The dope on Mexico’s drug war

Benjamin T. Smith’s new book The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug War is a peculiar yet all too familiar account of illicit drugs south of the border.

Smith’s depiction reveals a drug war fostered by the conclusion of the First Transcontinental Railroad project. Rather than being offered railway construction jobs, newly arriving Chinese were rudely barred from entry at the border by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. By 1906, many Chinese immigrants had chosen to settle in Mexico where they faced hostile cultural or racial stereotyping and discrimination.

Forced to adapt and savvy to the manufacturing trades, enterprising Chinese immigrant farmers grew opium poppies. Opium sales financed upstarts of legal businesses. When marijuana, cocaine, opium, and heroin were made illegal or controlled in Mexico in 1917, nearly everyone wanted to get into the act of selling drugs, and by the 1920s many did. The illegal drug trade also became a platform for other types of crime, like kidnapping. As history would have it, the drug profession south of the border was largely restricted to wealthy elites, otherwise legitimate business people, politicians, law enforcement, the military—the usual cast of characters who exploit the poor and who can be found operating in Mexico’s current drug trafficking industry.

Harry J Anslinger’s marriage into the wealthy Mellon banking family was a move that rebuilt his political image. He began as a minor and ineffective bureaucrat in 1931, only to emerge as a monumentally huge and distasteful bureaucrat when he helped craft the Marijuana Tax Act of 1937.

By the time Anslinger crawled out from beneath his rock, superrich Mexican drug lords had been knocking each other off Hollywood-style for two decades. Anslinger, always the opportunist, used the situation in Mexico to turn the fledgling and domestically limited Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) into an agency that could reach out internationally. All the newly hired bureaucrats hailed him. All the hype and reefer madness, all the outbursts of mythical deadly violence or insanity blamed on ditch weed originated first in Mexico—not from the mind of Harry Anslinger (Hank, to his friends).

Enter the CIA. Mexico was of interest to the agency because it viewed it as a buffer zone that could be shaped and manipulated to thwart Communist movements emanating from various parts of Central and South America. The drug war made resisting Communism, socialism, liberalism, modernism, intellectualism, science, and democracy comparable to a walk in the park. It provided an excuse for US government agents to operate on foreign soil. The scheme was a profitable way to control Mexico’s economy and inhabitants. Other than drugs, among the most highly valued parts of Mexico’s economy are still oil, gas, and mining resources.

Systemic drug war graft is useful. It facilitates indirect and unofficial payments of bribes to foreign officials using only drug merchants’ cash. Joyful cooperation with US economic interests is assured. The drug war machine is designed to be the government’s ultimate inconvenience, a scapegoating mechanism that justifies its own existence by subjecting Mexico and other countries to an organized misery that undermines chances for a better quality of life.

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