The book traces the history of Mexico’s drug trade from the early 20th century up until today, sharing the stories of drug traffickers and US officials to bust myths surrounding it. InSight Crime sat down with The Dope’s author, Benjamin T. Smith, a historian of modern Mexico and professor at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, to unpack misperceptions of trade and discuss shifts in its dynamics over the last century.
*This interview transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.
InSight Crime (IC): The book seeks to challenge a number of myths around the history of Mexico’s drug trade. What are the main misperceptions surrounding the trade today and how would you challenge these?
Benjamin T. Smith (BTS): One is that cops are seen as noble, morally superior figures that act in a non-violent, orthodox and legal way. Meanwhile, drug traffickers are seen as morally beyond the pale, completely separate from the rest of society. They are seen as coming from other areas of organized crime that are inherently violent and to use violence pathologically, almost.
All of these things are built into the "drug war myth." They excuse violence on the side of the police who supposedly "only shoot when shot at." Anyone who has studied this knows that is completely untrue.
Meanwhile, a vast, amorphous sector of society throughout America and Latin America who are simply growing marijuana to survive are demonized.
The vast majority of people involved in the drug trade in the book are farmers and merchants and parents. They're not highly competitive with each other. They are godparents to each other's kids. They are bonded by marriage and friendship. The violence is often generated by the State coming at them.
The second big thing that I discovered is that there is a difference between two things we tend to conflate. The drug trade is effectively growing some marijuana, packaging it, and transporting it to the person who buys it. It is a commercial interaction. It's relatively simple and relatively nonviolent.
However, there is something else and that is a protection racket. Since the 1910s, the Mexican State, and local police forces, mostly, but then federal police forces, charged drug traffickers a certain amount of money to not impose the law. That is what causes the violence.
IC: You note that up until the 1970s, protection rackets linked to the drug trade were largely controlled by state governments and manned by state police. Then, between the 1970s and 1990s, national institutions took over, before drug traffickers themselves took control. What have been the consequences of these shifts?
BTS: Broadly, violence. First, [those in charge of protection rackets] have got to persuade drug traffickers to pay up. Some traffickers are relatively reticent to give up a third of their product. They shoot back or just don't pay. So [those in charge of protection rackets] track them down, threaten them and often torture them. That's what federal cops did in the 1970s.
People who have taken over drug protection rackets, have not simply had to talk to drug traffickers, they've also had to take out the previous protection rackets. So many of the murders that I traced and tracked in 1970s Mexico - which were often completely unexplained - were federal cops killing state cops over who controlled the local protection racket for drugs and also for prostitution, illegal logging, human trafficking and carjacking.
IC: Your book goes into different forms of corruption underpinning the trade across the US-Mexico border. How has this corruption evolved along with the growing drug trade?
BTS: I'm not sure corruption is a terribly useful term. What corruption means is taking public money and using it for private good. Lots of governors do this in Mexico. It's classic corruption.
What's happening in the drug trade is a little different. It is not necessarily going against the institutions of state. Police captains say "I'm not going to apply this drug law, you can traffic your stuff through. Give me 20, 30 percent of your profits." A lot of them use the money for reasons of state: to get guns, bulletproof jackets and uniforms, to employ more than a couple dozen police officers. This "corruption" is building the state. The money is not necessarily going into private bank accounts.
For example, Genaro García Luna [the Secretary of Public Security in Mexico from 2006 to 2012] is currently on trial in the United States, accused of massive corruption. I have no idea whether he took money for the Sinaloa Cartel and put it into his own private bank accounts. What I do know is that he massively increased the number of federal cops in Mexico. They went from 6,000 federal cops to about 37,000 in a six-year period. My guess is he used money from the Sinaloa Cartel to build the state.
One thing I found which shocked me was quite how corrupt the Customs and Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) were in the 1970s, and how this was buried at every level. I confess I don't know the contemporary situation. But certainly, during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, these groups were institutionally corrupt and might have run protection rackets.
People inside the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN), which was run by Harry J. Anslinger, were quoted as saying that from one third to one half of its agents were on the payroll of the "French Connection," the big heroin trafficking network. Mexico would be proud of a similar level of corruption.
IC: You spoke with former US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents and underworld figures. What were the main “myths” that continued to be widely believed among these groups?
BTS: US traffickers broadly believed that [US] hippy traffickers were clean, never did anything violent and were noble entrepreneurs. They bought into the "narco myth" that as soon as you went over the border everything was dangerous and everyone was intrinsically violent, which I thought was quite interesting because a lot of documents seem to indicate that it was the Americans who took guns and some of the violence to Mexico in the first place.
There were three ways that DEA agents dealt with what they had done. Some agents effectively said what they did was noble and great. As the myths are so firmly ingrained, they didn't care about saying "I saw torture, I saw murder," because nobody is going to take away their pension.
Another group are distraught at what they did. They wanted to deny or forget their past.
Finally, there's a large group of people who cope with these very distressing acts that they witnessed, or some of them took part in, by drinking alcohol.
IC: You also discuss how prohibitionist policies in the United States and efforts to capture kingpins and cultivators south of the border in Mexico have been ineffective in curbing the drug trade. Looking back over the time period covered by your book, why do you think state responses have remained so monolithic when faced with one of the most adaptable businesses in the world?
BTS: You've got a lot of institutions that are based on these outdated modes for their funding. The DEA can't admit that their standard way of breaking up drug gangs is not only completely ineffective and never takes drugs off the streets for anything more than a couple of days, but also causes the vast majority of violence in foreign countries. They can't admit that because their pensions and funding are related to that.
We assume that drug gangs in Mexico are fighting each other because they each want to sell a key of cocaine up in Chicago. They're not. They're fighting each other because the DEA and the Mexican federal cops have set them against one another. They're both absolutely petrified that the other group is going to rat them out.
Not only have traditional state responses been spectacular failures as drug prices and demand have worked utterly independent of supply for 100 years, but they are massively counterproductive if you want to keep down the violence.
IC: Your book also profiles a number of colorful characters, including Ignacia “La Nacha” Jasso, a heroin peddler known as Ciudad Juárez’s “Dope Queen,” starting in the 1920s. You describe her as a “one-women syndicate … who shifted her role depending on market demands.” How unique is “La Nacha’s” story of female agency in Mexico’s drug trade?
BTS: We assume that the drug trade is a highly masculine activity. However, one thing I did find in Mexico is a lot of the people who did the selling of drugs, rather than the trafficking, were women, because selling drugs was an extension of city commerce. Who run most market stalls, most small shops? Women.
It was the same in Ciudad Juárez where this entrepreneurial, business-savvy woman, "La Nacha," ran heroin shops for about 40 years. It was the same in Mexico City. There, one woman called María Dolores Estévez Zuleta, alias "Lola la Chata," ran these shops. It was similar in Tijuana, where there was a highly successful female drug peddler.
A lot of women were mules but they were not poor women who were being ordered around by hypermasculine men. Often the people who were running the mules and teaching them how to stash drugs were other women. My suspicion is women still play very key roles in these organizations.
IC: You also talk about the “multi-tasking” drug trafficker, Pedro Avilés Pérez, alias "El León de la Sierra," whom US authorities credited with bridging the gap between first and second-generation Sinaloan traffickers and “professionalizing” the Mexican drug trade in the late 1960s and 1970s. How far does his story live up to what US officials credited him with? Do you think his influence has helped the Sinaloa Cartel stay on top to this day?
BTS: I'm not sure I entirely answer that in the book - I sit firmly on the fence. He's a drug war myth. He's the father figure of the Guadalajara Cartel. He's been quoted as being the godfather of Mexican drug lord Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo," although I've seen no evidence of a relationship between the two.
Pérez set up a massive drug warehouse in [the municipality of] San Luis Río Colorado on the Mexican state of Sonora's border with the United States. Multiple traffickers - mostly from the state of Sinaloa, but also from all over Mexico - would bring the drugs up to there. He would set the drugs up in his warehouses and then would either sell them off to hippy traffickers who came over from the United States or would send them there by plane.
He was the first person to sell multiple drugs to a mass market in the United States. He was partially simply responding to US demand, which went through the roof in the early 1970s. Maybe he was just the right man there at the right time. It also does seem that he had an ease in seeing a good market.
He was killed by the DEA putting a bounty on his head. A Mexican cop shot him, along with some partygoers, in cold blood.
One of his sons was the head of the Sinaloa police as late as 2010. It's like putting Pablo Escobar's non-reformed son in charge of the Medellín police in 2015. It just seemed a remarkable continuity.
*This interview transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.