Announcing Narcomodernities

Posted: May 4, 2012 in Blog Posts

Why should historians investigate narcotrafficking and why should the general public be aware of its history? As a first year Ph.D. student in the Latin American history program at the University of Texas, I became fascinated by informal economies, cartels, youth gangs, the “war on drugs,” immigration, government corruption, the prison system, and the decline of the American industrial sector. My broad interest in these topics stemmed from my experiences as a teacher at the Suffolk County House of Correction in Boston, Massachusetts, and as a Jesuit Volunteer in Newark, New Jersey. I witnessed first-hand how these historical forces actively shaped the lives of my students, neighbors, friends, and colleagues. I also became intimately aware of how my own choices and actions directly affect and mediate these forces.  I came to the University of Texas to discover the historical roots of these phenomena. I hope that historical inquiry of the drug trade and narco-violence will allow me to voice new ideas and propose new policies that will create a more just and peaceful world.

Drug Violence in Juarez/ courtesy of Don Bartletti, Los Angeles Times

I argue that studying the international drug trade is crucial for understanding how global power, economies, and societies work. It is essential for understanding the historical trajectory of development in Latin America, from the tobacco and cacao trade in the Spanish and Portuguese Empires to the criminal entrepreneurialism of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin cartel. We must examine the United States’ wars on drugs, from anti-drug crusader Harry Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics in the 1940s, to First Lady Nancy Reagan’s infamous “just say no” campaign, to understand the core objectives and shocking contradictions of American foreign policy in Latin America. We must look at how the cocaine and heroin boom of the mid-1970s contributed to the decline of American industrial cities in the post-Fordist era. We must examine anti-drug policies to explain the mass incarcerations of African American and Latino youth that have made the United States the most incarcerated country on earth. We must analyze the drug trade to better understand the “crisis” of illegal immigration on the U.S./Mexico border. Studying narcotrafficking further enables us to understand corruption in government, from the Calderon administration in Mexico to our own city council members and legislators. In addition, U.S. policymakers and their allies must take a long and hard look at the blossoming poppy and heroin trade when charting nation-building projects in Afghanistan. Above all, we must fully appreciate that narcotrafficking is a historical and global phenomenon that has linked together nations, peoples, and societies, for better and for worse.

Narcomodernities is an international history of drug trafficking and violence in the Americas. For a host of reasons, drugs are, and have long been, among the most mobile and global of goods.[1] This website explores a broad range of state and non-state actors who have been involved in these vast, transnational networks, from Pablo Escobar to the Contras, Manuel Noriega to Amazon Indian growers, favela dwellers in Rio de Janeiro to Central American gang members on the streets of Los Angeles. It showcases a number of historical monographs and primary source documents, as well as popular articles, video clips, and songs that provide a broad, historical view of the international drug trade.

But first, what is international history? In his landmark The Birth of the Modern World, historian C.A. Bayly argues that the task of an international historian is to bring together historical trends and sequences which have previously been treated separately. He or she must seek to clarify and probe connections and analogies between the histories of different parts of the world. Bayly contends that the “birth of the modern age,” spanning from 1780 to 1914, signaled an era of increased interconnectedness and interdependence well before the supposed onset of “globalization” after 1945. How did this happen? Bayly claims that a “conscious, global push to become modern” entangled world societies in a way they had connected before. Being “modern” meant constructing nation-states with set borders, territories, and peoples. It meant erecting civil institutions that reflected the interests of and responded to the needs of its citizens. It forced modern nation-states to industrialize and develop new technologies. Modernization further compelled these states to create, conquer, and participate in new global capitalist markets.

Bayly’s ideas inspire my approach to studying narcotrafficking. The concept of “narcomodernities” posits that the drug trade is a key feature in the development of quintessentially “modern” Latin American political-economies and societies. For instance, Paul Gootenberg shows us that Peru’s first experiments in industrial manufacturing, between 1885 and 1905, concentrated upon the production of cocaine for a medicinal market in Europe and the United States. In more recent times, Forrest Hylton has showed us how the city of Medellin, rated among Latin America’s “most modern cities,” has developed almost entirely on the tails of cocaine dollars.  Ironically, Colombia’s recent successes in the global economy can largely be attributed to the record profits generated by the very illicit networks that its government has battled for nearly five decades. Colombian cartels, paramilitaries, guerrillas, and criminal entrepreneurs have reinvested their huge profits into the booming FIRE (finance, insurance, and real-estate) economy. This has generated unprecedented growth in what was once the most dangerous city in the world.

I will conclude my first blog post by summarizing some of historian Paul Gootenberg’s key findings surrounding the history of the drug trade in Latin America. In his landmark, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug, Gootenberg draws on actors and influences from around the globe, “underscoring the ways in which Andeans (Peruvians, Bolivians, Ecuadorians, and Colombians) have acted as protagonists in the development of global cocaine through their ideas, beliefs, exertions, and activities.”[2] He asks the following question: “how did this Andean nexus and later, the Latin American region as a whole, become the epicenter of narcotrafficking?” For starters, he contends the “vast majority of the world’s psychoactive substances- alkaloid-bearing plants, fungi, cacti, seeds, and vines, from peyote to yage- are American in origin, profoundly rooted in indigenous and shamanistic communities.”[3] During the colonial period, some of these, such as tobacco and cacao, “quickly transformed into major exportable world commodities, becoming bulwarks of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.”[4] Gootenberg claims that by the nineteenth century, “such habit-forming export commodities were crucial to the economies, societies, and revenues of many fledgling Latin American nations.” By the mid-twentieth century, illicit drugs like marijuana, heroin, and especially cocaine came to link certain marginalized zones of Latin America to the United States. Gootenberg observes how the cocaine economy, “by far, is the biggest and most entrenched of these inter-American drug economies- worth almost forty billion dollars annually in prohibition-inflated U.S. ‘street sales.'” He concludes, “in many ways, all sensationalism about drugs aside, cocaine is now South America’s most emblematic product.”[6]

I invite you to explore my website to learn more about the history of narcotrafficking in the Americas. I hope that you walk away with an understanding of the critical role narcotrafficking has played in both constructing and destroying states, in employing masses of impoverished people, but enriching only a handful of brutal narco-entrepreneurs and their crooked allies in government. Too often, the poor bear the full brunt of the violence, terror, and corruption unleashed by the booming illegal drug trade. I invite you to post comments and share feedback on the contents of this project. Finally, it is my sincerest hope that you leave this website with a new interest in the history of narcotrafficking and that you relate to your family, friends, students, and colleagues the importance of investigating this subject further.


Edward F. Shore

[1] Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 7.

[2] Gootenberg, 9.

[3] Ibid, 4.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, 5.

  1. Christopher J. Wahoff says:


    I commend your drive to continue the study of international drug trafficking among other urgent topics. Your historical focus will no doubt add to the growing debate on the legalization/de-criminalization debates emerging from Latin American heads of state (from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador to Colombia and Argentina) in response to the failed “War on Drugs” that took its modern form under the Nixon Administration. While little was accomplished in the recent Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, the serious nature and urgency of a new focus in this debate was agreed upon by all participating nations, while the methods and end goals to do so continue to be elusive and far from forming part of a hemispheric consensus.

    With a death toll of over 50,000 in Mexico alone since the Calderón Administration’s U.S.-backed military response to organized crime and the drug trade, U.S. policymakers must make the connection between the economic realities of supply and the insatiable demand coming from their own citizens as a call to action. Mexico’s asymmetrical body count can no longer be considered an isolated phenomenon, given its shared border with the world’s largest drug-consuming nation (“Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos”). For too long, the debate has weighed heavily on supply-side interdiction and eradication policies in producing nations, while the demand-side critiques and policies have been largely absent (or allowed to slide, given the existence of misguided token drug prevention education programs, e.g D.A.R.E.).

    The truth is, fumigations across Putumayo, manual eradication in the Chapare region, big busts in ports or along the border are considered sexy and serve to prove a politician’s “toughness” on crime and drugs. In short, the above-mentioned myopic policies reflect the short-sighted goals of this country’s politicians: namely, to get elected every 2, 4 or 6 years. Rather than invest in long-term policies, such as serious rehabilitation centers throughout the nation (in cities, rural areas, and suburbs), decriminalization of drug use, and serious detective-work to take down the networks of those actually making a real profit off of the trade (especially eroding the mid-level players before going after the capos), politicians remain too worried about the next elections and continue to support the same quick and dirty policies that have made the so-called “War on Drugs” the failure it is today. I wish you the best in this endeavor and look forward to future collaboration on these topics, among others.

    Un abrazo,

    Christopher J. Wahoff

  2. Chris, thanks for the feedback and encouragement. This is a crucially important topic, for you as a political scientist and for me as a historian. The key for the historian is to identify past moments where countries/actors dared to implement something other than a “war on drugs.” I’d be curious to learn more about how Costa Rica, a country without a military, has treated the drug problem. My guess is that they have a better trained and less corrupt law enforcement. We never seem to hear about how the Costa Rican government is involved in many scandals, when surely, drugs pass through the small country onto Nicaragua, El Salvador, etc. etc. We should look into this!

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