The Official Narrative About Mexico’s Drug War Is All Wrong

Benjamin T. Smith

From assumptions about drug traffickers and police and elected officials’ corruption to Mexicans’ economic incentives for selling drugs, the Mexican drug trade has been drenched in sensationalist and inaccurate mythology. We need to totally upend our understanding of it.

A Mexican soldier stands in a poppy field in Guerrero state, Mexico, 2013. (Pedro Pardo / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Benjamin Fogel

Mexico’s drug war has officially claimed over three hundred thousand lives since it was launched by then president Felipe Calderon in 2006, along with over thirty thousand unidentified bodies and over ninety thousand missing persons. Despite this cascade of death, billions of dollars spent, and the fall of numerous arch-villains from Pablo Escobar to El Chapo, drugs have probably never been as widely available, varied, and as affordable in the United States and beyond, from Manhattan clubs to South African townships.

Last year more than ninety-three thousand Americans died from drug overdoses in the United States. This is a new record and a rise of over 30 percent from 2019, driven by the new prevalence of the powerful synthetic opiate fentanyl along with pandemic-related spurs to drug abuse and the ever-precarious access to health care in America. This begs the question: What was all the carnage unleashed, millions imprisoned, and chaos spread across the world in the name of the war against drugs for?

The drug trade is a major part of the international economy, worth between $426 billion to $652 billion per year. Americans spent nearly $150 billion on drugs in 2016, according to the Rand Corporation. This is a huge industry; its profits flow back into the licit economy through banks, real estate, and other investments.

Most of the drugs used in the United States either originate in or pass through Mexico on their way to consumers across the country. Xenophobic politicians and media in the United States routinely transfer blame to Mexico for the flow of drugs into the country to the exotic, bloodthirsty narco. But the Mexican drug trade has a long history dating back to the nineteenth century. This history is connected to state formation in Mexico and is a crucial part of the history of policing, politics, and moral panics, from reefer madness to “crack babies” in the United States.

Historian Benjamin T. Smith has written a remarkable book, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, tracing the history of the drug trade in Mexico. The book calls into question several of the basic assumptions about the trade, challenging popular narratives by revealing a story that breaks down the supposed barrier between good guys and bad guys, bandits and cops, drug cartels and the state. Jacobin contributing editor Benjamin Fogel spoke to Smith about his new book and the history of the drug trade in Mexico.

Benjamin Fogel

This book seeks to change our understanding about drug wars and the drug trade. Could you give us an idea of what you think the official narrative or mythology about the trade looks like in the popular imagination?

Benjamin T. Smith

When I talk about the official narrative or mythology of the drug war, I am talking about that simple moral binary which shapes most discussions of the trade. In this narrative, the traffickers are brutal, evil men with a proclivity for outrageous displays of violence. The authorities like the cops and drug agents, on the other hand, are good, honorable men; their use of violence is reactive rather than proactive.

When discussing the Mexican drug trade, there is a strong racial element to this. Traffickers tend to be poor, brown, and Mexican. Drug agents tends to be white Americans — modern day Wyatt Earps. It’s a simple narrative that has shaped the crime news and the serious broadsheets, pulp detective novels, and Cormac McCarthy’s border fiction, the overt silliness of Get the Gringo and the portentous nonsense of Sicario.

It is there, for example, in the term “cartel.” American drug agents started to use the term cartel in the late 1980s to describe Mexican traffickers. The term “cartel” immediately brought to mind OPEC, price controls, and the perversion of good old, fair-minded, Anglo-run capitalism. And it promised victory. Destroy the cartel, and you destroy the drug trade.

Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán arrives in New York, 2017. (Charles Reed / US Immigration and Customs Enforcement via Getty Images)

Yet the DEA knew that the traffickers didn’t operate as a cartel at all. These were networks of intermarried families and friends, which all played small roles in creating this market ecosystem.

It is a model which I think after a century of propaganda is almost hardwired into our subconscious. And it is one which I think still shapes most discussions of the drug trade and the war against it. I suppose I fear that some people will read this book and jettison its arguments out of hand, because I start by basically stating my opposition to this predominant narrative.

Benjamin Fogel

One of the major contributions of your book concerns the relationship between the state and drug traffickers. You argue that the best way of understanding the trade is as a protection racket which historically has been run by various factions within the Mexican state. Can you explain how this works and how we should conceptualize what is usually just referred to as “corruption”?

Benjamin T. Smith

The term “corruption” is often bandied around to describe the relationship between the Mexican authorities and the Mexican traffickers. It forms a crucial part of that same drug war narrative. Why don’t counter-narcotics policies work? Corruption. Why can’t Mexico control its cartels? Corruption.

But corruption is an imprecise and not very useful term. No doubt many Mexican politicians and policemen partially fulflil the orthodox political science definition of corruption. They use their position to line their own pockets. (Although contrary to the classic definition, it is worth saying that they are not using public monies to do this — they are simply shaking down criminals).

What I found surprising was that there is another dynamic also going on. For over a century, Mexican politicians and policemen have also exchanged money from drug traffickers (and other merchants of illicit goods from booze to imported US products to untaxed coffee) for protection from prosecution. Some of this money they have pocketed, no doubt. But they have used a surprising amount to build the state.

During the first half of the twentieth century, while Mexico still had pretensions about being a social democracy, these state-building operations involved constructing schools and laying roads. But by the 1970s, as the Cold War heated up, it gradually became more trained on paying for garrisons and arming hit squads.

Is this corruption? It might not be terribly palatable, but it’s a basic part of what states do. They extract money in return for protection. They do this to companies by charging them tax in return for guaranteeing property rights. All they are doing here is charging traffickers similar types of tax for not imposing the law.

Rather than terming it corruption, I thought that a better phrase for what the state was doing was running a protection racket. It is a strategy located somewhere between an orthodox state and a mafia operation.

Benjamin Fogel

Can you briefly sketch out the political economy that drives the drug trade from Mexico to the United States and the economic incentives behind it?

Benjamin T. Smith

I don’t think it is news to anybody that it is American demand that drives the Mexican drug trade. In the 1960s, 40 percent of high schoolers were smoking weed and in the 1990s, Americans were taking 70 percent of the world’s cocaine. Last year around a hundred thousand Americans died from drug overdoses.

In comparison, Mexico has never really had a drug market. A few soldiers and bohemians smoked weed after the Revolution, but at least up to the early 2000s, the market for weed, cocaine, and especially heroin was miniscule. In the 1970s, when Mexico was providing 95 percent of America’s heroin, survey takers were unable to find a single Mexican heroin addict in the country.

This ceaseless US demand has merged with the persistent poverty of the average Mexican. You can earn the average annual Mexican wage by working for fifteen days in the United States.

This combination of high demand and low wages has generated enormous incentives to produce and traffic drugs. There is no established way to assess these incentives, so I came up with my own: an estimate of the quantities of various narcotics a Mexican would have to sell wholesale in the United States to earn the average annual Mexican wage.

This calculation is not meant to mirror real life. Few individual Mexicans have had the wherewithal to sell the drugs that they grew on their own land directly to American users. (Though some have. As journalist Sam Quinones discovered, in the early 2000s, a handful of enterprising Mexican poppy farmers started to sell their homemade black tar heroin directly to US OxyContin addicts.) The figure does not take into account the (comparatively minimal) costs of drug production and processing or the (less minimal) costs of networking and bribery. Instead, what it does is suggest why the drug trade has been so attractive to so many Mexicans.

The results are telling. Over the past fifty years, to earn the median wage, a Mexican has had to sell an average of seven hundred grams of marijuana, eighteen grams of heroin, or sixty-six grams of cocaine on the US streets. It amounts to weed weighing two cans of soup, coke weighing a tennis ball, or smack weighing just three US quarters. And this is only the average. During the economic collapse of the mid-1980s, it took only two hundred eighty grams of marijuana and 4.8 grams of heroin to make the annual wage. In Mexico, you could earn as much growing a single marijuana plant or a window box of poppies as driving a cab for a year.

And it’s this — not some kind of innate moral failing that somehow only affects those south of the Rio Bravo — that has located the drug trade so firmly south of the US border.

Benjamin Fogel

In your book, you tell the story of the development of the Mexican drug trade through changes in the political regime or forces that run these protection rackets from local governors to different branches of the Mexican security forces. Can you briefly sketch this narrative and explain how it works?

Benjamin T. Smith

At first, in the 1920s and 1930s, while Mexico was in the process of rebuilding itself after the Revolution, it was mostly local mayors and local military commanders who protected the traffickers and smugglers from prosecution. Most of these were based at various towns along the US-Mexican border. A few were based where the morphine and heroin came in at the port of Veracruz and a few at the various train stops up from Veracruz to the border.

During the 1940s, however, Mexico began in earnest to grow opium poppies and convert them into morphine and heroin for the US market. Again, it was a question of demand. World War II cut off the United States from its traditional drug suppliers in Europe and Asia, so Mexico almost immediately pulled in the slack.

This was a much more geographically diffuse industry that spanned the mountains of western Mexico. So state governors started to take over protecting the drug growers and the drug traffickers from prosecution. They used state police forces to do this. State cops collected money from the traffickers and handed it — often explicitly — to state tax collectors. It kept states like Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua afloat.

By the 1970s, however, these protection rackets changed hands again. The United States was breathing down Mexico’s neck and attempting to force a crackdown on the burgeoning marijuana and heroin businesses. At the same time, some state governors were managing to use drug protection money to build up a fair amount of independence from the federal Mexican authorities. Finally, the Mexican federal authorities were facing an increasingly embarrassing array of guerrilla insurgencies both in the mountains of southern Mexico and the cities of the north.

The Mexican authorities came up with a solution. They — and particularly the Federal Judicial Police (PJF) took over the protection of drug traffickers from the state cops. This was a brutal and bloody business which involved killing off the competition in the state police, and torturing and cowing the traffickers and forcing them to pay.

But, at least according to their own logic, the plan worked. The Americans were placated, the state governors saw their independence curtailed, and the federal authorities could use this new source of cash to fight the dirty war.

Benjamin Fogel

It seems that one of the biggest misconceptions about the trade is that corruption only starts south of the Rio Grande. Can you comment on US attempts to crack down on the drug trade, from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) to the Mexican anti-drug campaign Operation Condor and most recently the Mérida Initiative? What drives these counter-narcotic responses, and what is the strategic logic behind them?

Benjamin T. Smith

Again this is part of the drug war narrative. Mexican protection of the drug trade is evidence of endemic or institutional corruption. Any cases of US authorities protecting drug traffickers is just a few bad apples. But corruption extends north of the border. I found multiple accounts of it during the 1970s and 1980s among local sheriffs, local customs officers drug agents, and even US senators.

In fact, the first American drug agency, the FBN, was disbanded in 1968 in the wake of a huge corruption scandal. Investigators estimated that around a third of the agents were on the take. The next drug agency, the BNDD [Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs], was also closed down just five years later amid similar accusations of corruption and incompetence.

I would hazard a guess that during the counterculture drug boom, there was just as much corruption north as south of the border. It was the reason that so many narcotics got through. It wasn’t the five hundred–odd Mexican PJF agents on the take but the thousands of DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration], customs, and local police officers doing the same in the United States.

Why do we know more about the Mexican corruption than the American? This is not a terribly popular opinion, but I think the US and Mexico differed in two ways.

First, Mexico has declassified a lot of its secret service and judicial documents, so we have a lot more evidence of this corruption; in contrast, US Grand Jury transcripts and spy files remain classified to this day. The only way that I could get at corruption on the US side was through unofficial leaks and this extraordinary investigation into Arizona corruption performed by journalists in the wake of the mafia killing one of their number.

Second, Mexico had — and still has in some regions — a much more gung-ho, aggressive local news network than the United States. Mexico journalists were — and still are — prepared to point the finger at corrupt officials.

What has changed in the last three or so decades is that US police forces — unlike Mexican ones — have been given the mandate to effectively shake down drug dealers legally. When they arrest traffickers north of the border, they can impound their houses, cars, and other properties, and use them to float their own police forces.

There is now no need for the kind of covert protection rackets that are still running south of the border. This is similar to something that came out during the investigations of the Ferguson racial justice protests a few years ago. The Ferguson police force wasn’t simply racist — it was systematically shaking down the local population for cash.

The second question about what drives US anti-narcotics initiatives south of the border is a trickier one. It depends on the timing and the policy. But in general, it’s been a question of institution-building. Time and time again, American drug authorities have pushed initiatives in Mexico to generate bigger budgets or maintain their relevance to cover up for failings at home.

Why did Harry Anslinger and the FBN stop Mexico’s experiment with drug legalization in 1940? Because he was attempting to challenge rivals in the Customs Department and extend his department’s remit to foreign policy.

Why did the DEA push Operation Condor, Mexico’s huge militarized anti-drug campaign, in 1975? Because successive scandals and escalating heroin use generated the need for easy scapegoats.

Benjamin Fogel

You argue that violence in the drug trade is driven by state attempts to restructure or change the way protection rackets are run. Can you explain how this drives violence? And could you also comment on the open confrontations between different branches of the Mexican security forces fighting over control of these rackets?

Benjamin T. Smith

Most commentators argue that the narcotics business inevitably generates violence; it is “in the DNA of the trade.” They give many reasons for the inevitability of violence. The stakes are high. The trade attracts criminals and sociopaths, and without official regulation, disputes are decided by force. Over the past fifteen years, at least in Mexico, this has not been a difficult claim to make. Yet it is important not to let contemporary horrors obscure both the history of the trade and the origins of the violence.

Up to the 1970s, violence was rarely employed to sort out disputes between drug traffickers. The trade was relatively peaceful. Cooperation was the rule. Deep ties of blood, marriage, friendship, and neighborhood, which linked many of the traffickers, prevented the frequent use of force. In general, so did the local protection rackets. Both state governors and state cops were keen to avoid conflicts that risked exposing their own ties to the traffickers.

But occasionally, new state authorities attempted to overturn the old protection rackets and institute their own. To do so, they frequently tracked down powerful traffickers and arrested or killed them. They then placed their own compliant traffickers in their place. New state authorities could claim to the US and Mexican federal authorities that they were taking serious action on counternarcotics while also capturing the protection racket for themselves. Yet the strategy was high-risk. If the new authorities failed to control or eliminate the powerful traffickers, the attempted takeover could develop into a bloody conflict.

Such conflicts over drug protection rackets dot the early years of the trade. There were outbreaks of violence in Ciudad Juárez in the early 1930s, in Sinaloa in the 1940s, and again in Sinaloa in the late 1960s. Yet such conflicts have become more frequent. Over the past forty years, increasing numbers of groups have vied for control of the drug protection rackets. They no longer comprise just warring local politicians, but also federal cops, secret service agents, and the drug traffickers themselves. What is described as a conflict over the drug trade is often a conflict over the control of the protection racket.

Benjamin Fogel

One aspect that stood out about the history of the Mexican drug trade, one which has commonalities in terms of other mafias in Italy and Colombia, is how anti-left violence and right-wing thuggery were deeply connected to the drug trade. Can you explain the relationship between the Mexican drug trade and anti-left-wing violence?

Benjamin T. Smith

This is something that historians like Sergio Aguayo, Alex Aviña, and Adela Cedillo have written extensively about. They make it very clear that particularly in regions such as Guadalajara or southern Guerrero or the indigenous regions of the Chihuahua Sierra, the federal authorities linked up with traffickers in order to take out left-wing groups. They have each fashioned rich and detailed analyses of how this happened.

I suppose, where I differ, or perhaps where I extend this analysis is to see these links between the state, drug traffickers, and anti-left violence as something baked into the history of state formation in Mexico. Drugs and the drug trade always undergirded parts of the Mexican state. But during the 1970s, the section that demanded the funding was involved in a brutal war against left-wing insurgents.

Benjamin Fogel

To turn the story toward the current violence in Mexico, what changed in terms of the relationship between traffickers and the state in the ’90s and how did this change the drug trade and the level of violence used to control protection rackets, in your words how did the “drug trade” transform into the “drug war”?

Benjamin T. Smith

In essence, the changes were twofold. First, the amount of money increased. Colombian traffickers moved from paying Mexican smugglers a set fee to cross every kilo of cocaine to paying them a kilo of the drug for every kilo moved. This effectively put a zero on Mexican traffickers’ immediate earnings.

Second, the federal authorities that had controlled the protection of the trade started to splinter. The ruling party started to divide into different warring factions, and rival political parties started to win elections in key trafficking zones like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, and key growing zones like Michoacán.

Together, these two shifts resulted in the traffickers themselves taking over the protection rackets. They, just like the state before them, now provided drug smugglers with protection for a cut of the profits. And they created small, regional armies in order to do so. This probably started in Tijuana under the Arellano Felix brothers, but it soon extended to other border cities like Juárez and Matamoros and then to other growing and production zones like Michoacán and Jalisco.

Running a protection racket, unlike running a trafficking network, needs a monopoly. To function, it needs to be the only game in town. If not, the protection doesn’t work. Smugglers won’t pay you for protection if they also have to pay the army or the local police or another gang of heavies. Soon, these private protection rackets soon came into conflict as different groups sought a monopoly of certain zones. Trafficking organizations — which had previously concerned themselves with moving products — now got interested in controlling space. And they fought other organizations to do so.

The drug trade became the drug war — or, more precisely, a conflict between drug trafficking organizations to control distinct, geographically delimited protection rackets.

Benjamin Fogel

It seems that what is termed a “drug war” or “drug cartels” no longer only concern themselves just with trafficking drugs. Instead, they control all sorts of rackets and extortion schemes, from growing avocados to oil theft. How has the political economy of organized (or badly organized) crime changed in Mexico since Felipe Calderon launched a “war on drugs” in 2006?

Benjamin T. Smith

To be fair to Calderon, drug trafficking organizations had started attempting to control other illicit and licit industries in zones under their control since the early 2000s. A group of former soldiers called the Zetas probably initiated this shift. As early as 2004, they were shaking down bars, brothels, and DVD pirates in Michoacán and Tamaulipas. But soon other groups adopted these same strategies.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador walks during the ceremony of deployment of the new Mexican security force, the National Guard, at Campo Marte on June 30, 2019 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Manuel Velasquez / Getty Images)

In doing so, they not only confronted the groups they were trying to extort (like the petty criminals, the kidnappers, and the fuel thieves), they also came into conflict with rival cartel protection schemes, and state institutions, like the municipal police, which themselves had shaken down these industries for decades.

Benjamin Fogel

Given the horrific scale of violence associated with the drug war in Mexico, do you think there are any solutions or lessons we can learn in terms of how to reduce violence? What do you think of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO)’s approach of “hugs not bullets”?

Benjamin T. Smith

I think many of AMLO’s instincts are broadly correct. He has focused on the problem of the US arms trade, which has radically increased the Mexican homicides over the past fifteen years. He has attempted to undercut the criminal gangs by offering young men better opportunities and better earnings than those offered by preceding governments. And he has refused to follow the US-inspired kingpin strategy, which simply fragmented organized crime groups and caused increased bloodshed.

He, or at least those around him, have also — I suspect — set about attempting to renegotiate pacts with various criminal groups, in the manner of the federal authorities of the 1970s and 1980s. They have attempted to persuade them to move back to trafficking drugs rather than selling them inside Mexico and indulging in other more socially damaging forms of crime.

On the downside, I think that his attempts to offer greater opportunities for young men has been undermined by Mexico’s struggling economy and then by COVID. And his soto voce deals with drug traffickers were only possible because the US government under Trump was more interested in chasing down poor, vulnerable Central American migrants than eliminating drug traffickers. Whether he will be able to do this under Biden, we will have to see.

Over the past two years, he has become increasingly beholden to Mexico’s armed forces. His promise to send the soldiers back to the barracks has been completely shelved. The soldiers remain at the front line of Mexico’s security and policing strategy, with all the attendant problems of lack of transparency, human rights infringements, and its cannibalization by certain organized crime groups.

Finally, AMLO’s administration — like those before him — has refused to come to terms with the rising problem of drug addiction in Mexico. Just like in the United States, there is insufficient money spent on treatment and rehabilitation programs. It is the small-scale warfare over drug selling territory, over what in the United States would be called “the corners,” that has caused much of the recent bloodshed in cities with big addict populations like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez.

At the moment, Mexico’s escalating murder rate seems to suggest that despite the good intentions, these residual problems are still undercutting these more promising policies.