A huge increase in the production and supply of drugs to the United States from Mexico is the cause of an explosion of violence in the North American country that has seen record levels of murders in the past year, according to both governments.
A new war between competing drug cartels, after a series of arrests of high-profile leaders, has only exacerbated the problem.
Authorities in the United States are warning it is out of control, with almost 30,000 murders reported in Mexico in 2017.
The most highly valued drug is heroin, produced in vast amounts in poppy fields dug into mountainous jungles, almost inaccessible from the ground and protected by thousands of armed gang members.
Some 90% of America’s heroin comes from Mexico.
After 12 months of negotiation with the cartel gangs we were told to meet our contacts in the mountains of Guerrero state.
We travelled on quad bikes over mountainous terrain, deep into the jungle.
We were escorted by two security guards carrying machine guns and dressed in camouflage with bandanas hiding their faces.
Nobody is allowed down these forest trails without permission and nobody can get here without being seen by lookouts for miles around.
The gunmen told us to dismount while two “farmers” sharpened machetes.
They then began to hack their way through the undergrowth.
There was a path but it had been grown over. It was not their normal route, they told us – rather a short cut.
Eventually we emerged into one of the cartel’s poppy fields.
It is about 10 hectares and literally cut into the jungle. The almost constant clouds and size of the field make it difficult to spot from the air. The men told us they have a lot of fields spotted across the mountain range.
They said we are the only outsiders they have ever let in.
Here the opium business flourishes. The men showed me how the poppy is sliced and bled of its oil.
The raw material of what becomes opium and of course heroin.
For them this really is a matter of economics.
Ten hectares of mango would earn a farmer $53,000 a year. Ten hectares of poppy nets them $350,000 a year.
The poppy growers see absolutely no correlation between what they produce and the drugs that ravage lives across the world and have directly led to the cartel wars and the deaths of tens of thousands of people in Mexico.
“It’s what we have to do to feed our families,” one of the gunmen told me.
Our guards, it transpired, were not there because of us. They are there to protect the poppy fields from raids by other gangs. Even in these wild remote mountains the drug wars are never far away.
“We come here and stay when the poppy is being harvested,” the guard told me.
“There are gangs who want our produce and will kill for it. We are here to stop them,” he said, starting up his quad bike as we headed to the home of the man who allowed our trip to take place.
That man is Ruben Granados. We met him at his modest home, where he was helping to prepare lunch with his second wife. His first wife was killed along with their two sons as a warning to Ruben some years ago.
Ruben says he is the head of a farmers’ union that grows a variety of products on the mountain, including mango, avocado, marijuana and, of course, the poppies used to make heroin.
The Mexican government says he is the head of a drug cartel, and sent in troops in three Black Hawk helicopters to arrest him.
He beat the charges and says all the arrest showed was that the government and the cartels are in cahoots. Basically everyone wants a slice of the action produced on his mountain.
“We live in a very complicated and testing country because the crime gangs extort, kidnap and kill,” he told me during his first ever interview.
“The government is hand in hand with them because the gangs pay them.
“If you are a criminal, the government likes you. If you are honest people, the government wants to destroy you,” he said.
Every day Mexico wakes up to more news of violence, murder and chaos running in tandem with otherwise totally ordinary life.
Mexico is a wealthy country, but its drugs business eclipses its legitimate economy many times over. The drug business is at the root of the nation’s murder epidemic.
Its wealth has left Mexico inured to the horror of violent crime, and nobody, from the government to law enforcement to gang leaders and humble farmers, think they are responsible.
:: Watch Stuart Ramsay’s report on Mexico’s drug trade as part of Hot Spots, on Thursday night on Sky Atlantic, and in a special report on Sky News at 4.30pm and 7.30pm on Wednesday.
(c) Sky News 2018: Sky meets the men behind Mexico’s new murder epidemic