Modern history



In the 1960s and 1970s, this expansion of the drug industry was boosted further by developments in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East.

Marijuana—which had been the particular province of relatively small slivers of the U.S. population (mostly hipsters, urban blacks, and Mexicans)—now became an item of mass consumption. The boom in usage had an immediate impact on Mexican growers, providing them with a stable price and a steady demand, market advantages traditional crops like beans and corn could not match. Sinaloa alone could not meet the burgeoning demand, and farmers started raising it in neighboring Durango, then over in Jalisco, then in southern states like Oaxaca and Guerrero, transforming marijuana production from a basically low-key Sinaloan operation into a high-volume national industry spread over a dozen states. By 1975, the country was supplying about 95 percent of all marijuana consumed north of the Río Bravo.

Transformations were afoot in the opiate world as well. The heretofore reigning “French Connection” had been based on the transport by Corsican gangsters of raw opium purchased legally in Turkey to laboratories in Marseille, where it was processed into heroin, and then conveyed to New York, from whence mafiosi injected the drug into the continental commercial bloodstream. This complicated system had been set in place back in 1947, as Alfred McCoy has demonstrated, courtesy of the youthful CIA, which had backed Corsican gangsters against the French Communist Party in their battle to control the Marseille docks. By the late 1960s, when the U.S. was getting 80 to 90 percent of its heroin through this network, anxieties about the communists had subsided, while those about heroin dealers had grown, and anti-drug forces gained the upper hand. In 1972, encouraged by the U.S., Turkey banned opium growing. Though they reversed themselves in 1974, by then a series of spectacular busts had seriously crimped the connection, triggering a heroin drought in East Coast cities.

The period was also marked by spectacular corruption cases. Not long after a 1971 film ( hailed an earlier record police seizure of drugs in New York City, it was revealed that most of that confiscated heroin had been spirited out of the New York Police Department Property Clerk’s fortress and replaced with flour and cornstarch. Later, another three hundred pounds of stored heroin and cocaine, $73 million worth, flew the police coop, making it the then biggest robbery in United States history. The great bulk of the elite NYPD Special Investigations Unit (popularly known as “the Princes of the City”) was cashiered for corruption.The French Connection)

The feds, too, were wracked by corruption. As Douglas Valentine shows, Anslinger’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics was honeycombed with it. This was a state of affairs from which he averted his eyes until his retirement in 1962, only to have it blow up in a 1968 investigation, which demonstrated that the bureau was itself a major source of supply and protection of heroin. The report was suppressed, as Edward Epstein notes, but virtually every agent in the New York branch was indicted and convicted, fired, or forced to resign. The remains of Anslinger’s operation were subsumed in 1968 by the new Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) placed within the Justice Department. This successor agency was itself soon riddled with corruption. So much so that its chief appealed to the CIA to help clean up its house which, the CIA agreed, had been “heavily infiltrated by dishonest and corrupt elements, who were believed to have ties with the narcotics smuggling industry.” In a parallel to events in Mexico, the regional office of the BNDD achieved a symbiosis with local ­mafiosi, accepting regular bribes to arrest only those dealers nominated by ­syndicate, which allowed federal agents to accumulate impressive arrest records and rapid promotion, while eliminating unwanted competitors for the mob.

With the French Connection disconnected, retailers looked elsewhere for wholesale suppliers. Mexico was the obvious choice, given its proximity to the United States, DFS willingness to ride shotgun for traffickers, an ideal geography and climate for a quality product, and an underclass of needy agricultural workers. The switchover happened rapidly. “Mexican mud,” a brown tar-like heroin, began flowing north. Estimates suggest that in 1972, Mexico had supplied between 10 and 20 percent of the U.S. market for heroin; by 1975, this had increased to between 70 and 90 percent of a market that had itself (William Walker notes in his Drug Control) nearly doubled in size.

At first smuggling from Mexico was more decentralized than that from Europe, hence harder to police. A myriad of small-time smugglers organized a large number of small-scale runs across the border, thereby minimizing the costs of any one seizure. The influx of American dollars into the Sinaloan heartland enriched and transformed the gomeros, who were increasingly called narcotraficantes (or narcos for short) to signal their elevation in status from mere poppy growers to wealthy international smugglers. They began to adopt a style befitting their new station; in Culiacán they fashioned an entire neighborhood, called Tierra Blanca, and filled it with ostentatious houses.

The operation that broke out of the pack, however, was headquartered in Durango. The Herrera Brothers had been in the business since the 1950s and had established an outpost in Chicago, composed of other members of the extended and extensive clan. Now, with surging U.S. demand, it swelled to major league proportions and by the mid-1970s was moving more than ten tons a year, with a gross retail value of $2 billion. Most Herrera heroin was driven up from Durango to Chicago (a forty-nine-hour nonstop trip) hidden in compartmentalized gas tanks. As the “Heroin Highway” terminated in the Windy City, Chicago usurped New York City’s traditional domination of the wholesale market: roughly a third of the product remained in ­Chicago; the rest was shipped around the nation on commercial flights. In Durango, the efficient organization of what was now being called the “Mexican Connection” was overseen by members of fifteen interrelated Mexican families, headed by patriarch Jaime Herrera-Nevarez. Managers oversaw the hiring of campesinos, the distribution of poppy seed, the development of new production areas, the oversight of gum collectors, the management of labs, cutting, and shipping. Profits were repatriated—cash was smuggled back in the same gas tanks or increasingly sent via wire transfer (using money orders and Western Union) to financial institutions in Durango City, as much a wholly owned subsidiary as any company town in the United States. Net income after wages, bribes, etc. (which Lupsha and Schlegel estimate at $100 million a year) was invested in ranches, land, dairies, apartments, and resort developments—a tremendous, if illicit, boon to the Mexican economy.

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Up north, during Richard Nixon’s presidency (1969–1974), a tremendous amount of energy was being expended contesting the growing influx. Nixon revived Harry Anslinger’s War on Drugs. Psychoactives were again associated with a feared social group—this time the large chunk of American youth that had begun smoking weed, getting high while chortling at late-night screenings of the Anslinger era’s Reefer Madness (1936). Not even Nixon still believed that marijuana drove people to rape and murder, but he did believe, as did many cultural conservatives, that cannabis was doing something worse—undermining American civilization itself.

On July 14, 1969, Nixon sent a Special Message to the Congress on Control of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, in which he declared “the abuse of drugs” to be a “serious national threat to the personal health and safety of millions of Americans.” Americans were not sufficiently aware of the “gravity of the situation,” the President believed, which was why “a new urgency and concerted national policy are needed at the federal level to begin to cope with this growing menace to the general welfare of the United States.”

At the same time, Nixon sent administration officials to Mexico to persuade their counterparts to spray herbicides on marijuana and opium crops. Mexican authorities refused, even those sympathetic to Nixon’s project, fearing the ecocidal consequences: they pointed to the frightening side effects Agent Orange was producing in Vietnam. Balked, Nixon launched Operation Intercept in September 1969, overseen by Attorney General John Mitchell and largely devised by G. Gordon Liddy (both of later Watergate fame), with the (unannounced) goal of bullying Mexico into acquiescence. Two thousand inspectors began meticulously scrutinizing each car that tried to cross the frontier, searching (sometimes strip searching) each person, each vehicle, each piece of luggage (including purses and lunch boxes), backing up traffic for miles, in effect shutting down the border. After twenty painful days and a blistering barrage of complaints from all quarters, Nixon called it off. But it had worked, just as Anslinger’s tactics had. Mexico was strong-armed into launching another Great Campaign (like that begun in 1948), this one submissively entitled Operation Cooperation. Nevertheless, Mexico (which called the joint program Operación CANADOR, an acronym of cannabis and adormidera[poppies]) was able to forestall U.S. demands for aerial defoliation by increasing its own efforts at manual eradication. Mexican soldiers were allowed to hack away at opium poppies and marijuana plants with sticks or machetes, at the price of allowing American law enforcement to enter Mexico and conduct surveillance of their operations.7

Nixon now turned to legislative action, winning passage of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act of 1970, which consolidated previous federal statutes and increased the authority of federal narcotics agents. Title II—the Controlled Substances Act—provided the legal basis for a war on drugs. As his reelection campaign approached, Nixon plowed ahead, stirring up a full-scale moral panic. Bulling his way past the embarrassing findings of the National Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse he had established in 1971—it reported there was no evidence marijuana was harmful or addictive and recommended decriminalizing possession—he insisted (in June of that year), using wildly inflated statistics, that the “drug traffic is public enemy number one,” against which “we must wage a total offensive, worldwide, nationwide, government-wide.”

In 1973, once safely (he thought) returned to the White House, Nixon created the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) by executive order. Subsuming the rotted-out Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, along with other agencies, its assigned mission was to “establish a single unified command to combat an all-out global war on the drug menace.” Nixon resigned in 1974, but the DEA—whose raison d’être was permanent war on drugs—would long outlive its creator. At its outset, the DEA had 1,470 special agents and an annual budget of less than $75 million. Today, it has 5,235 special agents, 227 domestic field offices, foreign offices in 62 countries, and a budget of roughly $2.5 billion.

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Despite his humiliation of Mexico, Nixon was not without his supporters there, most particularly President Gustavo Díaz Ordaz (1964–1970), who was very much on Nixon’s cultural wavelength. Personally revulsed by marijuana-smoking Mexican students, he proclaimed the universities to be “full of garbage and filth!” But like Nixon, Díaz Ordaz had deeper worries, rooted not only in personal rigidity but in perceived challenges to PRI power. Many of the rising generation saw the one-party state as repressive, its socialist rhetoric masking an actually existing authoritarianism. Like Nixon, his partner in paranoia, Díaz Ordaz equated political dissent with communist conspiracy, and he lit into those urging democratic reform—writers, journalists, editors, disaffected workers, and particularly students.

In 1966, Díaz Ordaz sent paratroopers to occupy universities where students had mounted demonstrations. In 1968, incensed by insubordinate street protests that threatened to blacken Mexico’s image on the world stage just weeks before the country was to host the Summer Olympics, he dispatched armored trucks to disperse the thousands camped in the Zócalo, generating images that evoked those of Prague youth confronting Soviet tanks. Next, Díaz Ordaz orchestrated a massacre of students who were demonstrating in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco, a neighborhood in Mexico City, unleashing the army, police, and paramilitary gunmen who fired rifles, bazookas, and machine guns into the crowd from all sides. Two thousand were rounded up, stripped, and beaten; some of them were disappeared; estimates of the dead (indeterminate as bodies were trucked away and burned) ran as high as three hundred. The massacre sparked national and international outrage.

The 1970 shooting of Kent State students protesting Nixon’s escalation of the Vietnam War into Cambodia was a pale echo of the Tlatelolco slaughter (in Ohio four were killed, nine wounded), though it did provoke a nationwide strike by over four million students. Similarly the emergence of the Weather Underground, and their bombing campaign in the early 1970s, was a shadow of the turn to armed resistance in Mexico by urban guerilla groups opposed to what they considered a brutal and unresponsive regime. What had no northern counterpart was the emergence of rural rebellions, feeding on a growing crisis in the agricultural sector.

In the mountains of Guerrero, Lucio Cabañas, a Ayotzinapa-trained teacher-turned-revolutionary, forged a small force dubbed the Party of the Poor that engaged in kidnappings and bank robberies to fuel an armed rebellion. By 1971, the new president Luis Echeverría (1970–1976) had dispatched twelve thousand troops to the region. Though he developed closer ties with socialist governments in Chile and Cuba and offered refuge to victims of the infamous Operación Cóndor, Echeverría remained adamantly opposed to allowing guerrilla groups to develop within Mexico, and he dispatched DFS agents to infiltrate various leftist organizations. In 1974, after Cabañas kidnapped a multimillionaire PRI senator and candidate for governor, the president upped the military presence to twenty-four thousand. The army carried out sweeping roundups, interrogations under torture, and disappearances. In the municipality of Atoyac de Álvarez alone, the military disappeared some four hundred people. Cabanas was killed that year in a shootout with soldiers.

Echeverría’s relationship with the U.S. had not been particularly warm, and he had been reluctant to expand the ongoing Operation Cooperation (CANADOR, in Mexico) inherited from his predecessor. But in September 1976, just as Echeverría was passing the presidential torch to his chosen successor, José López Portillo (1976–1982), his government did so. The turnabout was due partly to the insistence of the United States; partly to concern at the surging size of the drug industry (which then covered some six hundred thousand square kilometers, and included roughly thirty thousand opium plots, some of them exceeding forty acres); and partly out of alarm at the rising levels of trafficker-related violence. In Culiacán, gun battles on downtown streets had become daily fare, and Sinaloan papers were packed with complaints about the rising narco threat. The PRI was also dismayed by agrarian unrest—widespread land seizures and armed defiance of authority by desperate campesinos, hard-pressed by a deepening agricultural crisis. The two problems were in fact conjoined, as tens of thousands of these farmers had entered the drug economy and were prepared to defend their new economic lifeline at gunpoint.

The state decided on a full-scale ground assault, and green-lighted the up-till-then rejected U.S. urging of an aerial spraying campaign, as well as authorizing U.S. reconnaissance flyovers of the target area. The new López Portillo government’s stated aim was “the total ­elimination of opium poppy cultivation and maximum cooperation with the United States and other countries in the endeavor.” The Mexican attorney general predicted the end of drug trafficking in six months. Left unannounced was the determination to crack down on rural insurgents under cover of the anti-drug campaign. The program was soon renamed Operation Condor, the nom de guerre of the U.S.-supported campaign of political repression and assassination implemented after 1975 by right-wing dictatorships in South America against guerillas, dissidents, students, social activists, unions, and academics—a decade long “Dirty War” in which tens of thousands were killed or disappeared. This aspect of the Mexican operation was the purview of José Hernández Toledo, who had commanded military operations at the Tlatelolco massacre.

In early 1977, ten thousand soldiers stormed the Golden Triangle sierra of Sinaloa, Durango, and Chihuahua. Marauding through villages, they kicked down doors, dragging hundreds of young men away, some to be beaten and tortured (via electric shock, burns, and chili-laced water shot up noses), hundreds never to be seen again. Army units also ransacked houses, raped women, and confiscated belongings, which intensified the armed resistance. From the air, U.S.-supplied aircraft began spraying drug crops—using 2,4-D acid on opium and the toxic herbicide paraquat on marijuana. Tens of thousands of plots and fields would eventually be destroyed, hundreds of kilograms of drugs seized.

The DEA and the now Jimmy Carter White House (1977–1980) sang the praises of Mexico’s “model program,” and indeed Condor had severely restricted the amount of drugs crossing the United States border. By 1979, the amount of heroin entering the U.S. had been almost halved—an ambiguous victory, as suppliers responded to scarcity by jacking up prices (a milligram’s street value rose from $1.26 in 1976 to $2.25 in 1979), which in turn hiked crime rates as junkies sought to feed their more expensive habit.8

The unanticipated consequences ran deeper still. When ­Operation Condor smashed into Sinaloa, the top narco bosses—who had been left suspiciously untouched—simply relocated.9 They moved their operations down from the mountains to Mexico’s second-largest city, Guadalajara, in the state of Jalisco. There they bought splendid villas and continued their business on an even bigger scale. Condor inadvertently centralized the trade by winnowing out the small fry and strengthening those with the resources to buy protection from the police, the military, the DFS, and PRI politicians.

Perhaps the primary outcome of the latest Great Campaign was to solidify the “plaza system” that had been rudimentarily set in place during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Operation Condor had reminded the gangsters who was boss, and when the program slackened off in the late 1970s, and drug commerce attained its former levels, it was handled in a more orderly fashion. Government agencies (particularly the DFS, whose writ was suppression of the trade) established unofficially sanctioned trafficking corridors at strategic transit points through which drugs had to pass on their way to the United States. The plazas were not controlled by the criminals; they were, instead, checkpoints at which the traffickers were greeted by the federal police or the military, there to collect bribes, or to bust (and occasionally kill) anyone who was not paying up. This also allowed them to rack up drug seizures, and thus demonstrate they were ardently fighting the war on drugs. De facto state regulation kept the narcos under control, damping down their violence, while handsomely profiting the regulators.

In their protected terrains, drug entrepreneurs grew more ambitious. Some began organizing bigger than ever payloads. Instead of buying marijuana from small family farms, they built and maintained enormous plantations of their own. One of the boldest innovators was Rafael Caro Quintero, a trafficker from Badiraguato, in the heart of Sinaloan drug country. Born in 1952, Caro Quintero had worked in livestock grazing (as had his father), shifted to truck driving, then segued into working on a bean and corn plantation. In the mid-1970s he moved to the neighboring state of Chihuahua and started growing marijuana on his brother’s ranch. Over the next five years he expanded his operation, buying up other local ranches, and amassing a fortune. By the early 1980s he was running the gigantic Rancho Búfalo—a 2,500-acre tract of desert land on which perhaps seven thousand campesinos labored, under conditions of virtual slavery, raising immense marijuana crops that were dried in twenty-five football field–size sheds. Yearly production—valued at $8 billion—was big enough to supply the U.S. its entire annual demand. By 1981, Caro Quintero was quite capable of making fabulous payoffs to police commanders in the state of Chihuahua, to regional politicians, to the military, and above all to Miguel Nazar Haro. A nasty piece of work, infamous for his role in the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre and for the part his “White Brigade” death squad played in the Dirty War, Nazar Haro was appointed chief of the DFS in 1978. By the early 1980s, following the new trend toward concentration, Caro Quintero had allied himself with two other kingpins who had been industriously opening up a whole new drug front, once again thanks to their northern neighbors.

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In the 1970s and 1980s, cocaine wildfired across the U.S.A. While grass had been associated with political dissent, the counterculture, peace, love, and mellow, the disco drug conjured up glamour, speed, sex, business, and money. Lots of money, as its markup was spectacularly higher than pot, and generated billions upon billions of dollars. At first the profits flowed not to Mexicans but to the Colombians whose country’s climate was ideal for coca leaf cultivation. Colombians not only manufactured their product, they delivered it. Mobsters in Medellín flew most of their cocaine directly to Florida, a nine-­hundred-mile straight shot, airdropping their parcels at sea, from where they were retrieved and rushed ashore in speedboats—as during Prohibition booze was smuggled in from cargo ships parked on Rum Row, just outside the three mile limit.

Presciently, the Colombians launched something of a pilot project in the early 1970s devoted to developing a supplementary route through Mexico. At first they relied on two non-Mexicans to develop the prototype operation. Their direct contact was a Honduran, Juan Ramón Matta Ballesteros, who got the cocaine to Mexico and there turned it over to Cuban-American Alberto Sicilia Falcón, a Tijuana-based gangster, who moved the product across the border. Sicilia Falcón was no ordinary gangbanger. He had quit Cuba for Miami after Castro’s arrival in 1959, and was trained there by the CIA to participate in raids and weapons-delivery runs to his former homeland. According to Scott and Marshall, he relocated to Mexico in 1972 and with help from his DFS connections—the DFS and CIA having a close working relationship—he established an operation that unloaded Matta’s Colombia product in California. At the same time that presidents Echeverría and Nixon were ratcheting up their anti-marijuana and opium efforts, a $5 billion–per-year cocaine enterprise sprang into being, along with a collateral money-laundering operation provided by Mexican and U.S. banks. Indeed, Sicilia Falcón’s Tijuana fortified base of operations, “The Roundhouse,” was protected by a coterie of DFS agents armed with AK-47s.

Sicilia Falcón’s luck ran out in 1976 after DEA agents penetrated his operation, flipped some of his traffickers, and got the Mexicans to arrest him. (This was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the DEA and CIA worked at cross-purposes.) Convicted, and dispatched to rot in jail, Sicilia Falcón became the first drug kingpin to be taken down; he was, after all, a foreigner.

With Sicilia Falcón now history, Matta cultivated relations with the rising stars among Sinaloan gangsters. Among them were Rafael Caro Quintero (the maestro of marijuana), Ernesto Fonseca Carrillo, and primus inter pares, Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo. A Culiacán native born in 1946, Félix Gallardo had joined the Sinaloan judicial police, served as bodyguard to the governor, then sidled into the drug business, departing Sinaloa for Guadalajara after Operation Condor. Once the Matta connection was established in the mid-1970s, he and his associates became the premier couriers in Mexico of Colombian cocaine. Still, up to the early 1980s, their transshipments accounted for only 30 percent of the coke consumed in the United States. What sent them into hyperdrive was the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan.

7 Among this round’s unanticipated consequences was the discovery by drug traffickers that if the border could not be driven through, it could be flown over, which would soon lead to their adoption of an airborne delivery system. Operation Cooperation also had the effect of eliminating less-capable smugglers, thus consolidating power in the hands of bigger, better-financed criminal organizations like the Herrera brothers’ operation. And in the States, a considerable number of youths responded unexpectedly to the short-term marijuana famine by shifting to LSD.

8 In 1979, the Herrera Organization was targeted directly, but though thirty-nine kilograms of heroin were seized, and three Chicago-based bosses were captured, the top leadership and the organization itself sailed on into the 1980s, until 1988, when Operation Durango led to the capture of Jaime Herrera-Nevarez. By then, however, the organization’s next generation had diversified into cocaine and methamphetamine, and soldiered on.

9 During Condor, owners of plantations that had received unofficial official approval flew flags on their fields to signal pilots not to fumigate but to spray water and fertilizers; drought conditions were prevalent, and some argued that it was the weather, and not the eradication campaign, that was responsible for much of the drop-off.

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