Modern history



We begin north of the Rio Grande, the source of the insatiable demand for, and interdiction of, narcotics from Mexico. In the United States, the use and sale of various psychoactive drugs—notably opium, marijuana, and cocaine—had been perfectly legal in the nineteenth century and into the early years of the twentieth. Indeed, drug peddling had become big business. Pharmaceutical and patent medicine companies added opium derivatives (morphine, laudanum, heroin) to home remedies for assorted ailments, opiates being one of the few effective forms of pain control available. The typical opium user was a middle-aged, middle-class, white woman. Cocaine, too, was added to medicinal and recreational commodities ranging from cigarettes to soft drinks. Coca-Cola was tinctured with coca leaves until 1903.

Slowly during the 1890s, then with mounting determination during the 1900s and 1910s, a variety of players promoted the ­criminalization of narcotics, a movement that paralleled the simultaneous push to outlaw alcoholic beverages. These drug prohibitionists included: doctors newly aware of the additives’ addictive capabilities (and who now had, in aspirin, an effective substitute); muckrakers who denounced corporations for using drugs to hook customers on their products; and anxious racists of various stripes, such as southern whites who claimed cocaine drove Negroes to rape white women, and anti-Chinese activists who charged them with using opium to seduce white women. As David Musto notes, it was not fear of drugs per se that drove the prohibitionists, so much as fear of the social groups who used them.

First, some state governments were won over to prohibition. Then, in 1906, the Pure Food and Drug Act required manufacturers to list the ingredients in their narcotics-laden products, alarming many of the housewives who unwittingly had been spooning opiates to their children. In 1909 the Smoking Opium Exclusion Act successfully barred importation of the form in which most Chinese ingested the drug—putting opium dens out of business—while exempting medicinal versions used by white Americans. The 1909 initiative was prompted, also, by American businessmen’s desire to break Europe’s (and especially England’s) grip on the lucrative China market, as it was thought (correctly) that banning opium would play well with the Chinese authorities who were then trying to stamp out the widespread use of a drug that, since the 1840s, had been pushed on them at gunpoint by the British.

These proscriptions had several unanticipated consequences. Scarcity drove up the price, which attracted criminal traffickers. It also induced former opium smokers to switch to more potent and more dangerous derivatives, like morphine and heroin. The prohibitionists responded by tightening restrictions. They also pushed for international criminalization—winning in the Hague Convention of 1912 commitments from several nations to restrict opium and cocaine. In the U.S. they won passage of the Harrison Act in 1914, which prohibited all non-medicinal use of opiates and cocaine, though not cannabis, which was (correctly) adjudged to be relatively harmless.

The United States had declared war on drugs.

The subsequent shortages, and skyrocketing prices, drew a new generation of gangsters to the trade (Lucky Luciano’s first arrest, in 1916, was for peddling opium). With passage of the Eighteenth Amendment and the Volstead Act in 1919, the production, distribution, and sale of alcoholic beverages were banned, triggering the shift from licit to illicit purveyors that spawned modern organized crime in the U.S. Gangster entrepreneurialism was further accelerated by criminalization of the manufacture, importation, and possession of heroin in 1924—which promptly galvanized yet another underground market. Arnold Rothstein, New York’s master criminal, alerted by his protégé Luciano about the profit potentials—a kilo of heroin could be bought for $2,000, then cut and resold for $300,000—shifted out of rum-running in the mid-1920s, and turned instead to importing opium and heroin from Europe. Purchasing a well-reputed mercantile firm as cover for his wholesaling operations, Rothstein began distributing to a national market, dispatching the goods by rail.

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The booming U.S. demand for narcotics also attracted attention in Mexico. While the climate in the United States was not suitable for poppy horticulture, Mexico was situated in a latitude zone that provided the perfect temperature for cactuses (at lower altitude) and poppies (at higher elevations). Conditions for opium cultivation were particularly ideal in the Golden Triangle, a region in the western Sierra Madre mountains (of Treasure fame) where the states of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua come together. (See map, page vi.) It was there that poppy production blossomed—introduced in the 1880s by Chinese migrants who had been forced out of the U.S. or had arrived by sea to Sinaloa, a state that runs for four hundred miles along ­Mexico’s Pacific coast. Most worked on the railroads and in the mines, but some rural Chinese families entered into production of opium and marijuana. Their numbers increased after the United States banned further immigration, with passage of the baldly titled Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its subsequent iterations in 1892 and 1902. In the first decade of the twentieth century the number of Chinese living in Mexico quintupled (from 2,660 to 13,203), and more opted to engage in cultivation. During and after the Revolution, in the 1910s and 1920s, they were joined by some of the many Mexican farmers who had been impoverished by the war’s devastation.

Over these decades Chinese immigrants and their descendants fashioned a rough-hewn drug trafficking network. After harvesting the poppies and extracting the goma (gum, latex paste) from the poppy seedpods, they conveyed raw or cooked opium to Chinese dealers in the U.S. (chiefly Los Angeles) via a series of outposts in towns between Sinaloa and the cities on Mexico’s northwest border, notably Tijuana. More and more Mexican peasants, middle-class townsfolk, and some wealthy merchants jumped into the business. It was easy to enter—there were no significant start-up costs. Nor was there significant danger: there was room for everybody, hence no need to employ violence to stake out market share.

The U.S. border—360 miles to the north—was not only close to Sinaloan traders and producers (called gomeros after the goma) but also notoriously porous. It had been so for a long time, ever since the Mexican War (La Invasión Norteamericana [1846–1848]) had violently redrawn the line of demarcation, shifting vast holdings of gold, coal, iron, and copper, along with great tracts of fertile agricultural land, to the U.S. side of the ledger, including all or parts of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. The newly inscribed frontier (enhanced by an additional strip purchased in 1853) became one of the longest borders on the planet, stretching two thousand miles. It ran from Tijuana, on the Pacific coast, through deserts and arid hills to Ciudad Juárez at roughly the halfway mark, and from there it jagged southeast, running along the Río Bravo (as Mexicans call the Rio Grande) down to the Gulf of Mexico.

Almost immediately the border was transgressed more or less at will. In the 1850s slaves smuggled themselves across to freedom: Mexico, having abolished slavery, awarded citizenship to runaways who headed not toward the North Star (Canada) but the Southern Cross. In the 1860s Confederates smuggled cotton to Mexico for transshipment to Europe, and gun runners sent munitions to help Benito Juárez fight the French. Cattle rustlers ambled over from both north and south, stealing herds and driving them across the border for rebranding and sale. A brisk commerce in tequila, pulque, mescal, and rum also sprang up, flowing north to the U.S. from Mexican distilleries, avoiding tax collectors and, later, prohibition agents.

There was also an easy flow of people back and forth. Border ­crossing was a breeze because there were no official restrictions or quotas on Mexican movement north; even after the U.S. imposed stringent quota laws in the 1920s, Latin Americans remained exempt. The U.S. Border Patrol, created in 1924, focused on Europeans or Asians seeking to circumvent the barriers erected on the Atlantic and Pacific frontiers. In the early 1900s, about sixty thousand Mexicans entered the U.S. each year at the behest of U.S. agricultural employers; the majority returned home in the winters. The number doubled in the 1910s, as the Revolution set off tidal flows of migrants.

Mexico’s people and produce obtained easier passage after the Sonora Railroad—operating from 1882 between Mazatlán (Sinaloa) and Nogales (Sonora)—was integrated northward in 1898 into the Southern Pacific’s U.S. rail grid, and extended southward to Guadalajara. The renamed Southern Pacific of Mexico transported millions of passengers and millions of tons of freight, both within Mexico and across the northern frontier.

Opium eased its way into these well-traveled routes. The three crossing points closest to the mountain seedbed of Sinaloa were Tijuana and Mexicali (both astride the border between Baja California and California) and Nogales, where Sonora interfaces with Arizona. Channels were also being created in the center of the country, at the major metropolis of Ciudad Juárez, situated in the state of Chihuahua just below New Mexico and Texas (at El Paso). And farther east, transit points grew up at three medium-size towns dotted along the river—Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and, finally, Matamoros on the Gulf of Mexico.

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Not all drugs crossed the border. Some were destined for local consumption. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, psychoactive agents were commonly used in Mexico, for medical and recreational reasons. Opium smoking was chiefly a pastime of the ­Chinese minority; morphine, heroin, and cocaine appealed to ­bourgeois artists and intellectuals; and marijuana was primarily the province of the poor. But drug use was not a mass phenomenon. Ingestion levels were nowhere near those attained in Gringolandia.

In part this was because Mexico, unlike the U.S., had a long tradition, inherited from the Spanish, of keeping a regulatory eye on drug use. Constraints of varying degrees had long been imposed on the consumption of alcohol, of peyote and other psychoactive substances used in rituals (which were seen by the Inquisition as theologically suspect), and of herbs, notably potentially dangerous ones like belladonna, henbane, hemlock, digitalis, and jimsonweed.

Surprisingly—from a contemporary perspective—one of the drugs most frowned upon by officialdom was marijuana. Not an indigenous plant, the weed had been introduced by Spanish imperial authorities in the sixteenth century because hemp was highly prized as a nautical fiber, used for making ropes and sails. Gradually it became available from herboleros—indigenous pharmacists—and by Porfirian times (dictator Porfirio Díaz reigned from 1876 to 1911) it had become the drug of choice for the lower classes, particularly soldiers and prisoners. Marijuana had also gained the reputation of being able to trigger temporary insanity and murderous violence. There were indeed hundreds of well-documented cases, especially in jails and army barracks, of sky-high machosrunning amok, even when vastly outnumbered. But as Isaac Campos argues persuasively, this is better chalked up to context than to cannabis. The effect of marijuana, as with most psychoactive chemicals, depends on the setting in which it is consumed, which includes prevailing mindsets. It should not be surprising that its use in highly stressful situations, where defending one’s honor (and person) often demands an aggressive response to a perceived slight, could engender paranoia rather than mellowness, and promote a lashing out.

A patchwork of state, local, and federal laws grew up during the Porfiriato. In 1883, marijuana and opium were among the two dozen drugs that could be sold only by prescription, and only through ­pharmacies, not herbolarias. The regulation was not aimed primarily at recreational users, but was intended to diminish the number of accidental (or purposeful) poisonings. The edict was reaffirmed in the first Federal Sanitary Code (1891). And in 1896, even Culiacán, capital of drug-friendly Sinaloa, banned the sale or use of marijuana without a prescription. So did Mexico City, a decision that municipal authorities reaffirmed in 1908, though they outlawed only cultivation and commerce, not possession of pot, nor giving it as a gift. By the 1910s there was substantial but not overwhelming support in Mexico for restrictionist policies, though most drugs, if prescribed by doctors, remained available in pharmacies.

The Revolution strengthened prohibitionist forces. In 1917, the country was still reeling from a dizzying succession of events—the electoral defeat of the long ensconced Porfirio Díaz by Francisco Madero in 1911; Madero’s overthrow and murder by Victoriano Huerta in 1913; the outbreak of war against Huerta by the combined forces of Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón, Emiliano Zapata, and Francisco “Pancho” Villa, their anti-Huerta campaign aided and abetted by the United States, which briefly occupied Veracruz; Huerta’s overthrow in 1914; the seizure of power by liberal reformer Carranza in 1914, the recognition of his government by the United States in 1915, and his election as President in 1917. It was in the subsequent window of (very relative) tranquility and stability that Carranza and his immediate successors set in motion a change in Mexico’s approach to the business of narcotics, one that dovetailed with simultaneous developments transpiring north of the Río Bravo.

In 1912, Francisco Madero’s government had signed the Hague Convention (though Mexico would not ratify the treaty until 1925). In part this was done because the still-shaky regime felt the need to align itself with the international movement being promoted principally by the United States. But in truth Mexico had preceded the U.S. on the road to regulatory regimes and was way ahead of it in its opposition to marijuana.

The issue was put aside in the ensuing whirlwind of revolutionary combat, but once Carranza came to power, restrictionists took a ­further step. Determined to restore political order, Carranza convoked a Constitutional Convention, which opened in the city of Querétaro in December 1916. Battles between relatively moderate Carranza forces, and radical younger turks seeking social and economic as well as political change, were for the most part won by the radicals, with key provisions drastically curtailing the power of the Catholic Church, laying the basis for major land reform, establishing national rights to subsoil minerals, expanding lay education, and creating a powerful executive branch.

There was, however, little disagreement about drug policy. In January 1917, Brigadier General José María Rodríguez, personal physician of Carranza, argued passionately that Mexico’s position in the “competition of nations” was imperiled because the Mexican “race” had become “infirm” and “degenerated” under Porfirian rule. Some delegates even charged the dictatorship had sought to stupefy and distract the populace through drink and drugs, gambling and prostitution. Stern revolutionary elites associated alcoholism, opium addiction, and marijuana consumption with lower-class illiterates and (mistakenly) with indigenous Indians—“backward” social sectors. Drugs were perceived as obstacles to forging a new model citizenry, one that could build a modern, progressive, and civilized Mexican nation.

Rodríguez proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would give Congress the power to prohibit the “selling of substances which poison the individual and degenerate the [Mexican] race.” He named alcohol, opium, morphine, ether, cocaine, and marijuana (the latter being “one of the most pernicious manias of our people”). He also urged writing into the revolutionary charter a provision for a federal department of public health, whose recommendations on issues of civic hygiene would have the force of law. This was done; the new Constitution was approved in 1917, and in 1918 the agency was established, with Rodríguez as its head. He now pushed for draconian measures and, during the last days of the Carranza regime, had the department promulgate “Decrees on the Cultivation and Commerce of Products that Degenerate the Race.” These banned the growing of opium and the extraction of its narcotic latex without special permission; banned completely the production and sale of marijuana, nationwide; required drug wholesalers to obtain special permission to import opiates or cocaine; and mandated that such importers sell those drugs only to licensed medical distributors, or to doctors who had received specific permission to receive and prescribe them.

Mexico had declared war on drugs.

Implementation was forestalled by renewed revolutionary chaos, as Generals Álvaro Obregón and Plutarco Elías Calles, among others, took up arms against the Carranza regime. In May 1920, with rebel forces closing in, Carranza left the capital for Veracruz but never made it, having been murdered (or committed suicide) on the way. Obregón was now elected to succeed him, and Mexico entered a period of (again relative) tranquility. In 1923 Obregón peacefully passed the presidential torch to his comrade-in-arms Calles, who during his term in office (1924–1928) resuscitated the delayed assault on illicit substances.

Calles was determined to realize the transformative visions embodied in the Constitution but not yet wholly enacted. In preparation, he had undertaken a 1923 tour of Europe to study contemporary socialist practice. He consulted particularly with German Social Democrats, and also corresponded with Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who was just then embarking on an analogous program of political, economic, and cultural reforms to transform the former Ottoman Empire into a modern and secular nation-state. In particular, Calles set about ruthlessly enforcing constitutional curtailments of Catholic prerogatives—breaking the Church’s grip on the educational system, and prohibiting religious rituals outside of churches, which themselves became the property of the nation. This sparked a furious resistance by Catholic peasants that spiraled into the ferocious Cristero War (1926–1929) in which seventy thousand to ninety thousand died.

For all his anti-clericalism, Calles sought the moral betterment of the Mexican people. As had his Revolutionary predecessors, he saw combating drug use as one way to accomplish this. Alcoholism was his original bête noire. As governor of Sonora he had prohibited by decree the importation, manufacture, or sale of intoxicating beverages. Violators were to be punished with five years in prison, though he underscored his determination by summarily executing one poor drunkard. As president, he lit into narcotics.

In February 1925 the New York Times reported, in a story headlined “Calles Orders Drug War,” that the new president had announced he would “punish all drug handlers and users of drugs in Mexico.” He had, moreover, fired policemen who “were recently implicated in the drug traffic through protecting importers.” Follow-up stories hailed Calles’ announcement that he would “clean out” traffickers from border towns, shut down retail outlets in Mexico City, and go after transshipments from Asia and Europe. (Opium and heroin arrived to Acapulco and other west coast ports on Japanese vessels, sometimes hidden inside fish, or were transported to east coast ports like Tampico and Veracruz from Germany, Belgium, and France.) The government also assaulted opium growers—destroying several hundred acres of Chinese-cultivated poppies in the states of Nayarit and Durango—and went after pot producers too.

“Mexico Bans Marihuana,” declared a December 1925 New York Times story recounting industrious efforts by public health department inspectors to arrest farmers and incinerate their crops. Marijuana leaves, the paper explained, retailing an emerging north-of-the-Río-Bravo version of Mexico’s conventional wisdom, “produce murderous delirium” that often drives addicts insane, adding: “Scientists say its effects are perhaps more terrible than those of any intoxicant or drug.” In 1931, Luis Astorga notes, drug consumption and trafficking were defined as federal crimes.

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Calles also set in motion momentous changes in the nation’s political structure that would greatly impact once and future drug wars, albeit in contradictory ways. In 1928 he proposed ending caudillismo—the seemingly endless battle for preeminence between rival generals—by bringing all factions together inside one capacious political entity, the PNR (Partido Nacional Revolucionario or National Revolutionary Party). Established the following year, the PNR solved the vexing problem of presidential succession by allowing the outgoing president, in consultation with other party chieftains, to choose the incoming one. The procedure became known as el dedazo—“the tap of the finger”—with the announcement serving as a sort of secular Annunciation. The term of office was changed from four to six years (a period that became known as the sexenio). Reelection was strictly prohibited, thus barring any replay of Porfirian-style “elective” dictatorship.

This was no small achievement, given the fate of most other Latin American nations: there would be no dictators-for-life, no Somozas or Trujillos in Mexico’s future. Calles, to be sure, did not completely follow his own script. After his term expired, he managed to select and de facto dominate his three de jure successors, with each serving only two years; hence he became known as the behind-the-scenes Jefe Máximo (“Maximum Leader”). In 1934 he fingered Lázaro Cárdenas, and even chose his cabinet for him. But in 1936, Cárdenas finally put Calles’ principles into practice by having him pulled from his home at midnight and bundled off to exile in San Diego.

Cárdenas, a Depression Era president whose 1934–1940 term overlapped two of FDR’s, extended and deepened the Revolutionary legacy: nationalizing oil and railroads; redistributing forty-five million acres of hacienda land to peasants; reviving the system of ejidos (communal land, parcels of which were possessed and worked by individuals, but not owned or sellable by them, forestalling re-accumulation of giant encomienda tracts); expanding social services and secular schools; and supporting strikes that lifted workers’ wages. He also sought to organize core sectors of society into consolidated entities—like the CTM (Confederation of Mexican Workers), a vast collection of unions—with equivalent corporatist bodies for peasants, businessmen, professionals, the military, and others. These were then incorporated into the PNR, which in 1938 he renamed the PRM (Partido de la Revolución Mexicana or Party of the Mexican Revolution). The political order had been transformed from an elite to a mass-based system. Within a year, the PRM claimed some 4.3 million members.

What the PRM was not was democratic. The new political system concentrated power overwhelmingly in the hands of the party-selected president, reducing the legislative and judicial branches to rubber stamps. Rivalries and disputes were to be settled inside the party, after which a united front was to be presented to the outside world. Internal factionalism was moderated by patronage. Federal and state officials dispensed contracts, jobs, political promotions, educational opportunities, and social services only to loyal and accommodating party adherents. Leaders of trade unions and campesino (peasant farmer) organizations delivered votes and suppressed rank-and-file protests, in exchange for personal favors to leaders and concessions to their constituencies.

Challenges to this one-party rule were derailed by muscle and electoral fraud. In 1940 the radical Cárdenas, seeking stability after so much upheaval, chose a moderate successor, Manuel Ávila Camacho. A more radical faction decided to run an opposition candidate, who gathered considerable support. But the labor confederation and the army collaborated in manipulating ballot boxes; PRM gangs provoked street fighting in which dozens were killed and hundreds wounded; and the party declared its official candidate the winner by a preposterous 99 percent margin. (In all this they were following a trail long since blazed by politicians in the United States, the quintessential example being New York City’s Tammany Hall, which since the 1830s had been hiring gangsters to drive away opposition voters, using “repeaters” to “vote early and vote often,” and stealing ballot boxes to purge them of unwelcome votes.)

The PRM elite did much the same in 1943 when first confronted with a truly independent rival party. In 1939, a group of conservatives led by Manuel Gómez Morín—economist, former director of the Bank of Mexico, and former rector of the National University of Mexico—had founded an oppositional political party, the PAN (Partido Acción Nacional or National Action Party). As businessmen and Catholics close to the hierarchy, they were opposed to Cardenismo’s anticlericalism, land reform, and oil company expropriation, and to the ­ruling party’s monopolization of politics (though the PAN’s democratic ­credentials were tarnished by their sympathy for Franco’s regime).

When the new party first ran candidates, in 1943, the PNR dispatched hooligans to break up their meetings and deployed tested methods of electoral fraud. When the PAN disputed the outcome, the PNR leaders had the official certifying body (which they controlled) award themselves all the contested seats. In 1946 the party bosses adopted a slightly more sophisticated strategy, allowing a handful of victorious opposition representatives to take their seats in the Chamber of Deputies, and one mayor to occupy a single city hall. But they maintained absolute control of the presidency, the senate, and every one of the thirty-two state governorships, and would for decades. Their conviction that they had established a lasting primacy was reflected in their final name change. In 1946 Ávila Camacho rechristened the PNR as the PRI—the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (Institutional Revolutionary Party). The Revolution had been institutionalized. The party had declared itself the agency of permanent revolution.

Yet the PRI was not quite the monolith it claimed to be; the pyramid of power was not perfect. If their command of the country’s center was all but total, their grip on the periphery, while potent, was more compromised. Many of the circumferential governors were, as they had been under Porfirio Díaz, powerful local caciques (chiefs) who were allowed great leeway in ruling their fiefdoms, so long as they obeyed PRI dictates and channeled votes and resources up the chain of command. Many were former generals who had in effect been bought off by being dispatched to the provinces, allowing party politicians to steadily shrink the power of the officer class at the center, furthering demilitarization.

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One of the perquisites of local power was the freedom, subject to presidential will, to engage in profit-making ventures, notably illicit ones. Drug trafficking was one such business that could be permitted to powerful members of the “Revolutionary family,” and this ­opportunity was most thoroughly seized upon in the northern states nearest the U.S. frontier. Cultivation and commerce of narcotics thus became incorporated into the political system—despite official strictures against it. More precisely, because of those strictures: criminalization gave politicians the upper hand and opened up profitable opportunities. Local police and military authorities could exact tribute from traffickers in exchange for guaranteeing no interference from police or military forces. At the same time they regulated the business by forestalling would-be competitors from entering the trade—thus keeping a lid on intramural violence—while also banning operators from themselves engaging in political activities.

Colonel Esteban Cantú, arguably the first major Mexican racketeer, had been sent to the border town of Mexicali in 1911, at the outset of the Revolution, to protect the northern region of Baja California from possible U.S. incursions. In 1914 he declared himself governor and proceeded to preside over a vice economy (prostitution, gambling) aimed at tourists. He also allowed opium dealers to sell their goods to the United States. Cantú lasted until 1920—partly because of Mexicali’s geographical isolation and the center’s preoccupation with revolutionary upheaval—when General Abelardo L. Rodríguez was dispatched to reaffirm federal authority. According to Paul Kenny, et al., Rodríguez more or less picked up where Cantú had left off. By 1930, after a ten-year reign in Baja California harvesting profits by providing parched Prohibition-era Norteños with drink and drugs, he had become a millionaire.

In the 1920s, alcohol smuggling proved an even bigger bonanza than drug dealing. Mexico did not impose a national counterpart to U.S. Prohibition, and such state laws as existed were completely ignored in the rush to profit from northern puritanism. Distilleries and breweries that were criminalized in the U.S. flocked south and reopened all along the border. Saloons shuttered on one side of the frontier stepped across the line and did a roaring business. When U.S. alcohol manufacturers and retailers were required to ship their remaining supply out of the country, Kentucky distilleries alone dispatched thirty-nine million gallons of whiskey south by rail, principally to Ciudad Juárez, from where they were promptly smuggled back north. Mexican capitalists, too, seized the moment and began constructing breweries along the border to quench the insatiable U.S. thirst. Much of the liquid contraband was conveyed in automobiles modified to carry one hundred gallons of booze in side-panel or under-the-rear-seat tanks. (Customs officials would rock suspicious cars and listen for the slosh.) Other smugglers ferried their cargoes across the river, with bribed Mexican authorities providing armed cover against U.S. Border Patrol agents on the farther shore, at times leading to international gunplay.

The glory days ended abruptly with the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, but what the U.S.A. took away by wiping out liquor superprofits, it gave back by criminalizing marijuana. The Marijuana Tax Act of 1937 imposed punitively high taxes on the cash crop, driving it from the free market to the black market and increasing both its scarcity and profitability. Some of the decision to belatedly add cannabis to the list of previously banned psychoactive commodities could be put down to efforts at bureaucratic and personal self-preservation by Harry Anslinger, Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Seeking to stave off plans to fold the agency into a larger body (and fire Anslinger), the FBN chief gathered up news stories about marijuana’s ability to drive men to violence and madness, and deployed them as evidence that it was an extremely dangerous drug, requiring oversight by an independent federal authority.3 His criminalization campaign was also backed by southwestern states which, in the prosperous twenties, had welcomed Mexican agricultural laborers and mine workers, but in the depressed thirties, embarked on a massive forced and illegal deportation, as described by Balderrama and Rodríguez. Estimates of those driven back across the border range from several hundred thousand to as many as a million, many of them U.S. citizens. Among the justifications for the expulsion was the Mexicans’ use of the “killer weed.” Lawmakers again declared a drug guilty by association with a “dangerous” population—adding marijuana/Mexican to cocaine/black and opium/Chinese.4

Anslinger had succeeded in creating a major new market demand for a product that easily could be cultivated in Mexico. But Anslinger’s impact south of the Río Bravo was far greater: he proceeded to intervene directly and heavy-handedly in Mexican affairs, contributing mightily to a fateful turn of events.

In 1937, drug policy and its enforcement in Mexico was still, as since Carranza’s day, in the hands of the public health department—Cárdenas having refused to shift it to the attorney general’s purview—and the health authorities now headed off in a direction diametrically opposite to that of Anslinger. Dr. Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, head of the Federal Narcotics Service (part of the health department), was a physician highly regarded for his years of work in Mexico City’s Hospital for Drug Addicts, and his extensive research into the effects of drugs. In October 1938 he published a paper entitled “The Myth of Marijuana.” He argued that it was a relatively innocuous substance; that it did not (contrary to popular and scientific belief) induce psychosis or provoke violent, criminal behavior; and that Mexico should repeal its prohibition. Instead, the state should establish a government-regulated monopoly on drug distribution, cutting out the criminals by authorizing official dispensaries (or state-licensed physicians) to give addicts maintenance doses at cost. He also called for a public health campaign to educate people about truly dangerous drugs (notably alcohol), and for an expansion of the drug-treatment system. He openly criticized U.S. anti-drug policy as inappropriately punitive and inherently unworkable: “It is impossible to break up the traffic in drugs,” he declared, “because of the corruption of the police and ­special agents and because of the wealth and political influence of some of the traffickers.” Public health authorities backed his proposal, and the first clinics were opened.

Anslinger hit the roof and struck back fast, imposing (as his office was empowered to do) an embargo on the export of all medicinal drugs to Mexico.5 He also launched a campaign to discredit Salazar Viniegra, saying his plan was “fantastic” and “amoral,” and insisting that drug addiction was not an illness to be treated but an “evil” that “should be rooted out and destroyed.” Given inherited anti-marijuana attitudes prevalent in elite Mexican circles, Anslinger’s assault gained traction, especially after he wheeled in the U.S. State Department to apply additional pressure. In short order the clinics and the legalization regime were snuffed out.

Anslinger also contained a brush fire closer to home. In 1938, soon after marijuana was proscribed, New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, who had been a vigorous opponent of Prohibition, commissioned a study of the drug by the prestigious New York Academy of Medicine. After extensive study, its very distinguished Marihuana Committee concluded (as had Salazar Viniegra) that the drug was not connected to crime, violence, or sexual predation. Nor was there any evidence (pace Anslinger) that it was being peddled to schoolchildren. Nor was it addictive; indeed they thought it might prove useful in withdrawing from other truly harmful addictions. Completed by 1941, the report was published in 1944. La Guardia might have used its findings to call for reconsidering the 1937 law, but the wartime mayor had far more pressing issues to deal with, and did not follow up. Anslinger was left in possession of the federal field.6

3 The commissioner’s scrapbook of horror stories included many that had first been published in the Mexican Herald, an English-language newspaper in Mexico City, and were then picked up (as the Herald had an Associated Press franchise) and circulated by sensationalist papers in the United States. Anslinger did, however, tailor his alarmism to North American anxieties, arguing that marijuana released sexual inhibitions, and led to rape as well as murder.

4 South of the border, the Chinese were also subjected to forced removal during the Depression, evicted from the opium business by Mexicans long envious of their prosperity. The process had begun in the 1920s, when Calles and prominent politicians had backed a xenophobic campaign whipped up by the Mexican press. It picked up steam after the crash and Repeal with a wave of expropriatory racial violence, packing Asians into boxcars, shipping them out of state, and taking over their homes, property, and businesses.

5 Anslinger later played the embargo card against Cuba, with more justification, when it seemed Batista might allow Lucky Luciano to stay in Havana. Luciano had come there from Sicilian exile in hopes of working with Meyer Lansky and others to make Cuba a major way station in a revived post-war heroin trade. Batista caved and sent the capo packing.

6 And soon, as Carruth and Rowe note, with the arrival of the Cold War, Anslinger tied narcotic addiction to the Red Menace , and doubled the FBN’s budget in five years.

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