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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“Buried Alive in a Chemical Tomb”: The Story of the “Trip or Trap” Anti-Drug Playing Card Deck

Editor’s Note: From the Collections highlights articles, artifacts, images, and other items of interest from publications and historical collections of the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy (AIHP). In this post, Points Managing Editor and AIHP Head Archivist Greg Bond investigates the story behind the unique “Trip or Trap” anti-drug playing card deck from 1970.

Trip or Trap Decl Cards
Playing cards from the “Trip or Trap” deck. Images courtesy of the Brodeur Playing Card Collection, American Institute of the History of Pharmacy.

“This Trip or Trap Card Deck is an attempt to educate through facts and ridicule,” wrote public health advocate Dr. Wayman Rutherford Spence about his anti-drug set of novelty playing cards. Published in 1970 by his business, the Spenco Medical Company, the “Trip or Trap” deck was one of many quirky Spenco products that combined humor with pop culture ephemera to educate the public about the dangers of drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other intoxicants.

The “Trip or Trap” deck adopted a prohibitionist attitude towards drugs, demonized the recreational use of intoxicating substances, and denied the legitimate medical or pharmaceutical use of drugs like cannabis. On an informational card accompanying the deck, Spence explained that “drug abuse has many faces.” Using a common gendered understanding of substance abuse, he wrote that “it is the lady starting her day with a diet pill for a pick-up and ending it with a sedative for sleep, [and] it is the man habitually unwinding with several drinks.” He also linked together “the chain smoker unable to quit… the twelve-year-old experimenting with glue sniffing… the teenager smoking pot… and the hard-core addict shooting heroin.”

Despite the substantial variations among these very different drug-use scenarios, he wrote that each case represented “a threatened person retreating from reality.” Concluding dramatically, Spence informed users of the “Trip or Track” deck that “drug abusers are not blissfully composed, rather they are often deadened, deprived of personality, and all but buried alive in a chemical tomb.”

The “Trip or Trap” playing card deck is one of several hundred pharmacy-themed playing cards in the Donald Brodeur Playing Card Collection at the American Institute of the History of Pharmacy. This post is a short investigation into the story behind the “Trip or Trap” deck and its creator Wayman R. Spence, a now mostly forgotten drug warrior and public heath advocate.

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Drug (M)use: Drugs as a Means of Inspiration from 19th-Century Europe to 1960s America

Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from Timothy Cole Hale. This post is an abridged version of a paper that he will present as part of the panel, “A Century of American Drug Use: Psychoactive Drugs Among Native Americans, Hippies, and the Working Poor,” at the 2021 virtual conference of the American Historical Association next Tuesday, April 20th, at 1:00 PM Eastern. To read the full paper, please visit his website.

Left Brain v. Right Brain
Left Brain vs. Right Brain. Image courtesy of Tumisu from Pixabay.

Opium and Nineteenth-Century Europe

In his 1995 book, Night, English poet and essayist Alfred Alvarez, traces the emergence of opium as a source of artistic inspiration to the Romantic Era. Since the positive effects of the drug include an immediate sense of euphoria and numbness soon followed by severe drowsiness, it is no coincidence that the narcotic became popular at a time when writers were obsessed with dreams and nightmares. These writers believed that the dreamworld provided new experiences and new places that they could incorporate into their work. [1]

Thomas De Quincey, perhaps the most outspoken opium addict of the era, first popularized the drug in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. De Quincey believed that inspiration could transcend from the dreamworld into reality and he wrote that, “If a man could thro’ Paradise in a Dream & have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his Soul had really been there, and found that flower in his hand when awoke—Aye!” [2]

In 1804, Friedrich Sertürner identified morphine as opium’s most active ingredient, and, with the arrival of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-nineteenth century, injecting morphine became the most popular ingestion method. It is impossible to quantify the popularity of opium—especially as soldiers began returning home from the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s—but the drug was especially prevalent among artists and writers of Bohemian Paris.

The Pleasures of Opium
Drawing of the “Pleasures of Opium” by illustrator Willy Pogany from 1908 edition of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Image courtesy of Internet Archive.

And opium became the perfect substance for rebelling against the bourgeoisie, as the drug causes users to become isolated and withdrawn in their thoughts, often making it physically impossible to contribute to conversations or productivity of any sort. Opium use provided a sense of camaraderie among Bohemian users who fashioned themselves as fighting against traditional literary, art, and social norms. But what may have begun as rebellion had a side effect: the dreamworld and deranged senses provided users with fodder for their art.

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The Pharmacological Era

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Brooks Hudson, a history PhD student at Southern Illinois University.

Screenshot 2018-11-15 07.43.35
Stanton Peele

Psychologist Stanton Peele refers to the time we’re living in as a “pharmacological era,” one where “drug use, both approved and unapproved, is widespread, almost universal.” Currently, it’s dealt with through regulation and prohibition. Dr. Peele argues: “Instead, we need to accept drug use as socially and psychologically regulatable behavior to be incorporated into modern life.”

In some ways, we’re already there. It’s near universal, just two-tiered. A Vice News headline summed it up perfectly: “America’s Rich and Powerful have permission slips to get high.” We don’t have to look far to see these inequities in action. Recently, Elon Musk—of Tesla fame—smoked a blunt on the Joe Rogan Experience. Had it been a Tesla employee, they would’ve been fired. Ivy League students swallow smart pills to study just like their future selves, the businessmen burning the midnight oil. And a white woman popping a Xanax found in the seabed of her Hermès bag, totally normal too. But a black man smoking a joint—whoa, wait a minute, that’s unacceptable. So, yeah, like I said universal but two-tiered—same dynamic in Washington. Recall Dr. Ronnie Jackson, Trump’s (failed) nominee for Veteran Affairs Secretary. Apart from his stunning lack of qualifications and experience, we learned during his time as Physician to the President he regularly doled out Schedule II drugs for recreational purposes. As Politico reported:

Nearly a dozen current and former officials — including some who were treated by Jackson while working in the Obama White House — say Jackson is being unfairly labeled as a “candy man” and that casual use of some prescription drugs is an established fact of life at the highest echelons of government. “Not everyone wants it. But anyone who does gets it,” said a former Trump administration official who traveled extensively with Jackson and the president.

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Parallel to the Grain? Finding Recreational Users in the Archives

For cultural historians looking into the history of drugs, one of the more frustrating obstacles to our work comes from trying to find “the people,” those who used the drugs we are studying. In studies of more recent times, scholars are able to locate individuals, interviewing them about their experiences. But for someone who studies the history of cannabis in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the archives are understandably lacking in user voices. In working through this problem, I’ve begun to problematize our conception of drug user. I’d like to share my thoughts and to perhaps get a discussion going in the comments section below.

A drug user, according to Wikipedia.
A drug user, according to Wikipedia.

Who uses drugs? A simple Google search of “drug users” yields a sponsored link for Unity Recovery Center, a rehab chain based in Florida. The next four results link to an assortment of informational websites on drug abuse and addiction. Finally, after the image results that, not surprisingly, feature “the faces of meth,” our search takes us to the Wikipedia article “Drug User” which defines the user as “a person who uses drugs either legally or illegally. A drug user may or may not also be a drug abuser, and may or may not have one or more drug addictions.”

Implicit in this definition is the assumption that drug users are only those folks that smoke, sniff, ingest, shoot, or otherwise consume a substance into their bodies. This is confirmed by the image that accompanies the article.

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