Talking Drug Prohibition at Mexico City’s Museum of Tolerance

Posted by Laura Weiss – MA student at CLACS


I’ve now been in the beautiful, chaotic, multilayered Mexico City, or DF, for over a week. Since I arrived, I’ve barely rested for a moment: as it turns out, field research is time consuming! In addition to interviews I’ve set up with local NGOs like the Centro Nacional de Comunicación Social (CENCOS), the Centro de Derechos Humanos Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez (CentroPro), and doing ethnographic observations of the many protests occurring on Avenida de la Reforma, I’ve been trying to take advantage of the many cursos, talleres and coyunturas this city has to offer.

On Saturday morning, I attended a free curso at the Museo de Tolerancia y Derechos Humanos, located on the Alameda in Mexico’s Centro, across the street from the lively Hidalgo market and downwind of the swanky Reforma Hilton, and more Starbucks than I would care to see. I visited the museum during my last trip to DF, located in a modern, spacious building with exhibits about human rights atrocities around the world, from the Holocaust to the Sudanese conflict to child migrant deaths. The museum offers a series of free courses and events every month, many of which are related to my thesis project. This one was the second session of “La Guerra Contra El Narcotráfico: El Fracaso Ante Los Derechos Humanos” (The War on Drugs: The Failure of Human Rights).

The lecture took place in the large auditorium, and at least 100 people sat in the audience. The session was described as: “La guerra contra las drogas desde el contexto internacional. Identificar los elementos la política criminal que comenzó en Estados Unidos y que se han reflejado en la política criminal internacional y que México ha adoptado desde sus propias características.” (The war on drugs in the international context. Identify the elements of the politics of criminalization that began in the United States and has been reflected in the politics of criminalization international and that Mexico has adopted from its own point of view.)

The lecturer, Jorge Jiménez, a sociologist and criminologist who teaches at Universidad de la Valle in Mexico City, was young and very energetic. He spoke about a mile a minute. He started by talking about the history of prohibition, which officially began in Mexico in 1917, when then-President Francisco Madero proposed the Convention de la Haya, which was ratified between 1924 and 1927. Between 1917 and 1927, the law shifted form mainly being about quality and regulation to focusing primarily on eradication under administrative and penal sanction. However, from its very inception, the laws that dictated eras of prohibition versus tolerance of drugs have been largely shaped by pressure and threats by the U.S. government, who have use the power imbalance between the U.S. and Mexico to influence Mexican policy and practice for a century.

A case in point discussed in the lecture was former president Alvaro Óbregon’s formal prohibition of narcotics importing in 1923. This occurred in tandem with U.S. prohibition of alcohol – and the professor noted that it is certainly no coincidence that this coincided with Óbregon’s construction of an airbase in Ciudad Juárez, on the U.S.-Mexico border, which used Mexican manpower to detect and interdict the illegal trafficking of alcohol from Mexico in to the U.S.

During World War II, Mexico once again responded to the will of the U.S. government and army. A lack of workers in the US due to the draft led to the beginning of the bracero program, which lasted until the 70s. The US imported Mexican workers on a seasonal basis to work the fields and factories, who would then take their earnings back to Mexico. Professor Jiménez said that this led in part to the “Mexican Miracle” in the 1940s, when Mexico’s economy boomed alongside that of the United States. At the same time, more wounded soldiers meant a surge in demand for anesthetics like morphine. And so the United States began importing morphine and opiates from Mexican poppy plants. Returned braceros were often the ones to cultivate these plants.

But this phase of legalized exports of poppies ended as soon as the war did. In 1948, an eradication campaign destroyed at least 7000 poppy plants in the “golden triangle” of poppy cultivation in Sinaloa.

The next point that Jiménez made in his lecture had to do with the ways that crime is a construct that has made certain acts illegal. After prohibition of drugs, drug use and trade didn’t stop. The only change really was that it was now illegal. This meant that the illegal market for drugs grew, and drug cultivation became a multi-billion dollar enterprise. In their efforts to avoid state detection and punishment, growers and traders had to develop black market expertise and practices, including bribery, corruption, threats, and violence. It is the struggle between the state and narcotraffickers itself that has created the conflict and violence we see today in the context of the drug war.

Throughout its history, drug prohibition has also been consistently used as a precept for eliminating members of society who are seen as threats to the elite status quo. In the 1910s and 1920s, drug users were seen as societal menaces. Media stereotypes compared marijuana users to monkeys that besmirched the “pedigree” of land-owning Mexicans.  During the Cold War, as the battle between capitalism and socialism was waged, hippies came to represent a threat to mainstream society. Hippies were anarchic, anti-war, and anti-capitalist.

Hippies also created a large market for drugs. And this was the aspect that the government zoomed in on, that could justify penalizing the hippies and other “threats,” as Richard Nixon put so delicately: “communists, homosexuals and… enemies of society.” Whilst before, drug use was a “crime without a victim,” as Jiménez pointed out, with the launch of the War on Drugs in 1971, it became a way to criminalize human beings.

Weiss_mexico_MYT 2

In this way, the US government created a crime to manipulate the law to suit their own interests. (At this point, Jiménez made a somewhat off-topic comparison to The Tudors, when Henry VIII splits with the Catholic Church and changes England’s official religion just so he can marry Anne Boleyn. History, folks. It’s all around us.)

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), established in 1973, addressed the international side of the drug trade, and was used as a justification to intervene in foreign affairs. This is where our modern conceptions of the War on Drugs in Latin America comes into play. In 1976, Mexico’s Condor operation placed 10,000 soldiers in Mexico’s “Golden Triangle” of opium in the biggest anti-narco offensive in history. Such offensives were precursors to initiatives like Plan Colombia, Plan México (Mérida), and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

After the Cold War, The DEA used the excuse of drug eradication to maintain a physical presence in Latin America, while the US government concurrently pushed neoliberal economic policies in these same countries. In 1989, the US invaded Panama to arrest dictator and drug-trafficker Eduardo Noriega, who had been a US ally in anti-communism throughout most of the Cold War. In 1993, the US intervened to capture Pablo Escobar, and in 1999, Plan Colombia was launched. And yes, we did watch the trailer for Narcos in the session. “I recommend it not because I support the DEA,” Jiménez said. “But because it’s really interesting from the perspective of intervention!” Okay, whatever you say.

All of this international intervention occurred with the touted goals of “law and order.” Jiménez reminded the audience that these are the same words used by the PAN government under Felipe Calderón. In fact, he showed an advertising spot the PAN used during Calderón’s campaign in 2005. The war on drugs was “good politics,” as Nixon described it back in the 70s, a way to target and criminalize people who threatened the white elite status quo. The spot features two lucha libre contestants. At the end, one says “Para que la droga no le llegue a tus hijos, vota por el PAN.” (So drugs don’t come for your children, vote for the PAN). It is fascinating that thirty years after Nixon declared the War on Drugs, Mexican politicians have continued to adopt his same language to buy into it for political advantage.

As many already know, drug war interventions have failed on a massive scale. Drug eradication has not resulted in fewer drugs. Criminalization has led to the professionalization and cartelization of previous small-time traffickers. An audience member even commented that the DEA itself created the cartels in order to target a convenient, distinguishable enemy, hiding its true intentions.

The perspective in the lecture really drove home the point of the disequilibrium of power between the US and Mexico. The influence of US policy in Mexico is omnipresent and compounded by the shared border. Although in some ways drawing a binary of US as bully and Mexico as victim seems simplistic, I haven’t come across any information that questions this logic.

Jiménez finished his lecture by showing two clips of the former rector of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) and former secretary of Felipe Calderón speaking out publicly against the failures of prohibitionism. Next week, Jorge Jiménez will speak at the Museum of Tolerance again, in what will hopefully be another lively and eye-opening session.

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