Salvadoran Mara Gang Members and Drug Use in the 1980s

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is by Prince Vlad, a pseudonym the author (a public school teacher by day) uses to protect their identity. For an ongoing research project, they have recorded nearly 150 life histories with men and women from several different Salvadoran and US gangs found across El Salvador. Portions of this research have been presented at national and international conferences.

In the last half of the 1980s, youth groups known popularly as maras emerged as an issue of public concern in El Salvador. Contemporary newspapers, drawing heavily from law enforcement information, raised the alarm and cast the maras as juvenile criminal drug users. In 1988, for example, Diario Latino described the Mara Gallo as a “juvenile band…  dedicating themselves to stealing, rape, and smoking marijuana” [1]. A year later El Diario de Hoy charged that the “juvenile band ‘Mara Chancleta’” was made up of “drug addicts, thieves, and huelepegas [glue sniffers]” [2]. That same year El Mundo warned its readership about a gang of sixty “huelepegas and thieves” known as the Mara Morazán which operated around the San Salvador capital [3].

Mara Children Image
Issue of Diario Latino from September 4, 1994, with an image of young members of a mara street gang. The headline reads, “”Cesta Proposes Solution to Avoid that Glue Being Used as a Drug,”

Media accounts, although superficial and sensational, were grounded on facts. Ricardo, a co-founder of La Morazán, summed up the eight years he spent he with his mara: “I was robbing, I was smoking. I was on glue. I was on drugs. I drank. When it was time to drink I drank. And when not, just the jar of glue, right?” [4].

José similarly framed his six years as a member of the Mara Gallo using terms of drugs and delinquency. “I stole for drugs, for glue, for alcohol, to be around girls. I was in a dark world [mundo tenebroso],” Ernesto said, adding “but it didn’t end there, right?” [5].

Ricardo’s and José’s testimonies are from a collection of interviews I have recorded with nearly 150 male and female active and ex-gang members from El Salvador for a historically grounded study about the origins and evolution of the country’s contemporary gang phenomenon. The subject of drug use was discussed by all narrators. These personal narratives—and my continued research project—reveal intimate details about the causes, consequences, and nature of drug use among Salvadoran gang members across multiple generations.

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The Way Back Machine—Jackie Jenkins-Scott and Community-Based Treatment in Roxbury

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in “The Way Back Machine,” a series of interviews with key theorists and practitioners of alcohol and drugs research, treatment, and recovery among women and communities of color during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Through these interviews, Points co-founder and Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis works out some of the theoretical issues she articulated almost ten years ago in “Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards A Research Agenda.”

The coronavirus pandemic has brought to light not only America’s glaring health inequalities, but also the community health centers (CHCs) that serve many of the nation’s most marginalized populations. One of the most enduring features of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, these comprehensive facilities began with sprawling missions—not just biomedical and psychiatric health care, but also early childhood education, adult job training, and (you guessed it) alcohol and drug education and treatment.  The recent spotlight on the CHCs’ strengths and vulnerabilities prompted Points’ Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis to dig a little deeper into this last aspect of their mission as part of her ongoing efforts to understand the grassroots theories of substance abuse and recovery that were elaborated in the 1970s, often in urban environments far from the bucolic precincts of “the Minnesota Model.”

JackieJenkins-Scott
Jackie Jenkins-Scott.

Jackie Jenkins-Scott is the former President of Wheelock College, a founding partner of JJS Advising, and the author of the Seven Secrets of Responsive Leadership (Career Press, 2020). Before she became a “thought leader” in organizational change, however, she was a pioneering presence in community-based substance abuse treatment, working at the Dimock Community Health Center in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood (among other places). Is there anybody better qualified to talk about the evolution of service delivery and recovery during the last decades of the twentieth century? We didn’t think so either.

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Harry Anslinger Goes to the Movies: To the Ends of the Earth

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Jocelyn Szczepaniak-Gillece, an associate professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She is the author of The Optical Vacuum: Spectatorship and Modernized American Theater Architecture (Oxford University Press, 2018) and the co-editor of Ends of Cinema (University of Minnesota Press, 2020).

Ends of the Earth Lobby Card
Ends of the Earth (1948) lobby card. Image courtesy of MoviePosterdb.

Above one of the many neo-classical governmental buildings that populate Washington, DC, an American flag waves proudly. “United States Department of Treasury,” the voiceover intones. “That’s right, the place they make money.” Dissolves bring us inside where assembly lines stack and sort sheets of cash, “that green stuff,” the narrator drones, “you scramble to get, and then give back at the end of the year, so cheerfully.” But Columbia Pictures’s 1948 thriller To the Ends of the Earth isn’t about money or taxes. Or, at least, it isn’t about their physical presence. Instead, it’s about unassuming quiet objects. It’s about secret circulations of global capital flows. And in particular, it’s about an “innocent, pretty little thing”: the poppy flower and its dark passenger, opium.

Following Agent Michael Barrows, the narrator and protagonist, through China, Egypt, and Lebanon before returning to the harbors of New York, the movie tracks across opium manufacturing and trade routes while regularly referencing the drug onscreen—shocking for a Hollywood film produced during the era of the Production Code. And while the movie has been mostly forgotten, never released on DVD let alone streaming services, it’s an important document about the ties that bind drug policy, governance, censorship, mass media, and the twilight of the Hollywood studio system.

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Points Interview: Stephen Snelders

Stephen Snelders Points Interview card

Today we’re excited to feature a Points Interview with Dr. Stephen Snelders, the author of Drug Smuggler Nation: Narcotics and the Netherlands, 1920–1995 (Manchester University Press, 2021). Snelders is a Research Fellow at University of Utrecht, and is a member of the Intoxicating Spaces project. He has written books on seventeenth-century Dutch piracy, leprosy in the Dutch colony of Suriname and LSD therapy in the Netherlands. The interview was conducted by Contributing Editor Peder Clark.

Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The recreational use of illegal drugs is quite common and a more or less accepted leisure activity in the city where I (and my bartenders before and after the lockdown) live. Just as common is media coverage of violence executed by “organized crime,” trials against “drug lords,” new record drug seizures in Dutch port towns, police raids on underground drug laboratories, and the “subversion” of the democratic state by organized drug gangs. Fifty years ago, all of these phenomena seemed to exist to a much smaller degree. The whole concept of “organized crime” was then unknown to the Dutch judiciary and police force. Furthermore, a hundred years ago, there were no laws against illicit drugs in the Netherlands. Since then, the Netherlands has become a key hub of the international drug trade.

My book basically asks the question, how did we get ourselves in this situation, and, especially, why did Dutch drug smuggling become so big and important? The book researches histories of smugglers and smuggling networks: drug users, criminal entrepreneurs, idealists from the hippie and XTC (ecstasy or MDMA) drug undergrounds, brokers from pharmaceutical companies, sailors, and others. They could all thrive in a social and cultural climate of what I call “criminal anarchy:” embedded and rooted in Dutch society, connected to a legal “upperworld.” Crucially, they were NOT organized in large hierarchical crime syndicates that would have been relatively easy targets for police activities, but rather the groups and networks were often transitory, vertically organized, and only seldom competing with each other. In short, the book shows why cutting off one head of the hydra of drug smuggling only led to the growth of new heads in new places.

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Addiction Lives Interviews: Betsy Thom and Harry Shapiro

Editor’s Note: With this post, Points is pleased to inaugurate a new regular feature highlighting interviews from the “Addiction Lives” interview project, a print and online collaboration between the Society for the Study of Addiction and the journal Addiction.

Society for the Study of Addiction logo

The journal Addiction’s long-running interview series, “Addiction Interviews,” was reintroduced in 2017 as “Addiction Lives,” a joint print/web collaboration with the Society for the Study of Addiction (SSA). The new series, under the editorship of Professor Virginia Berridge, was introduced in an Addiction editorial by Jean O’Reilly and Robert West in December 2017.

The original “Addiction Interviews” ran for 36 years (from 1979–2015) under the editorship of Professor Griffith Edwards. The series provided wide-ranging conversations with more than 100 people who had contributed to the field of addiction studies at local, national, and international levels. It focused in particular on the field’s scientists and those who developed links with policy.  A virtual issue of Addiction available in the Wiley Online Library provides links to the full series of 111 interviews and includes a reflection from Thomas Babor about the series.

The new interviews continue the same mission as the original series and focus on the views and personal experiences of people who have made particular contributions to the evolution of ideas in the field. The full interviews are posted online on the SSA website and a summary is published in Addiction. The original interviews were largely unstructured, and the interviewers remained anonymous. The online platform now allows for the inclusion of enhanced content such as audio and video recordings and linked short bibliographies of the interviewees’ work. Addiction continues to commission the series and suggestions for interviewees are always welcome! Please email any suggestions to jean@addictionjournal.org.

Today’s featured interviews are with Professor Betsy Thom and Harry Shapiro.

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Drawing the Peddler: “Reefer Madness” in Four Editorial Cartoons

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

Everyone loves a good editorial cartoon. They dramatize contemporary issues in newspapers, in magazines, and, increasingly, in online publications. They routinely engage in a visual form of incisive social critique. And they can be funny—although over the years some of the “humor” has come from degrading caricatures of racial and gendered stereotypes.

For all of these reasons, editorial cartoons are useful teaching tools for historians, and they routinely appear in history textbooks, historical websites, and even on history exams. Currently, some of my students in a semester-long guided research project are using political cartoons to explain aspects of US drug history. (Others in the class are analyzing advertisements or newspaper reporting, and I will share more about the course in a future post).

Given the press bonanza around cannabis during the “reefer madness” era of the 1930s, I have been surprised during my research and teaching to have found only four cartoons from the period that specifically mentioned marijuana. To be sure, there were plenty of cartoons that focused on related issues like “narcotics” control—which often included cannabis—and the Uniform State Narcotic Act. Such cartoons, however, tended to focus on heroin (usually represented by snake imagery) and have not been useful for my marijuana research. There was also another interesting 1940 cartoon that mentioned marijuana in a very different context. This image depicted South American countries being stupefied—like a “Mexican” marijuana user—by “Nazi Propaganda” [1]

Despite spilling less editorial cartoon ink than might be expected given the sheer volume of press generated on the subject during the 1930s, these four identified cartoons present a specific and surprisingly nuanced take on Reefer Madness. They illustrate that the marijuana peddler was often the central focus of the evolving American war on cannabis. Drawn by four different cartoonists in four different cities, the four peddler characters were remarkably similar. In each image, the peddler was not only the source of the drug, but also seemed to be the source (perhaps more than the drug, itself) of all the problems associated with the drug trade.

Left: “Idol of Both,” New Orleans Times-Picayune, June 5, 1930; Right: “One Place to Get Tough,” Cleveland Press, November 13, 1936. Click on image above for to see larger version.

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Pablo Cáceres Corrales: “Narcotics Trafficking is Just Another Superstructure of Globalization”—Part I

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. Stefano Tijerina, a lecturer in management and the Chris Kobrack Research Fellow in Canadian Business History at the University’s of Maine’s Business School. 

The intellectual, political, social, economic, environmental, and cultural ideas behind narcotics trafficking are front-loaded with Western constructs. This vision has often been imposed by force across the world and more particularly in developing countries directly tied to the geopolitics and international political economy of narcotrafficking. Dr. Pablo Cáceres Corrales, a Colombian scholar and expert in comparative law, is a refreshing voice—a revisionist who points the finger not at supply-and-demand debates but at the nature of the business of narcotics and its interdependence and interconnectivity with market globalization.

From his perspective, narcotrafficking is an essential part of the deregulated dynamic that allows the global capitalist system to navigate the thin line between formality and informality. Narcotics trafficking, he argues, is just one of the many superstructures allowing the global market system to operate on all cylinders. Narcotrafficking provides the ability to move money globally while at the same time laundering resources from the informal to the formal market.

As president of Colombia’s Superior Council of Judicature during the deadliest phase of the 1990s War on Drugs, Dr. Cáceres witnessed first-hand the intricacies of the international business world of narcotics trafficking. Understanding criminality and criminal organizations became an intellectual passion that led him to study its global history. During the pursuit of his doctoral degree, soon after retiring from the judicial branch, it became clear to him that the explanation for Colombia’s violent reality rested on the broader superstructures of globalization.

In his latest and thoroughly researched book, Las Formas Cambiantes de la Criminalidad [The Changing Forms of Criminality] (Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2016) Cáceres introduces us to the broad magnitude and expansive tentacles of contemporary criminal organizations and their interconnectedness to the world-wide market system.

Pablo Cáceres Corrales

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Review of A Drunkard’s Defense

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Michael Brownrigg. Michael recently received his PhD in US history from Northwestern University, where he studied the relationship between emotion, white masculinity, and capitalism to explain the emergence of an antinarcotic consensus in America at the turn of the twentieth century. 

In A Drunkard’s Defense: Alcohol, Murder, and Medical Jurisprudence in Nineteenth-Century America (University of Massachusetts Press, 2021), Michele Rotunda has written a significant contribution about the history of alcohol consumption that will appeal to students of numerous fields, most notably scholars engaged in legal, medical, and cultural studies. Drawing from an impressive array of primary sources, Rotunda’s taut narrative, tracing the complex evolution of juridical precedents beginning in the colonial era that established the culpability of defendants accused of often gruesome crimes while intoxicated, is revelatory.

Rotunda’s extensive use of court documents, in particular, illuminates in exquisite detail the highly contested nature of judicial concepts like intention and responsibility, and how they considerably influenced verdicts in cases of alcohol-induced criminality. Did murder commissioned under the influence of alcohol constitute a deliberate, voluntary, and premeditated crime? If not, was the accused nevertheless at fault for willfully partaking in a vice that could disorder the mind and facilitate the perpetration of murder—an idea resting on deeply entrenched beliefs in American society about the immorality of drunken indulgence that knowingly caused mental derangement? Or, as physicians who were increasingly concerned with the physiology and psychology of intoxication proclaimed, was the impetus for murderous behavior exhibited by defendants vastly more complicated, requiring nuanced diagnoses that only practitioners’ scientific expertise and empiricism could provide?

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