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Why Mexico’s Drug Trade Is So Violent

Wrestling truth from the smokescreens of rumor, horror, and impunity that surround Mexico’s drug trade is a difficult task. What’s indisputable is that transnational business in marijuana, opium, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl has been linked to at least 350,000 deaths and 72,000 disappearances over the past 15 years, while the extortion practiced by the criminal organizations that run the trade is widespread.

In its depictions of this phenomenon, however, popular culture tends to depict Mexico as naturally criminal and eternally depraved—the stuff of such TV series as Narcos, Weeds, and Breaking Bad. Even former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who served from 2012 to 2018 and oversaw one of the bloodiest periods in the country’s history, tried to claim that corruption is a “cultural weakness” in Mexico.

Author and University of Warwick professor Benjamin T. Smith, in his new book The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, sets out to clear out the cliches that have come to shroud the operations of Mexican criminal organizations. What he offers instead is a detailed history of “how and why this once-peaceful industry turned violent” and turned Mexico into “one enormous mass grave,” in the words of current Mexican Undersecretary for Human Rights and Migration Alejandro Encinas.

Wrestling truth from the smokescreens of rumor, horror, and impunity that surround Mexico’s drug trade is a difficult task. What’s indisputable is that transnational business in marijuana, opium, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and fentanyl has been linked to at least 350,000 deaths and 72,000 disappearances over the past 15 years, while the extortion practiced by the criminal organizations that run the trade is widespread.

In its depictions of this phenomenon, however, popular culture tends to depict Mexico as naturally criminal and eternally depraved—the stuff of such TV series as Narcos, Weeds, and Breaking Bad. Even former Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, who served from 2012 to 2018 and oversaw one of the bloodiest periods in the country’s history, tried to claim that corruption is a “cultural weakness” in Mexico.


The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Benjamin T. Smith, W.W. Norton, 464 pp., , August 2021

The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Benjamin T. Smith, W.W. Norton, 464 pp., , August 2021


The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, Benjamin T. Smith, W.W. Norton, 464 pp., $30, August 2021

Author and University of Warwick professor Benjamin T. Smith, in his new book The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade, sets out to clear out the cliches that have come to shroud the operations of Mexican criminal organizations. What he offers instead is a detailed history of “how and why this once-peaceful industry turned violent” and turned Mexico into “one enormous mass grave,” in the words of current Mexican Undersecretary for Human Rights and Migration Alejandro Encinas.

Smith’s book shows how, between the first arrest of a marijuana wholesaler in Mexico City in 1908 to the present-day applications for U.S. asylum by Mexican opium farmers, the trade in banned drugs grew from a highly localized enterprise circumscribed by familial and social bonds to an industrial scale, eventually mapping itself onto the entire Mexican federation. Smith shares with many colleagues in Mexico the view that concepts like corruption, state capture, and war between criminal gangs are somewhat inadequate to the task of describing or accounting for the power of organized crime and the scale of armed violence in Mexico.

Readers are fortunate that Smith not only is a thorough researcher but also is able to tell a good story to boot. He assembles a vivid cast of characters of peasant farmers, police, soldiers, chemists, social mavericks, dealers, politicians, and bosses, placing well-known figures such as Pancho Villa, Roberto Domínguez Macías, Eduardo “Lalo” Fernández Juárez, Rodolfo T. Loaiza, Ignacia “La Nacha” Jasso, Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, Harry Anslinger, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, and Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán in a detailed historical context, drawing on unprecedented research, including in-depth interviews, leaked documents, and cultural ephemera. In this way, Smith tracks the myths of the trade—which might be summarized as “bad drug users and traffickers” versus “good anti-drug police”—and tests whether they withstand a structural analysis. Typically, they do not.

The myths of the trade “serve a purpose,” Smith writes. “They demonize the drug traffickers and cement the narrative of the drug war as a struggle between good and evil. They legitimize official violence. Drug cops carry guns because they must fight well-armed traffickers; they shoot but only when shot at; they torture but only because pulling some farmer’s fingernails prevents some conveniently vague future death.” The drug war cliches of bad drugs and drug users versus good defenders of society continues to enable Mexican law enforcement to commit extraordinary violence against entire populations in a manner reminiscent of earlier U.S.-led counterinsurgency operations.

Importantly, Smith does not overlook racism’s intertwined role in the drug war, beginning with the earliest crackdowns on drugs deemed dangerous, such as the criminalization of marijuana use among Indigenous people in the late 19th century and deep-rooted anti-Chinese violence. Racism and classism particularly illuminate the shifting of goalposts in language, law, and morality around the production and use of narcotics. (Notably, in 2021 the goalposts have changed once again, as Canada and 18 states in the United States provide for the legal sale and consumption of cannabis, and formal decriminalization is imminent in Mexico.)

While The Dope is entertaining, it does not completely avoid structural analysis. Smith supplies a theory to explain why the drug trade expanded so rapidly in Mexico, showing how the growth was driven by economic incentives but also protected by the state and enabled by prohibition. But he emphasizes that violence is not inherent to the trade: “Up to the 1970s, violence was rarely employed to sort out disputes between drug traffickers. … Both state governors and state cops were keen to avoid conflicts that risked exposing their own ties to the traffickers.” After this point, as the industry scaled up, violence was actively provoked by the state, as “new state authorities attempted to overturn the old protection rackets and institute their own.” At the same time, through the criminalization of crops, farmers, and drug users, “the war on drugs itself” became a progenitor of violence: “[U.S. President Richard] Nixon’s [1970s] drug war transformed counternarcotics policing. … U.S. drug agents, Mexican cops, and Mexican soldiers descended on areas of drug production and trafficking like an invading army.” Few who have been caught up in this decadeslong offensive could deny this.

Indeed, Smith’s book begins with the figure of Cruz, born in 1989, who grew up in a very poor town, working as a lookout for the family narcotics business in Michoacán in southwest Mexico. As drugs and protection rackets changed from marijuana to cocaine to methamphetamine and heroin, and from local police to armed gangs, Cruz’s family registered every shock. “In just three years two of Cruz’s brothers and four of his cousins were killed; another brother disappeared together with one of his brothers-in-law,” Smith writes. The young man sought and found safety in the United States, settling there and having a family until he was apprehended by U.S. immigration and deported despite his fears for his life back in Mexico. The stories of people like Cruz are rarely told with care or at all in reporting on the drug trade and drug war, even though it is poor families like his, along with Indigenous people, peasant farmers, and migrants, who have borne the brunt of its human costs—so it is right that Smith, an expert witness for the defense in Cruz’s deportation case, has done so here.

At the same time, the 464-page book—called “magisterial by the Financial Times and “prodigious by the New York Times—leaves much space for an account of women and other marginalized genders in the history of the drug trade in Mexico. While Smith includes some women—the chemist Veneranda Bátiz Paredes, the “queen pin” Ignacia “La Nacha” Jasso—and dedicates a few pages in Chapter 11 to pointing out the role of women overall, a general lack of accounting for women’s lives, experiences, and contributions to a century of the trade demonstrates the need for more work by scholars and writers on the subject. This lack is unsurprisingly also reflected in the book’s peers. It is overwhelmingly men who are considered the experts and storytellers of the drug war and trade, as the blurbs (all by men) on Smith’s book demonstrate.

In the same vein, the international context also tends to privilege non-Mexican voices on a topic that Mexican researchers and writers arguably have a closer relationship to. As such, The Dope is best read alongside texts such as César Albarrán-Torres’s Global Trafficking Networks on Film and Television, Drug Cartels Do Not Exist by Oswaldo Zavala, and dozens of other works that have yet to be translated into English. Books and reporting by Alma Guillermoprieto and Adela Cedillo’s scholarship on guerrilla organizations, anti-drug campaigns, and forced disappearance are also illuminating, along with other work being produced by Dawn Paley, the Mexico Violence Resource Project and Noria Research. A Spanish version of The Dope will be published next year in Mexico by the publisher Debate, which should bring it further into dialogue with Mexico’s many leading reporters and scholars on the drug trade and its impacts, such as Catalina Pérez Correa, Nidia Olvera Hernández, Natalia Mendoza, and Marcela Turati.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.