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Hub Dialogue: Dispelling the myths of the Mexican drug trade

Podcast & Video

In this Hub Dialogue, The Hub’s editor-at-large Sean Speer speaks to Benjamin T. Smith, the author of The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade.

This conversation has been revised and edited for length and clarity.

Sean Speer

Benjamin T. Smith is a historian of modern Mexico at the University of Warwick in United Kingdom.

He joins us for a Hub Dialogue to discuss his newest book, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, which traces the history of the Mexican drug trade from the early 20th century up until the present.

Using archival research from the DEA, Mexican law enforcement and cartel documents, and dozens of harrowing interviews, Professor Smith argues that a century of drug prohibition has contributed to the violence and instability associated with Mexico’s well known drug trade.

Thank you for joining us, Professor Smith.

Benjamin T. Smith

No problem at all.

Sean Speer

The use of “real” in the book subtitles suggest that you believe that popular and historiographical interpretations of the Mexican drug trade have succumbed to myths and misperceptions. What are the main misperceptions surrounding the drug trade? And how have you sought to challenge them in your latest book?

Benjamin T. Smith

For over a century, we’ve seen the war on drugs and the drug trade itself in terms of a moral binary. We see the cops and the authorities as good, upstanding, and the ones who only shoot when shot at. And we see the drug traffickers as naturally violent, mostly men, who bring an intrinsic violence to the trade. What I try in the book is to effectively question this framing. Much of the violence that we now think is entirely mixed up with the drug trade itself actually originates not from the drug traffickers themselves, but rather from the authorities.

The drug trade itself does not have to be violent. In Canada, for instance, there was a time during the early 2000s when British Columbia was producing the vast majority of the American west coast’s marijuana, and yet homicide rates didn’t even rise.

All the drug trade is, in basic terms, is growing some drugs, processing them, and then trafficking them over a border. What makes it violent, are two things: one, it’s the aggressive war on drugs, which fractures and breaks up the links between traffickers and turns them against one another, and two, it’s the fact that the Mexican state has attempted over the last 100 years to extort money from drug traffickers in return for protection from the U.S. and, to a certain extent, the Mexican federal authorities.

Sean Speer

Your book centers on economics, namely the role that American demand has played in driving the drug trade, including in recent years as marijuana legalization efforts have forced the trade in new product lines, including fentanyl, methamphetamines, and opioids. If this is a demand-driven problem, what are the implications for policymakers on both sides of the border?

Benjamin T. Smith

I think it’s a fairly common knowledge that this is all about demand. But what I found interesting is there’s very little tracing of how this demand has actually affected the on-the-ground growing and processing of drugs. I tried to do a kind of small quantitative analysis of this to find out how much drugs sold in the United States made an annual salary for a Mexican because it’s not simply demand from the United States. It’s also the relative poverty of the average Mexican.

To make the equivalent of a cab driver’s annual wage over the last 50 years, you’ve basically needed one marijuana plant, or a window box full of poppies. Virtually nothing. It’s not simply the American demand, but it’s also Mexicans that are relatively poor compared to the American economy. I think that’s important to bear in mind.

In terms of policy, if you don’t get rid of demand, you’re never going to get rid of the Mexican drug trade. So, sadly, legalizing marijuana is a bit of a drop in the ocean, because the traffickers have simply moved to other much more dangerous drugs. First, it was heroin. Now, it’s fentanyl and methamphetamine.

The other thing that has changed, and I think this is something that perhaps both U.S. and Mexican observers have played down, is that Mexico now has its own drug market. From 1910 through 2000, Mexico had no drug market to speak of. I observe early on in the book that there was an attempt to do a survey of how many Mexicans did drugs in the 1970s. They found out that 1 percent smoked marijuana compared to about 40 percent of high schoolers in the United States. They couldn’t find a single heroin addict amongst all the people that they interviewed.

Now, over the last 20 years, Mexico does have a drug market. It is very difficult to quantify because very few people admit to the surveys of who does drugs. Mexico has a very limited infrastructure for dealing with drug addiction, so that’s not much use either. Also, drug cartels go into some of these drug rehab places and kill the inmates partly because they’re believed to be potentially informants that will go to the police. So, we don’t really know how big this is, but it’s quite clear that some of the big cities, particularly in the north of Mexico, in places like Tijuana, and Ciudad Juárez, it is not a fight over the drug trade or trafficking over the U.S., it’s a fight over who sells drugs on each particular street corner. If you’ve seen the series The Wire, it’s basically Baltimore in the mid 1990s or LA in the late 1980s. It’s a block-by-block fight for who sells crack, who sells heroin, and who sells fentanyl in these particular places. This is going on in Mexico, but I’d say it’s a very recent phenomenon, that did not occur in the first 80 to 90 years of the Mexican drug trade.

Sean Speer

Another of the other key insights from the book is the role of corruption, namely the role that the Mexican state has played in facilitating and protecting the drug trade. How has this corruption evolved? And what, if anything, can be done to mitigate it?

Benjamin T. Smith

Well, I’ve kind of veered away from terming it corruption because I feel corruption is a very vague term. We all think we know what corruption is, but effectively what the Mexican government has done since 1914, when America banned drugs, was to say to drug traffickers, “look, we’ll protect you, as long as you pay us a certain percentage of your profits.” They basically got paid by drug traffickers in order to not enforce the law. We call this corruption, and often times the profits go directly into the private accounts of these politicians.

But one thing that I found that, frankly did surprise me, is not all the money went there. Particularly in the first half of the century, there were loads of local governments who were using that money for schools, roads, security forces and police, making sure there weren’t bandits in the countryside, and making sure the cities were secure, but also charging Mexican citizens with the lowest taxes in the world at the time. Mexico is not, and has never been in the 20th century, some kind of failed state. It’s not a first-world state, but it is a relatively competent, at times reformist democratic state, and it has done this with incredibly low taxes.

One of the reasons is they’ve charged people who run illegal enterprises, whether it be drugs, running booze up to the United States in the 1920s, or with illegal logging starting in the 1950s and 1960s. They used to charge people who ran these illegal trades money for their protection and some of that money went into infrastructure and public services.

So, calling this corruption is not terribly useful. Yes, some of that money goes into the hands and to the private bank accounts of some unscrupulous politicians. However, certainly up to the 1980s and 1990s, a lot of money actually went into the building the Mexican state. Now, I know this is somewhat controversial, but I think I have a fair amount of evidence that this was going on.

Sean Speer

These dual forces of economics and unscrupulousness are both aspects of human nature and appetites. How does the role of human nature contribute to these problems being more intractable than others that societies tend to face?

Benjamin T. Smith

It’s quite a philosophical question. As a historian, I’m much more likely to come out with some facts and figures rather than any great kind of philosophical insight into human nature. But it’s a very good question.

I would say personally that human nature is what we would call, in the social sciences, socially and culturally constructed. America historically has gone through waves of being addicted to drugs. Heroin and opiates tend to be a generational thing, and they are often depression drugs. Cocaine, by contrast, is famously known as a boom-time drug.

Now, one of the fundamental problems about what’s happened in America is we have a country that, since the global financial crisis in 2008, has been basically addicted to opiates: not simply heroin, but also Oxycontin and other medical opiates, including now fentanyl.

I would say that human nature is immutable to a certain extent, but its appetites are constructed by the world we live in. We don’t snort cocaine when we simply don’t have the money for it and the current opioid crisis is being driven by a combination of economic and social despair. I think that this interrelationship between drug use and the broader economic and social context is important to bear in mind.

There are plenty of countries that don’t have such a massive appetite for drugs. There are various cultural reasons why America has this extraordinary appetite for narcotics. This is something that again surprised me. My assumption was that America had a similar appetite for narcotics as the UK. It’s about four times the population, so I assumed it might have four times the amount of drugs going in the United States. But that’s just simply not true. One thing I found out as part of my research is, the U.S. wasn’t just taking a lot of the world’s cocaine during the 1990s, it was taking 70 percent of the world’s cocaine, which is an absolutely extraordinary amount.

So though human nature demands some kind of narcotic release, specific cultural and social contexts generate bigger appetites than others.

Sean Speer

That’s fascinating: an underexplored aspect of American exceptionalism.

Benjamin T. Smith

Absolutely. When I worked in the U.S. from 2005 to 2013, I remember reading a book by W.J Rorabaugh called The Alcoholic Republic about Americans’ addiction to alcohol. It claimed that during the 19th century, the United States was drinking about twice as much as anywhere else on earth.

The same is true of drugs. During the late nineteenth century in many cities over two per cent of the populations were addicted to morphine. In the 1960s it was marijuana, in the 1980s and 1990s it became cocaine and now we are back to opiates again.

The question is why Americans have historically had such a strong proclivity to taking alcohol and narcotics. David Courtwright in his pathbreaking work on the subject suggests that there is a link between the intensity of capitalism and intensity of drug taking. Intensive wage labour has always pushed workers to dull the tedium and the physical pain with narcotics, whether they have been gin, whisky and cigarettes in the nineteenth century or opiates and meth today. Why do you take drugs? Because you’ve been working 14 hours a day in a factory or to escape the monotony of a week in a call center.

By this logic, the extraordinary growth of the American economy has always carried a dark shadow in its slipstream – widespread addiction to narcotics.

Mexico is doubly-damned in this regard. It’s next to a country where intensive capitalism has produced a vast army of narcotics addicts. And this same capitalism has also made these addicts sufficiently wealthy and free-spending to tempt Mexicans to produce the narcotics to sate their addictions.

Sean Speer

The book sketches stories of a group of interesting, yet violent participants in the drug trade, including the so-called “Dope Queen”, El León de la Sierra, and, of course, El Chapo. Who in your view is the most interesting character that you came across in your research and why?

Benjamin T. Smith

The one that fascinated me and the one I devoted an entire chapter is Ignacia “La Nacha” Jasso, who was known as the “Dope Queen” of Ciudad Juárez. We assume that the vast majority of drug traffickers are men, partly because we assume they’re intrinsically violent and men are more violent than women. However, one thing I found out is that because the drug trade actually isn’t terribly violent, and you don’t necessarily need to be good with a pistol or your fists, many early traffickers particularly were women. La Nacha was one of them.

She ran the Ciudad Juárez drug trade from the 1920s through to the 1970s. This is an extraordinary longevity in a trade which we associate for being pretty short term. She was a phenomenal businesswoman who continually escaped, and also had this sense of humour. One thing that amused me was that every time she would get busted, she would go through some kind of evangelical conversion in prison, and she would invite pastors from across the border to witness her piety. The image played amazingly well with American officials, because here they were simply saving a poor Mexican woman who would come close to Jesus Christ. She would be pictured quite deliberately in prison reading a Bible and basically playing entirely to the U.S. audience. So not only the drug traffickers fed the American appetite, they played to the U.S. audience when they were caught.

The other person I found really interesting, partly because we knew nothing at all about him before I started researching, was what you might call the originator of the orthodox Mexican drug trade. His name was Eduardo “Lalo” Fernández. He came from exactly the same village that El Chapo comes from, but was born about 50 years earlier. His father and uncles grew opium, but he was the first guy to go down to the city of Culiacán, which is now the centre of the drug trade in Mexico, and started producing what became known as black tar heroin. He became really the kingpin of the Mexican drug trade from the 1940s until his death in the late 1980s. Eventually, he died in his own bed safe and sound. He was a drug trafficker who never saw the inside of a jail, partly because of his political contacts, and partly because he was such a smart operator as well as a chemist. I found him a kind of fascinating figure: a man who formed the foundation for what we would know as the Sinaloa Cartel today. There would be no El Chapo without Lalo Fernández.

Sean Speer

Your book ends by observing “a century and counting, the Mexican drug trade shows no signs of slowing.” Professor Smith, is there any reason for optimism or is that even the right question to ask?

Benjamin T. Smith

Well, it’s never going to end. But I think what the current government is doing is, at least, different from the last two presidents. President Felipe Calderón, who ran Mexico from 2006 to 2012, was extremely aggressive against drug trafficking organizations. His policy was an absolute disaster. His successor, Peña Nieto did exactly the same. He took out, whether arrested or killed, somewhere in the region of 120 out of the 138 top drug traffickers in Mexico. Yet these efforts did nothing to halt the drug trade. In fact, it intensified over this period.

The current president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, is simply not doing that. He has not arrested or killed any major drug trafficker. He is not interested, I think, in actually stopping the drug trade. Instead he’s interested in two things. One is what he calls eliminating the social base of the drug trade. Now, what does that mean? It’s continually kind of tossed around and it’s a very vague term. It basically means attempting to give young men an education and some kind of economic future outside the drug trade. Now, it’s an extremely long-term plan. Frankly, murder rates still seem to be going up, so it doesn’t seem to be working well. But, at least, he isn’t compounding the problem by taking out these major drug traffickers.

The second thing he’s attempted to do is create something called the National Guard. I think in his mind originally, this was meant to be basically a militarized police force, but one that was not infiltrated by corrupt elements like the army or the police. However, for various reasons, it seems that the National Guard has not played out that way. What we have actually is the gradual militarization of Mexico, which is scary. Although they government and the National Guard are not going after the big kingpins anymore, what they are doing is militarizing Mexico. It’s now difficult to get from Mexico City to a provincial town on a bus without being stopped by two, three or four roadblocks set up by the National Guard. Now, they are designed to bring security, but there are growing rumors on the ground that they are just as corrupt as the army or the police that they are there to replace.

One final thing: although it’s not a stated policy, it’s clear that either the current President or people working underneath him are attempting to reform and re-sign alliances with the cartels. They’re effectively trying to put back in place the protection rackets of the twentieth century. They are approaching traffickers with the promise that they will protect them in return for money, some of which will be used to improve the lot of the Mexican people.

I think they are attempting to do this even if they would never say openly. And frankly America, certainly under former President Trump, let them. The reason was a fairly depressing exchange. The Mexican President chased down Central American migrants and placed them in camps at both the southern and northern borders; in return the Trump administration didn’t complain about the Mexican President’s rather softer approach to the narcotics trade.

Whether this is going to work over the long term, it’s very, very difficult to see. I think the DEA’s arrest of former military head, Salvador Cienfuegos was an indication that some people in the U.S. administration want this covert deal to end. But Mexico forced the DEA to release Cienfuegos, so who knows, maybe the Biden administration has kept it in place. No doubt fighting an aggressive drug war for the last 15 years has been a disaster for Mexico and for the United States, socially, economically and politically. So maybe the Biden administration is willing to quietly support this new approach.

Sean Speer

Well, thank you, Professor Smith. These insights have been just as fascinating as your book, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, is. We’re honored to have had you join us for this Hub Dialogue.

Benjamin T. Smith

Thank you so much, I appreciate it.