Poppies Planted on a Reporter's Patio
The Latest Effort to Silence News from Zapatista Territory in Mexico
By Al Giordano
Publisher, Narco News
April 21, 2004
The humble poppy plant, from which opium, morphine, and heroin are extracted, has been at the center of futile “drug wars” for centuries.
“A man cries about it. Some men dies about it… Everybody fightin’ over it,” sang the bluesman Willie Dixon. “That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful….”
Last week, Authentic Journalist Hermann Bellinghausen, of the daily La Jornada in Mexico City, his country’s most knowledgeable and trusted reporter on the indigenous rights movement, found that, suddenly, poppy plants had appeared in his garden, on his patio, at his house in San Cristóbal de Las Casas, in a state called Chiapas, somewhere in the mountains of the Mexican Southeast…
Since he had never planted poppies, he got the message: stop telling the truth about what goes on in this “low intensity war zone,” or you, journalist, might go to jail.
Yes, it’s absurd, especially when you consider: How much heroin could a journalist make by growing poppy on his patio anyway? If the patio were 43,550 square feet (an entire acre), all devoted to poppy cultivation, that, according to the Parisian Embassy of Myanmar, an opium-producing country, would yield just 4.05 kilos of opium, or about one-tenth of a gram of opium per square foot. If the journalist’s patio were the size of most patios in San Cristobal, say, 100 square feet, and every inch was devoted to poppy production, and every part of that patio had sufficient sunlight, the yield would have been just ten grams of opium after an entire growing cycle. Since it takes ten parts raw opium to make one part heroin, according to PBS Frontline, that would leave a crop that size with a yield just one gram of heroin.
That spoonful… indeed…
Journalism pay may suck, but it still seems more lucrative than growing poppy in one’s small patio garden.
Still, unlike in the United States, where your grandma probably grows poppy in her garden, mere possession of a decorative poppy plant in Mexico can lead to arrest, conviction, prison, torture, and worse. It has happened before in Chiapas, and not very long ago.
To Prison for Poppies
In 1998, I went to the state penitentiary in Chiapas at Cerro Hueco (“Hollow Hill,” in English) in the state capital of Tuxtla Gutierrez, where I had interviewed another man in Chiapas who had poppies planted on his land and went to prison for it: Rafael López Santíz Conseta. Rafael, a schoolteacher, was 43 when I interviewed him (he is now 49). He speaks the Maya language of Tojolabal, and also Spanish.
After authorities planted poppies on his land, he was arrested, brutally tortured, and went to jail for five years (he was released, after much public outcry, with other Zapatista framed drug war prisoners, in 2001). In 1998, Rafael told me, from behind bars:
“All drugs and alcohol are strictly prohibited in my community, a base of support for the Zapatistas,” Rafael begins, speaking through the bars of the section of Cerro Hueco for sentenced prisoners…
“On June 30, 1995, I attended a public meeting of teachers. None of us had been paid in two weeks, and we were demanding our money. As the meeting ended, some of us remained there in the Central Park of Las Margaritas. Two unknown persons came up to us and asked for my name. I answered with my full name: Rafael López Santíz Conseta. The men revealed themselves to be police.”
“They said they had found drugs in my house. They said I had 1.5 kilos. Of what? I don’t know the word. No, it wasn’t marijuana. Poppy? Amapola? Yes, that’s what they called it. It’s totally false. We don’t use drugs or alcohol. We don’t want it in our town. This whole dispute is over my father’s land. He wouldn’t surrender it, so they came for him and they came for me. For two years, in this prison, I’ve had a sinus infection. See? My face is all puffed up from the inside. It hurts. But I have an eleven-year sentence with no more ability to appeal.”
Rafael presented the reporter with a copy of his written statement to the court. As a teacher, he can read and write quite well. His letter is articulate in how it describes the tortures and other human rights violations that are very common in the drug war in Chiapas and elsewhere…
Rafael wrote to the judge…
“We always say not to be afraid, that we are going to continue forward because we are coming from behind. We don’t commit crimes and we don’t have arms to defend ourselves…. I have seven children and they are not receiving an education right now because I don’t have the money to pay for their school supplies…
“They began to torture and burn me all over my body with electric shocks. They put Tehuacan (carbonated mineral water) up my nose. They put polyethelene in my eyes. They made me so I couldn’t breathe. They put me in a tub with ice water. I vomited blood. Then came four Judicial Police. They brought me to a place far away, where there are no people, a hidden place, where they said… ‘Now you are going to sign the document against another person.’ But we said we are not going to sign the document. They went on giving us more beatings, where they broke two ribs and already I vomited blood: ‘Good, good, children of the fuckers, sign the document because we are going to continue beating you. If you don’t follow your tortures we are going to take out your tongue. And your two ears we will have in our hands with a knife… Sign it, cocksuckers, yes! or we’ll keep beating your ribs and… we’ll shoot you if you don’t sign this document.”
The then 41-year-old indigenous activist, who never signed the confession his torturers demanded of him, added: “I have been permitted to know first-hand the injustices and poverty that the indigenous communities live in. It is for this, together with my passion for my labor, that I have not discontinued my conscientious political participation, to seek to resolve the problems of my indigenous brothers.”
Meanwhile, as the humble poppy plant is used as a pretext to destroy good people, like Rafael López Santiz Conseta and, maybe, like journalist Hermann Bellinghausen…
CIA Instructions for Making Heroin: Online!
Did you know, kind reader, that on the Internet you can find instructions for how to make drugs from the poppy plant? On the Internet! What kind of heartless “international terrorist organization” would publish such instructions for the kids to extract illegal opium gum from one of grandma’s pretty little garden flowers? Lo’ and behold, this recipe is, I repeat, published on the Internet! Kids, you can find out all about how to turn the poppy plant into drugs at the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) website: “From Flowers to Heroin.” Well, those spies do know about such things as making drugs and selling them. They are very good authorities. They’re not merely “desk botanists” in this field… they are accomplished professionals… in this field of… poppies
A field of poppies… like in the movie, The Wizard of Oz…
DOROTHY: Has it poppies on the wallpaper?
PROFESSOR: I said it had poppies on the wallpaper! Eh—she’s—What’s this? Why, she’s—she’s putting her hand on her heart—she’s—she’s dropping down on the bed.
DOROTHY: Oh, no—no!
PROFESSOR: That’s all—the Crystal’s gone dark…
And who can forget the Wicked Witch of the West, in that same movie, ranting from her pharmaceuticals laboratory?
(All dialogue verbatim from the movie screenplay)…
WITCH: And now, my beauties! Something with poison in it, I think. With poison in it, but attractive to the eye—and soothing to the smell! Poppies! Poppies! Poppies! (Laughs.)
DOROTHY: Emerald City! Oh, we’re almost there at last! At last! It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Just like I knew it would be. He really must be a wonderful Wizard to live in a City like that!
Dorothy—Tin Man—Scarecrow and Lion run… thru poppy field…
DOROTHY: Yes—let’s run!
Tin Man—Scarecrow—Dorothy and Lion running forward thru Poppy Field—CAMERA TRUCKS right—…Tin Man and Scarecrow running thru poppies… Dorothy and Lion running thru poppies—CAMERA TRUCKS right—Dorothy running to right—staggers a little—slows down—Dorothy staggers—puts her hand to her head…
DOROTHY: Oh—Oh—what’s happening? What is it? I can’t run anymore. I’m so… sleepy…
TIN MAN: Dorothy! You can’t sleep here! You can’t sleep in the middle of a field!
The poppy flower is not illegal to grow in the United States. It is a very ornamental plant. From New York to Hollywood, poppy plants are sold in the finest flower shops. Banning the poppy plant is a job that Washington imposes, instead, on other lands, including Mexico… And if that’s not confusing enough, let’s recall that Mexico is the same land that Washington asked to grow poppy during World War II to make morphine for wounded U.S. soldiers.
But if poppy plants are found on your patio in Mexico, you could go to jail. Worse, like what happened to Rafael López Santiz Conseta, you could be tortured… the authorities would then have the power to ruin your health and the livelihood of your family… The State can, and does, use such pretexts to destroy the lives of political dissidents… and, now, apparently, journalists, too…
The Inherent Censorship of the Drug War
I don’t think there is a single journalist of conscience who hasn’t asked himself the question: “What if the authorities plant drugs on me?” That the question must be asked at all sends a chill down the neck of free speech and investigative journalism. The mere existence of drug laws lead most journalists to shut up, especially about drug policy, to not step on big toes, to not question police or prosecutorial or governmental authority… In this sense, US-imposed policies of drug prohibition are extrinsic to the reality of a free press, to every citizen’s freedom of expression… The US-imposed drug policies are damaging to democracy itself…
Now they want Hermann Bellinghausen to fall silent.
But Hermann Bellinghausen – true to his glorious history – hasn’t shut up. He alerted the public, via a letter to his own editors, on April 13th, adding that his house has been physically monitored by men in civilian clothes and that neighbors caught, and scared off, one man breaking into his home.
His La Jornada colleague, columnist Jaime Aviles, explained the details on Saturday…
Last Tuesday, April 13th, Hermann Bellinghausen denounced the appearance of poppy plants in his garden of the house where he lives in San Cristobal de Las Casas, Chiapas, which he has no idea how or why they appeared. Poppies, as we know, are beautiful flowers with red petals from which substances like opium gum – and its derivatives, morphine and heroin – are extracted by different chemical processes. This plant is cultivated in some regions of Mexican territory, for example, in the mountains of Guerrero, under the strict supervision of the Army, for the production of pharmaceuticals for sick people who suffer severe pain caused by terminal illness. The idea behind this vigilance follows the public necessity to impede that the flower falls into the wrong hands and is transformed into opium or heroin, a drug that has terrible addictive properties, that compare only with those of tobacco.
Mexico is not known as a notable provider of opium or heroin to the United States market. These substances traditionally come from Afghanistan, the undisputed leader in this field that has increased its production ever since the 2001 invasion. Thus: What federal institution has poppy seeds to be able to plant them in Bellinghausen’s patio?
Those who participate in this attack against a journalist’s freedom of speech and the right to information of millions who read Bellinghausen’s dispatches each day on the Internet, forget that the exemplary work of this man has allowed us, in Mexico and all over the planet, to understand the peaceful, renovating, and fertile nature of the Zapatista rebellion, an intellectual exercise that the “intelligence” agencies of the Mexican state have proved incapable of doing themselves.
Without journalists like Bellinghausen, these agencies, blind, deaf, and useless, would have committed, years ago, a massacre in Chiapas and would have destroyed, consequently, the rest of the country. For the big industries that hope to one day take the natural resources of this state, after plastering the communities in resistance, the question is only a matter of time. That’s why the Fox government has not wanted, nor tried, to advance even a centimeter toward solving the conflict. He didn’t reduce the military tensions in the zone. He simply limited himself to administrating them with a softer touch. Now, in a ridiculous and sinister manner, he launches a kind of psychological warfare against a journalist. With this behavior, Fox shows that he is keeping the door open to repression against the rebel people of the Southeast. For someone who came to power bleaching the flag of democratic hopes, this behavior is shameful…
Pablo Salazar Mendiguchía, Governor of Chiapas, immediately repudiated the harrassment against Bellinghausen but did not commit himself to offer a guarantee of safety. Santiago Creel, Fox’s Interior Minister, for his part, remains silent.
An attack on one is an attack on all. That is especially so for an attack on Hermann Bellinghausen, a journalist beloved by all. The Spanish-language press and Civil Society from Europe to Latin America have leaped to his defense in the past four days. Now he’s being defended in English, too. So, if anybody reading this, in any government’s office or any certain Embassy along Paseo de la Reforma in Mexico City, was one of the enemies of press freedom who authorized this attempted drug-war frame-up of an Authentic Journalist, you might consider stockpiling some morphine right away. You just never know what can happen when you get this many people mad at you.
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