Recently, the LSE IDEAS program hosted a daytime conference, “Reevaluating the International Drug Control System–Historical Evolution; Potential for Reform,” along with an evening event, “The Global Drug Wars.” Both events are worth sharing with the readers of Points.
LSE IDEAS is housed within the London School of Economics, and focuses on international affairs. The ambition is one that readers of Points might appreciate: “understanding how today’s world came into being, and how it may be changed.” That was certainly the animating spirit behind the daytime conference, very ably organized by LSE doctoral candidate John Collins. If you aren’t yet familiar with John and his work, you will be, and you might get a head start on getting acquainted here. Associated with the daytime conference is a report, Governing the Global Drug Wars, which may be read in its entirety online. What I like about the report is that it brings together some very able historical commentary with some equally solid commentary on contemporary policy regimes. I wish, of course, that these were more directly in conversation with one another, but reading them side-by-side produces something close.
The evening event was moderated by LSE IDEAS founding Co-Director, Mick Cox, and featured four presenters: Bill McAllister, David Courtwright, Ethan Nadelmann, and Nigel Inkster. You can view the entire event online. First up, McAllister, an outstanding historian of international drug control and special projects director in the State Department’s Office of the Historian. McAllister gave a remarkably useful guide to the historical nuts and bolts of the international control system, and if you pay close attention at the end, he offers some really useful insights into the prospects for future change within the system. Second up, Courtwright took the assembled audience on a colorful yet efficient tour of global drugs and alcohol history, sorting out the still-essential question of why we make war on some drugs but not on others.
In The Labyrinth of Solitude, renowned Mexican writer and cultural critic Octavio Paz observed: “The word death is not pronounced in New York, Paris, and London because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death jokes about it, caresses it,
sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast loves” (Paz, 57). On the eve of All Saints and All Souls days, the Mexican drug war has spawned a new genre of death imagery that now threatens Paz’s cultural perceptions.
Lenin Márquez Salazar’s paintings document the impact of narco violence. In one painting of Aparecidos, a young boy wearing a cap with Sylvester chasing Tweety Bird smiles to the viewer before a bound body murdered execution style. The child’s innocence is blighted by the images of death that surround him in a dreamlike state. At first glance, he appears unaware, but on closer inspection he appears years older, as he holds the viewers gaze with an uneasy smirk. Is he the assassin or unwitting victim of a narco drama? In his landscape series Paisajes,the beauty of the countryside is tarnished by the bound and murdered bodies that mar it, but the dead are just as essential as the trees, mountains, and sky.
For years, drugs have—borrowing from Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters–haunted Mexico,
Griselda Blanco, the Cocaine Godmother, was gunned down in front of a butcher shop in Medellín, Colombia on September 3, 2012. Since her initial indictments in New York City beginning in the early 1970s, Blanco has flitted in and out of the popular imagination. Tales of Blanco emerged first in police and court documents and newspapers. In more recent years, she could be found in nonfiction, docudramas, popular magazines, blogs, YouTube, and other media.
Like other high-level female drug traffickers, Blanco created important alliances with men, but differed from her peers due to her extensive use of violence. She employed it as an offensive tool against male competitors and even men who were employed by her or her clients. Violence served to demonstrate her power and to strike fear in the men that surrounded her. Her ruthlessness contributed to a growing gangster hagiography and titillation that continues to surround her and those men connected to her. This explains why her death brought new attention. Yet, Blanco’s story is another New York City organized crime tale with many twists and turns: changing criminal enterprises, licit and illicit work, lovers turned traitors, and police/criminal chases across continents.
Editor’s Note: Professor Myrna Santiago talks about her undergraduate history seminar on the cocaine-fueled drug war, the detailed syllabus of which appeared yesterday.
Three objectives drove the development of a course on the drug trade in Latin America. The first was to revise a course on U.S.-Latin American relations that was on the books and I had never taught. I wanted to change the class from a standard diplomatic history to something broader. Saint Mary’s College has only 2500 undergraduates and all Latin American history courses are upper division without pre-requisites, so I design courses that will intrigue students not otherwise interested in either history or Latin America. Given that the “war on drugs” takes so much air time, I figured a class that looked at U.S.-Latin American relations through the lens of the drug trade would catch students’ attention and still cover the traditional topics covered in such a class. This resulted in 25 student class that was heavily discussion based, with mini-lectures as necessary.
The second objective was, frankly, to learn about the topic myself. News coverage by its nature tends toward snapshots of whatever happens on a given day. There is no room for context or analysis, much less for history, in the daily media, so I was quite frustrated by what I did not know and sought to educate myself. And, as all teachers know, there is no better crash course on a topic than having to teach it!
The third objective was to speak to students’ experience. There is no young person in the United States today who does not have some personal experience with drugs. Illegal substances are tightly woven into the fabric of American society today, so no one escapes their influence or impact. Yet, what we know about illegal drugs generally comes from fiction. For young people, in particular, the source is the movies. The number of films about drugs or with drugs in them grows every year. Focused on telling a good story, however, the context in most films is limited to the immediate environment surrounding the main characters. The center of the genre is the individual; the story is personal. There are assumptions about history and socio-economic and political structures but they are left unexamined.
Thus, the course set out to investigate as many aspects of the drug trade as possible in historical context.
Editor’s Note: We close out our back-to-school Teaching Points series this week with Myrna Santiago’s upper division undergraduate history seminar “Cocaine, the Drug Trade, The War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations.” Professor and Chair of the History Department at St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, Santiago comes to drug history through border, economic, and environmental issues, a nexus of ideas represented in her prize-winning book The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938(Cambridge, 2007). Here she looks at another commodity fetish–cocaine– across a span of a hundred years.
For the last thirty years, one of the dominant themes between Latin America and the United States has been the drug trade, specifically the trafficking in cocaine. The policy of successive US administrations has been to wage a “war on drugs” to the exclusion of alternatives. The question then becomes, what has such a war accomplished? How has it affected relations between the United States and Latin America? What effects has the war had on production, transportation, and consumption patterns? This course will examine these questions by looking at the history of cocaine production from the late 19th century until today, tracing the changes the humble coca leaf underwent to become a powerful addictive substance.
We will follow the trajectory of cocaine production and transportation through the countries most affected over the course of the late nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth century—Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and now Mexico—paying attention to the impact such illicit trade has had on politics, economic development, and democracy.
Objectives. The primary goal of this course is to have students develop an informed and sophisticated analysis of the impact the drug trade has had on U.S.-Latin American relations and within Latin American countries themselves, in addition to gaining knowledge about the history of cocaine and a developing a more critical view of media representations of drug matters in general.
As historians, we know that there are historical continuities and contingencies. We study these, debate these, and occasionally we attempt to make a few insights into the present day. This post attempts to perform the latter. So, here we go again with another Mexican presidential election that is rife with continuities and contingencies.
In 2000, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) lost seventy continued years of presidential power. That year, we observed the elections and the massive eruption of street celebrations when it was announced that Vicente Fox had won the election. Twelve years later, 2012 was the PRI’s come back year, and it ran as a deep-pocketed opposition party with a telegenic candidate Enrique Peña Nieto. Of course, the PRI had less support from the middle and educated classes, groups that the party had courted since the 1940s. With the murder of the PRI presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio in 1994, the Zapatista uprising that same year, and the Aguas Blanca massacre of a group of campesinos (Mexican peasants) in 1996, the PRI lost credibility in all levels of the public sphere. The PRI political machine had long created an illusion of respectability and control through sheer force and media manipulation. However, massacres, social upheavals, bank collapses, power politics resembling organized crime syndicates, hyper inflation, and devaluations became more and more difficult for Mexicans to stomach and ignore.
In January 1681 an English buccaneer ship, the Trinity, appeared on the coast of Spanish America. The intended target of the pirates was the port town of Arica, now in the north of Chile close to the Peruvian border. At that time Arica played a vital role in the economy of Spanish America, as port of exit for the silver from the Polosi mines where Indian slaves toiled for the riches and glory of Spain: a prime target therefore for “the Brothers of the Coast,” as the buccaneers called themselves.
One of them was an educated and intelligent observer whose journal of the voyage was subsequently published. Basil Ringrose was a pirate with more interests than gold and silver. While the pirates landed on the island of Iquique to prepare for their attack, Ringrose observed the ‘poor Indian inhabitants’ of the island. They were forced by the Spaniards to carry fresh water from a river on one side of the island over a path over the mountains to a barque on the other shore that brought the water to the mainland. Exhausting work, and the Indians were treated as beasts according to Ringrose. And he noticed that they ‘eat much and often a sort of leaves that are of a taste much like our bay-leaves in England, insomuch that their teeth are dyed a green colour by the continual use of it.’
The leaves were obviously a species of coca, and were distributed to keep the Indians fit to work.
We here at Points are very excited to present the first installment of guest blogger Gretchen Pierce’s new three-part series. Gretchen is an Assistant Professor of History at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania. Her research focuses primarily on the social and cultural history of Mexico, a topic she will exploring in today’s article on the Mexican culture of pulque.
Dr. José Siurob Ramírez (1886-1965), legislator, Chief of the Department of Public Health, and ardent temperance advocate during the Mexican Revolution, would be turning over in his grave if he knew that pulque, a beverage made from the fermented sap of the agave plant, has been making a comeback in the last few years. An ancient concoction whose roots trace back to pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, pulque was once a holy beverage associated with the goddess Mayahuel. For centuries elite Spaniards and then many Mexicans hated it, equating it with the poor and largely indigenous population of Central Mexico. Today, young urban Mexican hipsters consume it as a way of reconnecting with their indigenous history and defying mainstream cultural norms. It should be noted that a similar trend has taken place with European and American young people, who have rediscovered the formerly blacklisted absinthe or the déclassé Pabst Blue Ribbon.
Until recently, intellectuals like Siurob viewed pulquerías, Mexican taverns that serve pulque, as dives that only catered to poor men looking to get a cheap buzz. Today, they are hip and happening gender-neutral joints catering to the twenty-something college crowd. Two such bars are Pulquería La Risa and Pulquería Las Duelistas, both of which were founded in the opening decades of the twentieth century. Although they are proud of their heritage (La Risa, or The Laugh, has a plaque stating the establishment was opened in 1903 and belongs to the Historical Zone of Mexico City), the owners have consciously worked to modernize their businesses, introducing brightly colored Aztec-style murals, loud jukeboxes, and Facebook pages. Arturo Garrido of Las Duelistas (The Duelists) says, “I have totally changed the image of the pulquería, a totally new concept, with different clientele. Most of my clients are young, and it is my way to continue giving life to pulque.”
Pulque is not only cool with Mexico’s trend-setters but is going global. At the New York restaurant-bar Pulqueria, patrons can choose between seven types of pulque, including ones infused with ingredients like tomatillos, maize, and watermelon. Pulque is now even showing up at gourmet and other specialty grocery stores, most commonly in the southwestern United States. For several years, Boulder Imports has been bottling and canning the fermented agave nectar as Pulque La Lucha. Others may want to experience pulque in its natural habitat; No Reservations’ Anthony Bourdain broadcast his visit to a pulquería in 2009. Thirsty tourists can even sign up for tours which allow them to travel to several different pulque estates over the course of a few days, giving them the chance to not only consume the beverage, but also to see it being made.
These developments would be shocking to someone like Siurob. Like many of his contemporaries, not to mention his predecessors, he believed that pulque was the scourge of the nation. Reformers claimed that the abuse of the beverage led to cirrhosis of the liver and made the drinker more susceptible to typhoid and venereal diseases. Temperance advocates also linked it to crime and domestic violence. Further, the besotted could not go to work or be trusted to participate in the political process; thus it challenged nation-building goals of the revolution. Because of all of these problems, at a congressional debate over taxation of the beverage in 1917, Siurob explained “pulque is opposed to the principal idea of the Revolution, which is to raise up the spirit of the masses.”