The beginning of modern war on drugs in the United States is commonly credited to President Richard Nixon, who evoked fears of crime, degenerate youth, and foreign drugs to garner support for his massive, by early 1970s standards, effort to combat drugs in the United States. Scholars now agree, however, that the essential characteristics of the “war on drugs” stretched back to the early 20th century. The first federal law to prohibit a narcotic in the United States passed in 1909 and banned the import of “smoking opium.” Although opium itself remained legal, opium prepared for smoking—a form believed to be consumed predominantly by ethnic Chinese and imported into the United States—was not. All future anti-narcotics policies drew on these foundational notions: narcotics were of foreign origin and invaded the United States. Thus, interdiction efforts at U.S. borders, and increasingly in producer countries, were an appropriate response. Narcotics consumers were presented as equally threatening, viewed as foreigners or at the margins of American society, and U.S. lawmakers therefore criminalized both drug use and drug trafficking. With drugs as well as drug users defined as foreign threats, militarization of the efforts to prohibit drugs followed. In U.S. drug policy, there is no distinction between foreign and domestic policy. They are intertwined at all levels, including the definition of the problem, the origin of many drugs, and the sites of enforcement.
Anne L. Foster
From Hollywood movies to binge-worthy TV shows, stories of Colombian narcotraficantes waging war against state agents and civilians are profitable narrative devices of our times. But beyond the screen, the history is not as clear-cut or simple. The drug wars in Colombia began years before the cocaine lords launched a crusade against extradition in the mid-1980s. Building upon a long history of military and intelligence cooperation against communism during the Cold War, the US and Colombian governments engaged in a series of diplomatic exchanges during the 1970s to define the best approach to the growing traffic in marijuana and cocaine between the two countries. By the end of the decade, this long process of political accommodation led to the first drug war in the South American nation. Since then, antinarcotics campaigns against producers of illicit crops and the criminal structures that controlled exportation and distribution to the United States and European markets have constituted essential components in the relationship between the two countries. For the last forty years, prohibitionist drug policies and militarized antinarcotics campaigns have systematically interacted with traffickers’ efforts at survival and their ruthless competition for the accumulation of capital, power, and status. As a result of this dynamic, warfare has become the norm in the functioning of the illicit business as well as in the state’s efforts at drug control and repression, making Colombia one of the main theaters of the drug wars in the world.
The drug trade in Mexico and efforts by the Mexican government—often with United States assistance—to control the cultivation, sale, and use of narcotics are largely 20th-century phenomena. Over time, U.S. drug control policies have played a large role in the scope and longevity of Mexico’s drug trade. Many argue that these policies—guided by the U.S.-led global war on drugs—have been fruitless in Mexico, and are at least partially responsible for the violence and instability seen there in the early twentieth century. A producer of Cannabis sativa and the opium poppy, Mexico emerged as a critical place of drug supply following World War II, even though domestic drug use in Mexico has remained low. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the drug trade in Mexico has reached epic proportions due to drug demand emanating from the United States. Mexico’s cultivation of psychoactive raw materials and its prime location—connecting North America with Central America and the Caribbean and sharing a 2,000-mile-long border with the United States—have made it an ideal transit point for narcotics originating from other parts of the Western Hemisphere and the world. Although Mexico implemented a smaller, less organized antidrug campaign in the late 1940s, the inauguration of the global war on drugs in 1971 represents a distinctive shift in its drug control and enforcement policies. The government began utilizing U.S. supply-control models, advice, and aid to decrease the cultivation of drugs inside the country. America’s fight against drug trafficking in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s shifted the geographic locus of the drug trade to Mexico by the early 2000s. Mexico’s powerful drug cartels proved more than capable of eluding (sometimes colluding with) the Mexican government’s efforts against them in the first decade of the 21st century during the administration of President Felipe Calderón (2006–2012). Calderón’s fight against the cartels brought about a drug war in Mexico, characterized by widespread violence, instability, and an estimated death toll of more than 70,000 people.