By Dave Graham and Ana Isabel Martinez
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Mexico, the United States and Canada will unveil a plan to combat increased opium poppy cultivation and heroin use across North America at a summit later this month, a senior Mexican official said on Thursday.
Leaders of the three nations are due to meet in Ottawa on June 29, amid growing concern about the rising North American death toll from opioids such as heroin and fentanyl, and a surge in poppy cultivation in Mexico by violent drug gangs.
In a phone call last month, U.S. President Barack Obama and his Mexican counterpart Enrique Pena Nieto agreed to intensify the fight against heroin production, and government officials say the problem has been under discussion for months.
Paulo Carreno, Mexican deputy foreign minister in charge of North America, said in an interview that Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was also committed to the plan due to be launched at the so-called Three Amigos summit later this month.
“This isn’t just about destroying (plantations), it’s about finding solutions for people forced to cultivate poppies, and there will be an important announcement in this context at the summit on a new cooperation plan between the three countries to deal with problems that obviously concerns us all,” he said.
Carreno declined to offer details but said additional resources would devoted to all parts of the problem.
“To combating it, to eradicating it, but also to reducing demand significantly and addressing the social aspect,” he said.
Pena Nieto took office in December 2012 pledging to bring Mexico’s drug cartels to heel, but sickening gang violence has been a blight on his administration and cultivation of opium poppies used to make heroin has surged.
Between 2012 and 2015, the area under poppy cultivation in Mexico, which officials say is the most important supplier of heroin to the United States, rose from 10,500 hectares to 28,000 hectares, according to figures published by the White House.
At the same time, fatal heroin overdoses in the United States have risen steeply, with some 10,574 deaths reported in 2014, a rise of 26 percent from the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
That figure is six times higher than the total in 2001, the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse says.
“Right now there’s a lot of concern here in the United States because we are suffering from a major, major heroin epidemic,” said Mike Vigil, a former head of global operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
A large part of the Mexican increase in cultivation has been in the violent southwestern state of Guerrero, where 43 trainee teachers were abducted by a drug gang and corrupt police in September 2014, then murdered, according to the government.
To cut gang violence, Guerrero’s governor has floated the idea of regulating poppy production for medicinal purposes, an option which the Mexican government has studied.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, one senior Mexican official said the United States was prepared to offer Mexico more material support to tackle heroin production.
However, a U.S. official said the two sides were still discussing which measures to adopt. One subject under discussion is finding alternative crops for opium poppy farmers to grow.
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Bernard Orr)