Coca: The Survival of a Drug of the Dispossessed

In the beginning of this year, Bolivia gained the right to re-access the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation concerning the prohibition of the chewing of coca leaves. This is a small but perhaps not unimportant victory against the global War on Drugs. Especially it means some recognition of the right of indigenous people, the dispossessed of the earth, to their own drug use.

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

In my blog of 11 June 2012 I discussed how the knowledge of coca use among the Indians of Spanish America was disseminated by, among others, the buccaneers and pirates of the later seventeenth century. As a collateral result of their plunder voyages on the Spanish Main some of the Brethren of the Coast became key informants on American drugs for the botanists and trading companies of Western Europa. Some of these drugs became export products to the rest of the world, with varying commercial results. Coca, for some reason, didn’t. Was there in Europe in the early modern period no need for a drug that gave a slight stimulation throughout the day? Or did a drug used, not by wild and exotic Indian savages firing the imagination of European armchair adventurers, but used by poor Indian slaves adjusting themselves to Spanish tyranny, fail to have the necessary sexiness to be adopted in the lifestyles of Europeans? Was it just the case that Europeans weren’t used to and didn’t like the method of consumption of coca, chewing the leaves until their teeth turned green? Or was it a matter of too complicated logistics to export the leaves to Europe in a state of some potency? Continue reading →

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LSE IDEAS: The Global Drug Wars

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. Continue reading →

Days of the Dead

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,

Mixquic, Mexico

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.

Paisaje I by Lenin Márquez Salazar

For years, drugs have—borrowing from Avery Gordon’s Ghostly Matters–haunted Mexico, Continue reading →

A Colombian Queen’s Tale: The End and Beginning of Griselda Blanco

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. Continue reading →

Teaching Points– Myrna Santiago on “Cocaine…and US Latin-American Relations”

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.

Myrna Santiago, St. Mary’s College

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.  Continue reading →

Teaching Points– Cocaine, the Drug Trade, the War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations

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.

Definitional

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.

Required Readings

Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug
Gabriel García Márquez, News of a Kidnapping
Roberto Escobar, The Accountant’s Story
Coletta A. Youngers and Eileen Rosin, Drugs & Democracy in Latin America
Jeffrey A. Miron, Drug War Crimes
Articles from e-reserve

Schedule of Classes

Mon Aug 31 Introduction

Wed Sept 2: Coca and the first wave of cocaine, to 1890

  • Gootenberg, Introduction, ch 1
  • Learning objective: understanding the historiography
  • Continue reading →

Mexico’s Election: Drug Continuities or Contingencies? By Javier Alvarez-Isasi and Elaine Carey

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.

Voting in Atlacomulco, July 2012

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. Continue reading →