The War on Drugs and Histories of Post-Revolutionary Mexico 

In Mexico, the ‘War on Drugs’ erupted in 2006 when President Felipe Calderon began responding to escalating cartel violence with state militarisation. This produced a shift in the historical trajectory towards New Drug History of post-revolutionary Mexico, pointing to the role of drugs in local communities, state corruption, violence, and international diplomacy after 1940. The narrative draws together non-state actors including cartels, revolutionary guerrillas, and subaltern communities with government forces. Characterised as politically stable and economically vibrant under the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), post-1940 Mexico was perceived to avoid experiences of authoritarian terror observed across Latin American. Providing connections between local facets of the drug trade in Mexico – peasant producers, urban cooks, the dynamics of a particular village, or the trafficking along an individual road – with the national or international vantage point on drug history, from law enforcement, transnational exchanges, and foreign policy. Narco-conflicts have helped shift twentieth-century historians’ focus more onto drug history and violence in relation to the Mexican revolution and post-revolutionary periods.  

Without the opening of the state intelligence archives, important re-examination of post-revolutionary Mexico through the lens of drugs would not have been possible. Investigations into the inextricability of narcotics from the socio-political and economic landscape of Mexico during this period face the dual obstacle of illicit activities’ invisibility and journalistic alarmism. Following the election of Vincente Fox as President in 2000, both Mexican and American secret intelligence archives are undergoing declassification, producing a window into the PRI state, crime, and violence. More broadly, though, this process speaks volumes about how the present informs historical inquiries and considerations of value. For historians, the intelligence archives highlight the authoritarian forms of power based on the production of knowledge and domination. Indeed, the most appropriate engagement with declassified sources must show awareness of narcotics’ historical agency in Mexico and the analytical scrutiny of these enactments. Even so, the authorial intention of these sources to reinforce state control, if overlooked in historical analysis, would merely validate centralised-authoritarian interpretations of post-revolutionary Mexico. In this tension, declassified archives provide a new window through which drugs come to occupy a critical role, vividly encapsulating the anxiety, weaknesses, and instability of this period.    

The influence of the United States on twentieth-century Mexico is undeniable. The United States American Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from 1973 to 1980 facilitated anti-narcotic confrontations through nationally centralised enforcement operations. The political autonomy of the organisation is disputable. Mexico independently initiated American anti-narcotic policies. As Paul Gootenberg and Isaac Campos argue: ‘not all drug history originates in Washington,’ resulting in a reconfiguration of post-revolutionary drug conflicts as endogenous to the PRI-state, with patterns of local ethnocultural and political resistance. The relationship between state development and drug conflicts becomes a complex transnational process, involving local bureaucracies and conservative elites. This historiographical turn is what makes recent New Drug History interpretations of post-revolutionary Mexico distinctive: recognising the consistency of instability locally, regionally, and nationally during this period.    

Under the centralisation of state power after 1940, a criminal order reigned in Mexico, producing a refracted process of state formation based on state-crime negotiated alliances, corruption, and coercion. The state-narco imbrication became ‘incestuous’. State-crime relations transcended simple ‘corruption’, as state actors actively coordinated and became embroiled in narcotics. The Mexican state showed tolerance for the drug trade, ensuring national unity. Transitioning from ‘Narcopopulism’ in the 1930s, to the inclusion of criminal organisations into the centralised PRI regime over subsequent decades, the federal government produced politically convenient alliances. Other historians such as Aileen Teague point to evidence of state officials both leading anti-drug operations and fully engaging in the illicit trade. While Peter Watt and Roberto Zepeda assert that PRI hegemony rested on ‘de-facto’ state monopolisation of narcotics during the early post-revolutionary period. This state-crime relationship extended to the institutions of enforcement. For instance, the prolific relationship between the Directorate of Federal Security (DFS) and Narcotrafficantes, alongside the resulting violent expansion of narco-organisations under the protection of local police forces after 1977. In stressing the localised embeddedness of illegal actors within law enforcement, the apparatus of the state becomes ostensibly legitimate. By the 1980s, however, a significant shift had occurred, with strengthening cartels becoming ungovernable as the authority was fractured. As such, the state and drugs can no longer be upheld as two mutually exclusive spheres, instead, the two become inextricably related and reliant upon one another.    

Through the prism of contemporary drug conflicts historians seek to readdress the previously under-examined Dirty War in Mexico between 1965 and 1985. In taking this approach, the Cold War becomes a source of justification and logistical support for PRI state repression of dissidence: the drug and dirty wars coalesced into a violent whole. Paul Gillingham credits the PRI tolerance for private ‘coercion-wielding actors’ for resulting in ambiguous decentralised violence; contrary to traditional attributions of repression as a top-down state model. Although there are evident deviations from this thesis of subtle violent coercion, illustrated by the infamous 1968 Tlatelolco massacre amongst other human rights violations. The so-called Mexican ‘Pax-PRIista’ – a period of stability and pacification which existed after 1940 – becomes fraught with contradictions. Violence was a cornerstone of post-revolutionary Mexico state-formation, rather than just a dark underbelly to an illusionary democracy.     

Local autonomy and marginalised resistance throughout the post-revolutionary period are focalised through the lens of drug conflicts. Socio-political instability and economic sensitivities redefine PRI authoritarianism. In recently advocating this approach, Nathaniel Morris argues that drug crop production facilitated socio-political, territorial, and economic autonomy for Mexican peasants; thus, subaltern ‘resistance’ often involved negotiation as much as rebellion. This is mirrored by Salvador Maldonado Aranda’s study of Narco politico-economic penetration in Michoacán. Engagement with subaltern social constructivism restores alternative sources agency, away from the PRI or America, demonstrating how drugs were important to power structures before Calderón or Reagan or even Nixon. In parallel with similar experiences throughout the ‘Global South’, the drug war is understood as the reconfiguration of historic rural conflicts. Nevertheless, recognising this reality deconstructs the existing interpretations of two polarities between active participants and victims of the drug trade in post-revolutionary Mexico.    

Extending this discussion of repositioning agency amongst marginalised groups, New Drug History stresses the importance of Mexican domestic experiences in determining drug policies and conflicts. Campos stresses the importance of revising the earlier model of ‘cultural colonisation.’ For instance, Sarah Beckhart developed a case study of inhalant use in Mexico City from 1960-80, tracing individual cases from within juvenile court data, constructing a micro-historical assessment of narcotics, youth, crime and urbanism. However, Beckhart struggles when seeking to disentangle the local from the national in the federalised capital, going too far in presenting unity. In fact, Beckhart foregrounds an inherent paradox. Substances that facilitated the economic miracle – often cited by historians as a factor distinguishing Mexico from the experiences of Latin American neighbours – became dangerous drugs in Mexico City. Further, the feminist scholar, Elaine Carey’s pivotal work on urban women drug traffickers provides a crucial discussion of gender politics in mobilisation, illuminating the remarkably ignored intersectionality between drugs, gender, and labour in post-revolutionary Mexico. Resting in the historical framework combining identity, access, and regulation, it is established that fluctuating global drug markets and domestic anti-narcotic policies affected marginalised groups, who modernisation and industrialisation overlooked. Focusing on the relationship between power and local agency, the viewpoint of drug conflicts contributes to dismantling perceptions of post-revolutionary Mexican centralised pacification.   

Drugs became a vehicle for marginalised groups to assert socio-political and economic autonomy in defiance of the prohibitionist PRI regime. Alan Knight and Wil Pansters claim that caciques (petty bosses) ensured their lasting prevalence after 1940 by adapting in form and function to centralisation. Echoing this historical sentiment, Smith developed an empirically detailed study of the Sinaloa region, displaying the mechanics of local-national power relations. Traversing this liminal socio-political space: caciques promoted peasant poppy cultivation for the opium trade, motivated by economic benefits and the placation of local land reform demands. Despite Knight recognising the link between largely rural violence and commodity booms, there remains scope for future drug histories to engage in this dynamic. Nonetheless, writing in the context of rampant cartel-violence in 1986, Knight’s observation that peasants rebelled against ‘the state’s unremitting, if sometimes ineffectual, quest for obedience’ maintains its significance. Cognizant of this argument, two recent micro-historical studies advance knowledge of rural resistance. Rath uncovered peasant opposition to military conscription, while Gema Kloppe-Santamaría explored targeted lynching towards state officials. Spotlighting prolific rural resistance to federal authority, New Drug History provides a foil to established narratives of the post-revolutionary era. The historiographical tendency to provide a reductionist interpretation of Mexico as a place of anarchy fails to consider the heterogenous local effects of the drug trade as criminal organisations came to occupy the vacuum left open by federal instability.   

In 2013, indigenous militias violently confronted Mexican cartels in the pursuit of autonomy. Although widely considered a recent development, indigenous militias have been instrumental in rural and national Mexican politics through the twentieth century. This vignette into contemporary drug conflicts reinforces the historiographical turn towards extrapolating the domestic, even localized, role of drugs and violence in post-revolutionary Mexico. Contrary to traditional exceptional portrayals of stability and prosperity, Mexico after 1940 is better understood as a state of corruption, coercion, and contraband. Above all, reassessment of this period comes from greater access to archival sources; with declassification continually offering new opportunities and perspectives. The relinquishing of state power to sovereign criminal organisations since 1940 intersected identity formation, political institutions, and economic systems, locally, nationally, and transnationally. From further pointed oral histories to expanding the definition of drugs beyond the obvious illicit substances, recognising the historical agency of drugs, not only in Mexico but throughout developing countries globally, offers abundant research opportunities. If fulfilled, no longer will narcotic conflicts in Mexican history be treated as mutually exclusive or demonic but will inform interdisciplinary historical synthesis. Only in uncovering the darkest recesses of history can the victims of post-revolutionary Mexico become focalised.    

Written by Jack Bennett 


Aviña, Alexander. “A War against Poor People: Dirty Wars and Drug Wars in 1970s Mexico.” in México Beyond 1968, edited by Jaime M. Pensado and Enrique C. Ochoa, 134-152. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2018. 

Beckhart, Sarah. “The History of Inhalant Use in Mexico City, 1960–1980.” The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 34, no. 1 (2020): 114-40.    

Campos, Isaac. Homegrown, Marijuana and the origins of Mexico’s war on drugs. Chapel Hill: UNC Press. 2014.    

Gootenberg, Paul and Campos, Isaac. “Toward a New Drug History of Latin America: A Research Frontier at the Center of Debates.” Hispanic American Historical Review 95, no. 1 (2015): 1-35. 

Knight, Alan and Pansters, Will (ed.). Caciquismo in Twentieth Century Mexico. London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2006.   

Rath, Thomas. Myths of Demilitarization in Postrevolutionary Mexico, 1920-1960. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2013.  

Ricart, Pérez. “Taking the War on Drugs Down South: The Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico (1973-1980).” The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 34, no. 1, (2020): 1-32.     

Smith, Benjamin. “The rise and fall of Narcopopulism in Sinaloa, 1940–1980.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism. 7, no. 2 (2013): 125–167.   

Teague, Aileen. “Mexico’s Dirty War on Drugs: Source Control and Dissidence in Drug Enforcement.” The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 33, no. 1 (2019): 82-113.    

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