For over a century Mexico has been embroiled in a drug war dictated by the demands of their neighbor to the north. In The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade (W. W. Norton, 2021), Benjamin T. Smith offers a history of the trade and its effects upon the people of Mexico. As he reveals, at the start of the 20th century drugs such as marijuana and opium were largely on the margins of Mexican society, used mainly by soldiers, prisoners, and immigrants. The association of marijuana with a bohemian subculture in the early 1920s prompted the first punitive laws against it, while the use of opium by Chinese immigrants led Mexican officials to target the drug as a means to arrest the country’s Chinese population.
Yet the drug trade thrived thanks to the growing demand for marijuana and heroin in the United States. In response, American officials pressured their Mexican counterparts to end drug production and distribution in their country, even to the point of ending the effort to provide heroin in a regulated way for the country’s relatively small population of heroin addicts. Yet these efforts often foundered on the economic factors involved, with many government officials protecting the trade either for personal profit or for the financial benefits the trade provided to their states. This trade only grew in the postwar era, as the explosion of drug use in the 1960s and the crackdown on the European heroin trade made Mexico an increasingly important supplier of narcotics to the United States. The vast profits to be made from this changed the nature of the trade from small-scale family-managed operations to much more complex organizations that increasingly employed violence to ensure their share of it. As Smith details, the consequences of this have proven enormously detrimental both to the Mexican state and to the Mexican people.