How did the drug war become so violent? Observers have wrestled with this question in the wake of intense fighting between Mexican cartels, the police, and the military, particularly in Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican government estimates that between 2006 and April 2012, 54,927 people have perished in drug-related violence. There are a number of possible answers to this question. Many have rightfully pointed to the easy flows of American weapons across the U.S./Mexico border. Others have pointed to endemic corruption in the Mexican military and police forces, which, rather than protecting citizens, have aligned with warring cartels at one point or another. These are all reasonable explanations. However, these conditions are only the byproducts of something much larger: the enduring impact of U.S. Cold War foreign policy in Latin America.

Narcotrafficking is deeply embedded in the history of the Cold War. Take, for instance, the powerful Zetas cartel in Mexico. The Zetas originated from an elite but corrupt clique of Mexican and Guatemalan Special Forces and Counterinsurgency Specialists which the United States trained to defeat leftist insurgencies in these countries. In 1999, these officers broke apart from the armed forces to provide security detail for the Gulf Cartel. In 2010, the Zetas split from their Gulf Cartel allies, and are currently battling the Sinaloa Cartel and the defunct-Gulf groups over control of Ciudad Juárez.

The Zetas are only the latest in a long-line of crooked Cold Warriors turned drug traffickers. Between the late 1950s until the mid-1990s, the United States allied with right-wing mercenaries and military dictators to satisfy its short-term goals of defeating leftist insurgencies, especially in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. U.S. allies, including the Contras and regional militaries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama), were heavily involved in criminal conspiracies including drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. Under President Reagan, the CIA sought these groups’ assistance in destroying the FMLN (El Salvador), URNG (Guatemala), and the Sandinista (FSLN) government in Nicaragua. In exchange, the U.S. permitted them to traffic cocaine across Central America and through Caribbean ports.

Take, for example, the United States’ partnership with General-President Manuel Noriega of Panama. Noriega, a former director of the Panamanian secret police and close ally of the Medellin Cartel, was on the CIA payroll for nearly thirty years. Noriega provided critical regional intelligence to the CIA, and in return, the United States assured him it would not shutdown his lucrative drug running and money laundering operations in Panama City. The U.S. also relied upon the Panamanian dictator to secretly arm the Contra rebels against the Sandinista government. He even promised to assassinate FSLN leaders if the U.S. would lead international propaganda campaigns to “clean up his image.”[1] The Contras were involved in narcotrafficking as well. In October 1988, Newsweek reported that the Contras had purchased weapons with profits from the sale of cocaine they had brought into the United States with the help of the CIA and DEA. The story ignited a firestorm of controversy, but was just another episode in a long line of blunders and scandals that defined the Reagan administration’s policy toward Latin America. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush authorized Operation Just Cause, a U.S. Army invasion of Panama that removed Noriega from power. At the time, the operation was the largest U.S.  military action since the Vietnam War.

Nicaraguan Contras

It is important to clarify that the drugs wars are not about states and militaries fighting powerful non-state entities (cartels, gangs, etc). I argue that the boundaries between the state and organized crime in certain countries of Latin America have been irrevocably collapsed. Once again, this is a direct consequence of U.S. sponsored “dirty wars” and counterinsurgencies during the 1970s and 1980s. These policies had the effect of uniting powerful state security apparatuses with organized crime syndicates, drug traffickers, and later, gangs. These alliances have perpetuated judicial impunity and corruption, especially within law enforcement and the military.

Take, for example, the case of Guatemala. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Guatemalan government under civilian presidents Vinicio Cerezo and Jorge Serrano waged a covert dirty war against its opponents (organized labor, student movements, leftwing political parties, and human rights advocates). To avert public attention, these governments conscripted “death squads” comprised of elite intelligence agents and “off-duty” police and military personnel. These death squads collaborated with organized crime syndicates and even contracted “street thugs” to kill opponents.[2] As a result, politicians, military leaders, and mobsters became close bedfellows. Today, Central American nations are infiltrated by mobsters and traffickers who finance elections in exchange for state protections.

U.S. policymakers must recognize how its destructive Cold War policies in Latin America continue to play a major role in the perpetuation of drug violence and terror in the region today. The United States continues to finance, arm, and train Latin American security forces whose tactics have remained largely the same since the 1980s.  They continue to exist beyond the reach of civilian oversight or control. They do not respect due process, specializing instead in illegal methods of coercion, including forced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial assassinations. And yet the United States government continues to rely upon military solutions for curbing drug violence, from the woefully ineffective Plan Colombia to the most recent Plan Mérida agreement. U.S. Southcom and DEA continue to engage familiar cronies and Cold Warriors with abysmal human rights records in its quixotic quest to interdict Andean cocaine before its reaches the border. Until our government considers a range of serious alternatives for controlling the drug trade, and in particular, curbing domestic demand, it can expect the same old results.

-Edward F. Shore

[1] See “Primary Sources”- “The Contras, Cocaine, Noriega, and Covert Operations”

[2] See, for instance, “Primary Sources” Section- “U.S. State Department’s Frustration with Guatemalan President’s Permissive stance on Drugs” and “CIA Links Guatemalan Military Officer to Drug Trafficking.” “U.S. Policy in Guatemala, 1966-1996.”


NSA: U.S. Policy in Latin America (1966-1996)

Link  —  Posted: May 5, 2012 in Primary Sources

The Contras, Cocaine, Noriega, and Covert Operations

National Security Archives uncovers secret documents relating the alliances between the Reagan administration and a whole host of shady actors involved in narcotrafficking

Link  —  Posted: May 5, 2012 in Primary Sources

Colombian Paramilitaries and the U.S.: Documents Detail Narco-Para Connection to anti-Escobar Taskforce

Link  —  Posted: May 5, 2012 in Primary Sources

VIDEO TELESUR: Violence and Drug Trafficking in Mexico (2009)

Link  —  Posted: May 5, 2012 in Further Reading, Viewing, and Listening

Low intensity conflict in the drug wars

Panel discussion including Dr. Howard Campbell, PhD, author of “Drug War Zone.”

Link  —  Posted: May 4, 2012 in Teaching the History of Narcotrafficking and Gangs

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.