protected natural areas are active zones for the production of illicit crops. For specific zones we can mention the authors Asbjornsen and Gallardo (2004) for Los Chimalapas, Oaxaca and Jardel et al. (2006) for the Sierra de Manatlán, located between the states of Colima and Jalisco.

In the case of the states where the study area is located, the “2030 Durango Strategic Forest Plan” can be mentioned. It considers drug trafficking as a serious threat to the forest resource “due to the constant change in land use and the application of fire without control to clear the lands” (Secretaría de Recursos Naturales y Medio Ambiente, 2006); similarly, the “Sustainable Forest Development Program of the State of Chihuahua” considers the activities associated with illicit crops and drug trafficking as a threat to the forestry activities of this state (Gobierno del Estado de Chihuahua, 2012). In the case of Sinaloa, it was practically impossible to locate the respective forest development program to verify if the official discourse takes into account the presence of illicit crops as a trigger factor for forest fires.

As indicated in the previous paragraphs, the region has a long history in the production of illicit crops. This activity significantly affects the forest areas of the municipalities that make up the region. For example, in 2002 a CONAFOR document, cited by a La Jornada newspaper correspondent, indicated that “from January to date, 90 events have occurred in Sinaloa, which have mainly affected the municipality of Concordia ... one of the main causes of forest fires is the preparation of land for illicit crops in the highlands of the Sierra de Sinaloa” (Valdez, 2002).

For the period 2000-2004, the “2003 Durango Strategic Forest Plan” estimated that forest fires associated with illicit crops accounted for 32 % of the total. In the same state, the National Forestry Commission’s regional management office reported that of all the events that had occurred in May 2003, “at least 12 % of them are caused by land preparation for illicit crops (drug trafficking), but 20 % of them, which is the most concerning number, are caused by unknown or unclassified reasons.” It is important to note that most of the area affected in the state, reported in the strategic plan for the aforementioned period, is in the municipalities located in the region under analysis and these, as a whole, represent 40.9 % (Table 3).

Table 3 Forest fires in the municipalities of the Golden Triangle. 

State Municipality Number of forest fires Hectares burnt
Guadalupe y Calvo 556 2,177 (2013)
Morelos 17
Batopilas 2
Guazapares 35
Durango2 (80,383) 32,932 (40.97%)
Tamazula 2,216
Canelas 2,686
Topia 3,934
Ocampo 455
Otáez 12,123
Tepehuanes 6,384
Santiago Papasquiaro 5,134
Sinaloa3 (4,084) 78,024
Badiraguato 14,819
Choix 12,351
Concordia 11,184
Cosalá 11,361
Rosario 17,982
Sinaloa de Leyva 10,327

Source: 1 The data come from Lomas (2012) , except for Batopilas that come from La Opción de Chihuahua (2012); for the case of hectares reported for Guadalupe y Calvo, the data are from Villalpando (2013) ; 2. The information comes from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment (2006) and the data cover the 2000-2004 period; 3. For Sinaloa, data for 2011 are from Soto (2011) ; the data reported at the state level from a journalistic publication are inconsistent despite having as their source CONAFOR’s state management offices. All the journalistic notes mentioned in the article have as their source CONAFOR’s state management offices

Ávila-Flores et al. (2010) , in their analysis of the incidence of fires in the state of Durango’s forest areas, built a fire concentration tendency ellipse. If the image obtained is examined closely, it can be seen how one of the areas of considerable fire concentration coincides with the study area, mainly in the municipalities of Topia, Canelas, Santiago Papasquiaro and Tepehuanes.

For the fiscal year 2004, the Technical Report for the Evaluation of the National Forest Fire Prevention and Suppression Program (Tchikoué et al., 2005) identified Guerrero, Sonora, Durango, Jalisco and Baja California as the states where fires associated with the production of illicit crops occurred, accounting for 2,707, 2,095, 1,503.55, 895.5 and 350 hectares, respectively, together covering an area of 7,551.05 hectares, which represents 90.6 % of the area affected by this situation; globally, the same report indicates that fires caused by illicit crops represent a non-negligible 10.3 %.

On the other hand, at the Sixth XXI Century Mexico Forestry Expo, CONAFOR, through its general director, acknowledged that drug trafficking was seriously affecting forest areas: “drug traffickers can offer producers greater profits so they provide their hectares for the sowing of drugs; this federal agency is promoting a number of projects to eradicate this phenomenon” (El Informador, 2008; El Siglo de Torreón, 2003).

On July 9, 2013, the coordinator of CONAFOR’s Forest Fire Prevention and Suppression Program in Sinaloa stated that the planting of marijuana and opium poppy in the mountain area is the main cause of forest fires; the municipality of Choix was the most affected with 2,633 hectares burnt by 26 fires (A discusión, 2013).

As indicated in Table 3, in Chihuahua, the municipality of Guadalupe y Calvo has the highest number of fires. This is reinforced by data for the period 1995-2000, which shows that this municipality has historically had the largest number of fires (Alanís et al., 2001), an assessment that is strengthened by data from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment of Chihuahua (2006) in its Sustainable Forest Devel opment Program, where it is stated that the aforementioned municipality ranked first in 2003 with 173 fires, representing 32 % of the total of that year.


This paper is a first approach from the field of socio-eco-environmental knowledge to the link between the production of illicit crops and forest fires in the national sphere, being focused on one of the areas with the greatest historical tradition in the production of drugs.

The work shows that there are serious limitations in terms of the official information available on fires that break down the statistics at the municipal and community level; it would be useful for it to be available with georeferencing data.

While the strategic planning documents for forest use in the states (except Sinaloa) in which the municipalities belonging to the “Golden Triangle” are located mention illicit crops as one of the new problems of the activity, they are almost devoid of strategies to help minimize them. A strategy with a socio-environmental approach is not seen in these plans.

The poverty situation prevailing in that territory is a catalyst for the incursion of farmers into the production of opium poppy and marijuana. Several studies argue that it can be assumed to be a strategy of survival and reproduction; it is probable that, in the social development strategies of these states, drug trafficking is not regarded as one of the phenomena to be solved.

The complexity of the problems associated with illicit crops and their overlap with those resulting from forest harvesting demand the systematic development of research with a socio-environmental approach.

Despite CONAFOR’s statements on the subject, they have not translated into clear strategies aimed at helping minimize the problem.


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1This paper is part of the project: “Agricultura y drogas. México en el contexto mundial” developed by the first author.

Received: September 06, 2017; Accepted: November 22, 2017

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