Supply and Demand: A history of drug trafficking in Mexico

Latin America

Part of the CGTN special series Rediscovering the New World

Drug-related violence still rages in parts of Mexico. One can hear shootouts between rival drug traffickers. It’s all so random and vicious, that the U.S. State Department issued “Do Not Travel” warnings this year for five Mexican States.

A video, recorded by a frightened citizen, has shown government security forces opening fire on drug traffickers. Some analysts say the problem starts north of the border.

“In its essence, drug trafficking is more than anything else a problem of demand. For that reason, it’s a problem with U.S. origins,” Historian Lorenzo Meyer said.

Back in 1916, opium was a U.S. problem. President Venustiano Carranza didn’t want it to become another problem for Mexico. He passed a law banning opium imports. Four years later, Mexican authorities passed legislation outlawing pot.

Mexico’s first anti-drug law criminalized the use of marijuana and some opiates. The intent was to reduce the number of drug dealers coming into Mexico from the United States. Back then, drug use was still rare in Mexico.

By the 1930s, the United States had created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and passed a law that taxed the sale of marijuana. However, smoking it was still legal. Mexican growers started shipping marijuana north to meet demand.

“So, Mexico initially began timidly exporting marijuana to the United States. It crossed the border in the 1930s, 40s and the 50s, but it represented no national security threat to the United States,” said Victor Clark Alfaro, Director of the Tijuana Binational Center for Human Rights.

Around this time, Mexico launched an anti-drug campaign targeting a region known as the Golden Triangle, where heroin poppies and marijuana still grow. The drug business kept booming.

By September 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon had grown alarmed by the flood of Mexican drugs into the U.S. Nixon launched Operation Intercept, a near complete shutdown of border crossings to stop shipments of marijuana. When U.S. demand kept growing, Mexican supply grew with it.

In 1971, Nixon declared drug abuse “public enemy number one.” He became convinced that Mexican drugs posed a grave threat to the United States.

“Poppy production began to grow in Mexico, and it was being exported to the United States. In the U.S., they saw this as a matter of national security,” Alfaro explained. “Production and smuggling over the border to satisfy growing demand in the U.S.”

In the 1980s and 90s, U.S. anti-drug strategy focused on stopping cocaine traffickers in Central America and the Caribbean. South America’s drug cartels began shifting operations to Mexico.

In December 2006, after winning the narrowest election in modern Mexican history, President Felipe Calderon declared war on Mexico’s drug gangs. Calderon deployed thousands of troops and Federal Police to the most affected areas, including Mexican states bordering the U.S.

After assuming office in 2012, Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto continued using the military as narco-police. Based on statistics, it had little effect, and tens of thousands have gone missing since.

Many journalists investigating alleged links between drug cartels and elected officials didn’t survive to tell their stories. So far, nothing has stanched the bloodshed, and 2017 was the most violent year on record in Mexico. According to the Mexican government, there were more than 29,000 homicides.

“We are up around 200,000 dead and 30,000 missing, and no one will tell you that drug production in Mexico has decreased, nor has the demand in the United States,” Meyer said.

After more than a decade of combating the cartels, the body count keeps climbing. The violence is one reason why many citizens call the U.S.-backed war on drugs the war with no end.

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