Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet


The GW Hatchet

Serving the GW Community since 1904

The GW Hatchet

Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter!

Professor, author talks Mexican drug trade

Daniel Heuer | Staff Photographer
Author Benjamin T. Smith speaking at the University Student Center.

A professor discussed his book on the Mexican drug trade at the University Student Center on Monday. 

Benjamin T. Smith, a professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick and author of “The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade,” said he researched the close relationship between the drug cartels and the Mexican government for his book. The event was a public session of the class “Violence, Drugs, and Crime in Latin America,” taught by Gema Kloppe-Santamaria, an assistant professor of Latin American history and international affairs.

Smith said he began investigating the Mexican drug trade around 2016 and his research showed that Mexican production of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, fentanyl and methamphetamines historically aligns with the demand from American consumers.

Smith said he doesn’t deem the the relationship between the Mexican government and the drug trade as “corrupt” because that would connote that politicians are using public money for personal gain or expenses. In many cases, drug traffickers give Mexican authorities a percentage of their profits, which authorities invest into police uniforms, cars, guns and other government needs, Smith said. 

“The relationship between the drug traffickers and the Mexican state was one of effectively a protection racket, or even almost a form of taxation,” Smith said. “Policemen tax drug traffickers and then use at least some of that money to build up the state.”

He said by the 1990s, cartels were making enough money to build “mini-armies” and began asserting their authority in the territory they controlled, escalating violence. Smith said the violence was exacerbated in the early 2000s, as Mexico saw a surge in unemployed men between the ages of 15 and 30 joining cartels, a rise in drug use and the proliferation of semi-automatic weapons being imported from the U.S.

“I think what is perhaps most telling is that in the 1990s, only 17 percent of murders were done by guns, it’s really rare to have a shooting,” Smith said. “Nowadays, it is 70 to 80 percent of murders that are done by guns.”

During his first visit to Mexico in 2000, Smith said the country had begun moving in a “hopeful” direction due to the democratization of the country and the end of the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s rule over Mexico, which had lasted 71 years. But over the next decade, he said he saw the spread of violence across the country as the government attempted to retake territories, mostly including plantations that grew opium poppies or marijuana that were held by the cartels. 

“The Mexico that I had fallen in love with in 2000 really was starting to fall apart by 2010,” Smith said. “I thought part of the reason for writing this book is trying to understand how these changes came about.”

Smith said the “vast majority” of scholars thought investigating the Mexican drug trade was “almost impossible” because of the “deep hidden links” between the cartels and the state making it difficult for researchers to gather any details. Smith said he overcame this challenge by using Mexican state archives on the drug trade, as well as an archive compiled in the 1970s by American journalists and personal interviews, to gain a better understanding of the cartels.

“In the drug trade, it was very difficult to hear through the kind of stories and counterstories, the myths and countermyths that made up the drug trade,” Smith said. “However, basically, through a fairly kind of dogged research, I came up with ways to approach and investigate the Mexican drug trade that I think allowed me to kind of see, to a certain extent, what was actually going on.”

More to Discover
Donate to The GW Hatchet