UK U-Warwick’s Benjamin Smith on Mexico’s Cartels & Drug Trade

Share on Facebook
Share on Twitter
Share on

Transcript for The Learning Curve with Professor Ben Smith on the Mexican drug trade, Wednesday, February 21, 2024

[00:00:00] Albert: Well, hello, everybody. Hope you’re doing well. Welcome to another episode of The Learning Curve podcast. I’m your host this week, Professor Albert Chang from the University of Arkansas. And co-hosting with me this week is Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Barry Anderson. Justice Anderson, really nice to have you on the show.

[00:01:07] Barry: I appreciate the opportunity, Professor Chang. I’m very much looking forward to this. I think we’re going to have an interesting guest for our listeners and we’re going to have a great conversation.

[00:01:15] Albert: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. We’re going to be talking about the drug trade of all topics.

[00:01:20] Barry: The drug trade in Mexico, in specific.

[00:01:22] Albert: Yes, that’s right. That’s right. Before we get to that, though, let’s talk about some news that’s been out in the past few days. Do you visit Maine often at all, or?

[00:01:33] Barry: You know, I’ve never been to Maine. I had a pastor friend of mine that had a place there, invited me several times, never got around to going, and I’ve always regretted the missed opportunity. It’s a great state.

[00:01:41] Albert: Ah, yeah. Well, you know, one of the stories that I saw this week was from the Wall Street Journal. It’s a fascinating account of a coastal town there. You know, the main industry there really is lobstering, and what they’ve done is a unique thing with their public schools. They’ve essentially built up a new career technical education program to help keep that town thriving. And so, it’s not just lobstering, you know, it’s not just that, but they’re actually built this program that teaches and trains their kids and equips them with a lot of other trades.

[00:02:15] Albert: And this is really, seemed like a grassroots effort. You know, the parents in that town really cared about their kids and wanted them to have a future. And so, they really got together and pushed these new programs to revamp their schools, and it’s really thriving now. So, I just want to encourage listeners to take a look at that article. It’s a fascinating story of what I think families can do, you know, what a town can do revitalize their community and really work together to give their kids a future.

[00:02:44] Barry: You know, when you talk about vocational education one of the interesting things about this is the way the market has shifted in the last several years. For example, the small community that I practice law in before moving on to the bench they have a vocational school, which was sort of a consolation prize. They were originally a contender for a four-year school. And it is the vocational schools where attendance and success has really continued to build while some of the four-year schools are struggling some. It’s been a really interesting change in the education industry and what Maine is experiencing specific to Maine is more generally true, I think, in other places as well.

[00:03:24] Albert: Yeah, and I think that’s the case, and there’s lots of action in a lot of state legislatures to really revitalize CTE programs.

[00:03:31] Barry: If we’re going to talk about articles, I ran across a piece in The Guardian. And it’s interesting on several levels. It’s entitled “Africa is the world’s youngest continent — and education is key to unlocking its potential.” And what makes the piece kind of interesting — two things. One is that the authors are the president of Ghana and the former president of Tanzania, both of whom are participants in the global Partnership for Education. And the story goes underneath the radar screen for most Americans, but Africa is really a continent where there’s a great deal of potential. Among other things, Africa is going to see greater population growth than the rest of the world.

[00:04:10] Barry: And the article discusses the challenges that are present in terms of unlocking education. There are all kinds of institutional challenges that the article doesn’t discuss. They kind of skip over that. But we can talk about some of the cultural issues and problems there, but it’s a tremendous introduction to a part of the world with great potential. And if you look at what the future holds, I think we’re going to see significant economic growth from Africa in the way in which Europe drove economic growth 200 years ago.

[00:04:39] Albert: Yeah, I find these just pondering demographic patterns and changes, I guess, something I admittedly don’t do enough. I mean, I think we’re kind of paying a little bit more attention to this here in the States, just given the exodus of students from the public schools and how much of that is due to declining birth rates. And I guess it sounds like in Africa, we have a complete different situation that’s going to make waves globally in the future it seems.

[00:05:04] Barry: Yeah. Well, you know, here’s an example drawing directly from the article. The two presidents note that Africa currently accounts for 14 percent of the world’s working-age population, but by the end of the century, that’s a little ways away, but it’s going to be 42 percent. So, people are assets, they’re not liabilities and there’s tremendous potential there. It’s interesting. You noted this country, for example, one of the highest performing economic groups coming from other places are Nigerian immigrants from Africa. So, the United States is also of a beneficiary of these developments as well.

[00:05:37] Albert: Yeah. Yeah. Well, it sounds like there’s going to be lots of opportunity, lots to think about in the years ahead. Stick with us because coming up after the break, we’re going to talk about the Mexican drug trade with Professor Benjamin Smith.

[00:06:09] Albert: Benjamin Smith is a professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. He specializes in the grassroots political history of Mexico and has published four monographs, four edited collections, and dozens of academic articles over the past 16 years, including his 2009 book, Pistoleros and Popular Movements: The Politics of State Formation in Post-Revolutionary Oaxaca. Professor Smith has worked on issues as diverse as Mexican social movements, market women, Catholicism, conservatism, journalism, censorship, and the press, while his most recent research has focused on drugs and violence in twentieth-century Mexico. His book, The Dope: The History of the Mexican Drug Trade, was an Amazon best book of 2021. Smith earned his PhD in history from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

Professor Smith, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.

Ben: Oh, thank you very much.

Albert: Well, so, as we just read in your bio, you’re an accomplished historian on modern Mexico and now author of The Dope: The History of the Mexican Drug Trade. So, I guess before we get into the content, I’d like to know how you became interested in Mexico’s drug cartels in the first place.

[00:07:29] Ben: Well, there’s a good question. I mean, I first arrived in Mexico like many people of my age — I’m in my kind of late forties now — in the late 1990s and frankly, the late 1990s in Mexico was a period of, I think, enormous hope. You had a country that was going through a process of democratization in 2000, they would elect a person from outside the ruling party for the first time in 70-odd years. You had very exciting artistic movements, cinema movements,  movements for indigenous and social rights. You also had a very safe country. I mean, Mexico in the late 1990s had a murder rate somewhere like the United States. So I didn’t go to Mexico with any great interest in the drug cartels or the drug business, but in actual fact, I was much more interested in kind of, indigenous traditions, religion, the kind of strange mix of indigeneity and Catholicism. But over the 10 years that I worked there, lived there, studied there, it was pretty difficult to ignore. A lot of the violence started in the kind of northwest of the country. But by the early 2010s, it had shifted down to the center and the south of the country.

[00:08:34] Ben: And I was living in a place called Oaxaca in Southern Mexico. There were two kind of personal reasons why I started to research this. The first was like any good Brit, I had my favorite pub. They call them. It was owned by a chap who in 2013, the cartel called the Zetas rolled in and they started to shake down all the bars and cantinas in Oaxaca. And if you didn’t pay, you got shot. And sadly, the person who ran the bar that I used to go to did get shot, got killed. Bar has been shut ever since. I mean, this is a hundred-year-old kind of cantina in the center of Oaxaca. So, I suppose that kind of brought it to me that the violence, which was being called drug violence at the time, was affecting people that were not immediately involved in the drug trade and not involved in the drug trade at all.

[00:09:17] Ben: So that was, I suppose, a bit of a shock to me. And the second incident that really opened my eyes was around 2015, 2016. I started to get lots of emails from lawyers from throughout the United States who were asking for expert witnesses to come forward and help the — well, it started off as dozens, but it’s become hundreds and now thousands of Mexicans who are fleeing Mexico because of criminal violence, because they were being chased out by cartels. So I’ve become highly involved in that over the last really the last decade or so. So I suppose that has taught me some absolutely heartbreaking stories about the lives of, kind of individual Mexicans when confronted with this criminal violence.

[00:09:58] Albert: Well, you know, you earlier described the spread of this. And so, help listeners better understand the drug trade. What are some of the, the wider historical contexts around just the political economy, the political landscape in Mexico in which the cartels have thrived.

[00:10:15] Ben: There are kind of two main incubation factors for the drug trade. The first is that Mexico has been for most of the 20th century, a fairly poor rural economy. So up to the 1970s, well over half of Mexicans lived in the countryside, most of them in fairly, abject poverty and narcotics, growing narcotics, particularly marijuana and opium poppies, was a source of funds for many peasants.

[00:10:39] Ben: So, the Mexican drug trade that we now think concerns cocaine, which is not grown in Mexico or fentanyl, which is imported from China — and I’m sure we’ll get onto these issues — but the drug trade really started with people growing stuff on their lands. And for them, it was a much better source of wealth, a much better source of money than growing, say, corn or beans or squash.

[00:11:01] Ben: So, it’s really been a kind of economic rationale for the very poor throughout most of Mexican history. However, having said all that, the other major factor that has incubated the cartels is that Mexico has been run, really since the 1920s, by one political party, which called itself the Institutional Revolutionary Party and it claimed to be imposing the kind of social reforms of a revolution that Mexico had from 1910 to 1920. In fact, it was a kind of political kleptocracy. I mean, it was certainly by the ‘50s and ‘60s — corruption was fairly rife. And many governors, mayors, state policemen, federal policemen, saw the drug trade as a good way not only to get rich — and this is something that quite surprised me — but also a way to provide social services. So I found evidence that some of the first what we would call now kingpins, major drug traffickers, were giving up a slice of their profits to the governor, and then the governor was using this to build schools or build roads. So, it’s been a source, not only for peasant upward mobility, but also a source for some of the social services Mexico was lacking in, in the early 20th century.

[00:12:21] Albert: Well, fascinating. So, let;s talk about the drug market itself. For decades, Mexico has been used as a staging point for a lot of these illegal narcotics and contraband especially between Latin America and the U S. And you mentioned cocaine earlier, I mean, cause you mentioned several drugs. I mean, and it’s shifted over time, right? So, the ‘60s and ‘70s is mostly marijuana, the ‘80s cocaine, 90s and 2000s we went on to methamphetamines and opium. Catch the listeners up to speed on these drug products and how cartels in particular have responded to the U.S. drug market over time.

[00:12:55] Ben: Another kind of surprise for me is I anticipated that when I would come here, there would be maybe peasant traditions of growing, let’s say marijuana, and they would grow it for generations. But in actual fact, the Mexican drug production has been enormously sensitive to sudden shifts in demand from the U.S. market. I think I first found this was in 1972. Something called the French Connection of which there is a film named after it, but it was basically the route that heroin came into the United States. It came through, basically came from Turkey and then was made in French heroin factories and then taken to the United States.

[00:13:32] Ben: Well, that route was closed down in 1972. It only took six months for Mexico to start to basically replace the heroin that the US had lost. Now, if you think about it, to grow an opium crop takes about four months. So, they produced, you know, as soon as the French connection had failed, the Mexican cartels, the Mexican drug traffickers, had basically decided to grow opium and managed to set up heroin labs. They invited a lot of the French chemists over to run the heroin labs they had set up and they were flooding the southwest with heroin within six months of the French connection closing down and Los Angeles became the major transit point for heroin, whereas New York had been just six months earlier, so they’re very swift to find kind of new American demand. The other classic example of this would be, there’s an excellent journalist called Sam Quinones, and he discovered that when they were about to ban Oxycontin in 2003, which is obviously a very strong opioid that many people were addicted to, Mexican traffickers saw this coming. And they were quite literally waiting outside OxyContin clinics. When OxyContin doctors or OxyContin people were basically refusing to give out prescriptions anymore, and addicts were coming out obviously fairly strung out, and there were Mexican dealers with the kind of black, the famous black tar heroin that these people needed, or felt they needed. So, yeah, it moves incredibly swiftly, the Mexican drug market, surprisingly swiftly. It’s a fairly perfectly functioning capitalist business.

[00:15:04] Albert: Let’s talk about the cartels themselves a bit more. In your book and elsewhere, there’s plenty of maps of where the cartels are, the regions of the country that they control. Could you just profile some of these cartels, you know, what are the names, what are the methods that they’ve used, you know, protection rackets or violence, kidnapping, extortion, corruption.? I mean, how have they been really keeping their, craft afloat?

[00:15:29] Ben: Yeah, certainly. So, I think there were kind of two things that it’s probably worth your listeners kind of separating in their mind. On the one hand, you have what we might call. Drug trafficking networks, right? These get drugs from mostly from a field, a marijuana field or an opium field. They get them into a lab, they process them into heroin or whatever, and then they have to get them over the border, right?

[00:15:50] Ben: Now those are what we call in the business drug trafficking networks. They involve peasants at one end, they involve smugglers at the other end. On the other hand, there are what we call now and what call themselves cartels. Those are the people you see running around on your TV screen or on your YouTube clips with balaclavas, incredibly heavily armed, often in APVs or in Hummers, often with the badge of a particular cartel, whether it be the CDG or the Cartel Jalisco New Generation or the Cartel de Sinaloa on the side of their vehicles or on badges on their chest. Now cartels, they are probably involved in trafficking drugs at some level, but principally nowadays they are what we might see as — they run, effectively, protection rackets. What does that mean? That effectively means they go to people who run both illicit and licit businesses, and they say, we demand 30 percent of your profits, and in return, we won’t beat you up or smash your shop up or, in the end, kill you, right? So these cartels are effectively nowadays acting much more like a mafia.

[00:17:06] Ben: And they’re preying much more on Mexican citizens than they’ve ever done before. This is a — this has been a very gradual process and has kind of happened in fits and starts and it’s not all of the country. By no means is it all of the country. The CIA has estimated somewhere around 20 percent is controlled by these cartels. It’s still way too much. But these cartels tend to operate — historically, they’ve operated on the border. So you’ve got the cartel, the Tijuana, right? The Tijuana cartel. You’ve got the Juarez cartel in Ciudad Juarez. You’ve got the Gulf Cartel in Nuevo Laredo, kind of Brownsville area. But you now have cartels kind of smaller-level cartels all over Southern and Central Mexico.

[00:17:51] Ben: So there’s a very — maybe your listeners have seen this, it’s a rather brutal clip that came out, I think, about a month ago — of a cartel that calls itself the Familia Michoacana and these masked thugs, heavily armed thugs entered a village, basically started poking guns in farmers faces saying, give us the protection money. And these farmers fought back and basically lynched, I mean, I think it was about half a dozen of these Familia Michoacan members on camera. But this kind of shows the dynamics that’s going on nowadays. It’s not, there was no drugs in the picture. There were no fields of opium. There was no field of marijuanan. There was no fentanyl lab. This was about pure and simple extortion. And so, a lot of these cartels, as I say, are not really involved in drugs very much anymore.

[00:18:37] Albert: Well, you know, so earlier you mentioned in Mexico that the murder rate in the late nineties was comparable to the U.S. And in your book, you document the dramatic growth in more recent decades. Could you just discuss what the murder figures are like right now and where are they happening or where has the growth been most dramatic? How do they compare to the U.S. now and other cities across the globe?

[00:19:00] Ben: In terms of the globe, oddly, I gave a lecture on this yesterday, so I am full of irritating statistics. So, Latin America as a whole contains what, 9 percent of the world’s population, but has 30 percent of its murders. So I think as of a couple of years ago, 43 of the most dangerous cities in the world — so 43 of the top 50 — are in the Americas, the other handful are in mostly in South Africa. So, no doubt, Latin America and particularly Mexico have these beds of very dangerous crime. These historically again have tended to be border cities where cartels have fought over who gets to charge for the drugs passing through the kind of main drug routes to the United States, who runs the protection racket over the cocaine going into the U.S. Famously, well not famously, but infamously, between 2007 and 2010 Ciudad Juarez had a homicide rate of about 300 per 100,000 — to give that in some kind of context, that is 100 times more murderous than the United Kingdom, or your kind of average American town. So, it was horrendous. It was the highest murder rate in the world higher, even the Medellin during the cartel wars there, higher than Kabul, higher than Baghdad. So there were these real kind of concentrations of very brutal violence between both cartels, but also street gangs. I mean, one of the things I think we massively underestimate is that we think these cartel wars are massive groups of 100, 150 people, wearing cartel uniforms.

[00:20:49] Ben: But a lot of these battles were basically battles over who got to sell meth on each corner in Ciudad Juárez. Nowadays, we have much less of those pitched battles between the cartels. But what there is, is violence has become much more diffuse. So it’s much less concentrated at the border, although still Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana have certain areas which are relatively dangerous, but now it’s a lot of ports of entry. So, it’s a lot of the West Coast ports it’s also areas, frankly, where people are fighting over what I was saying, these protection rackets. So for example, nowadays, they’re not fighting over who gets to protect drugs. They’re fighting over who gets to protect avocado fields, a massive, billion-dollar industry. And cartels are now fighting it out to see who gets to charge avocado farmers. Bits of Southern Mexico, places like Michoacán and Guerrero that grow most of the world’s or certainly grow most of the United States’ avocados, they now have fairly high murder rates as well. Now, having said all this, there are places in Mexico that are way safer than places in the most cities in the United States. Mexico City, for example, has a stunningly low homicide rate. It’s comparable, basically, to not even a U.S. city, to a European city. Overall, the current government has actually overseen a slight decrease in murder rates over the last couple of years. So, things potentially in certain places are going in the right direction, but this is often difficult to see because, these kind of high-profile murders keep appearing on our screens.

[00:22:33] Barry: Professor Smith, let’s move from the discussion of the cartels, — maybe come back to that a little bit — to the business piece of this. Analysts estimate that the wholesale earnings from the illicit drug sales to the United States range from somewhere in the neighborhood of $14 billion to $50 billion annually. It might be helpful if you discuss the massive amount of money that exists behind this drug trade, the financial epicenter of where the trade is located in Mexico, and the monetary impact that this has on the governments in Mexico, the United States, and border states like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.

[00:23:06] Ben: This is something that frankly is not investigated enough, but obviously there is a vast amount of money flowing through Mexico due to the drug trade. I mean, I think you’ve shown it there. We have very little idea. Low ball, we talk about kind of $14-odd billion. Other people talk about $50 billion truth somewhere around $30 billion, perhaps, but frankly, we have very little idea about this because we really don’t have much of an idea about where this money goes. I think traditionally it was thought that a lot of it stayed in Mexico, and no doubt quite a lot of it does, but a lot of it is pushed offshore to places like the Cayman Islands, and a lot of it goes through or used to, certainly for the last decade, has been going through U.S. banks. I mean, perhaps most famously, in 2012, HSBC was hauled over the coals for not only laundering terrorist money, but also laundering somewhere in the region of $600 million dollars of narco money as well. Now, HSBC was made to pay a fairly — at the time was thought to be a very large fine. I think it was $1.7 billion. But HSBC kind of knew it was getting into trouble and had that money reserved and no HSBC people went to jail for this. Now this was HSBC, which had basically taken over a Mexican bank that even I knew was the famous cartel laundering bank when I was a journalist down in Mexico in 2000. So it was no secret. And they took over this quite knowingly, did very few checks, and found out they were transferring hundreds of millions of dollars into their HSBC Cayman account. As I say, with very few checks. Now, the American authorities managed to stop that, but I’m sure similar things are still going on.

[00:24:58] Barry: The big business aspects of this are driven by the market in the United States. The demand for illicit drugs within the United States is the major source of the drug trade and the cartels and given our population and our deep troubles with illegal drug use, fentanyl, most notably, something on the order of a hundred thousand deaths a year and the enormous negative impact the trade has had on Americans, talk a little bit about those staggering human casualties and the data behind our intractable problem with illegal drugs.

[00:25:29] Ben: Yes, it’s extremely, I mean, extremely sad. I remember I was studying the heroin industry in Mexico in the 1970s and Americans — several senators — were writing in to President Ford, being very worried because lots of people were overdosing in their regions, particularly in New York. And I think at that time, in 1976, somewhere around 1,500 Americans overdosed on, mostly on heroin. And there was a national [00:26:00] scandal. I mean, this was front page of the New York Times. Well, now, somewhere in the region of 100,000 people. So 70 times as many, 60 times as many are dying from opiate overdoses. It’s absolutely staggering. The other thing to bear in mind is we don’t even have the figures for Mexico.

[00:26:17] Ben: Clearly a lot of fentanyl is flowing through Mexico and some of it’s staying there, particularly in regions like Tijuana, Ciudad Juárez, they’re now selling to Mexicans, which previously they didn’t do. And I think this is something that perhaps your listeners might be quite surprised about, but it would appear, and we don’t have this in writing, but many people have concurred about this: Up to the 1990s, the Mexican cartels, part of their agreement with the government was, we won’t sell to Mexicans. Now that agreement has fallen apart, and the cartels very happily sell to Mexicans. Unfortunately, Mexico doesn’t have the kind of even the kind of rudimentary healthcare system to count its dead. So we have 100,000 Americans dying of fentanyl overdoses and who knows how many Mexicans.

[00:27:06] Barry: So let’s talk about law enforcement issues. Your book covers the various law enforcement and drug interdiction efforts in Mexico and the United States and federal agencies in Mexico, the drug enforcement agency in the United States, the FBI, CIA. Talk about the drug wars in recent decades and the apparent inability of our law enforcement to stem the tide of illegal drugs from Mexico that pour into the U.S. market.

[00:27:32] Ben: Well, okay, I’ll give you the easy answer and then the slightly more complicated answer. The easy answer is basically the Mexican authorities are simply not up to scratch, have not been up to scratch, have been infiltrated by narco money. So when America funded Mexico to start a very aggressive war against the drug cartels, particularly in the 1990s, at that very same time, the drug cartels were flooding the Mexican authorities with money — that we now think somewhere in the region of 60 percent of cartel profits were going to the federal police, the army, and the attorney general’s office, right? That was the major expense of these cartels.

[00:28:16] Ben: So, basically, it was impossible for these police agencies to do anything. They were completely corrupted at the time. People talk about 95 to 98 percent of the federal cops being on the take at the time. So that’s the easy answer. The difficult answer is basically drug-policing cartels is really, really difficult to do, because cartels tend to be closed units. So, there are two ways you can take on a cartel. Either you get an informant on the inside, and this informant starts to give you information about the kingpins of the cartel, but what you do there is you often risk the cartel splitting in two as the informant takes one side and let’s say the person he’s informing on, the kind of Chapo Guzman figure, takes another.

[00:29:08] Ben: So, often you end up basically causing tensions inside the cartel. The other thing you can do is you can basically back one cartel against another. And that’s kind of what the DEA did throughout most of the early 2000s. It was getting a lot of information from Chapo Guzman’s cartel, and it was taking down other cartels with that information. And all it ended up really doing was giving Chapo Guzman’s cartel power over most of Mexico. As I say, the easy victories we think we get, we arrest a kingpin, they often do very little, frankly, because, as I kind of explained at the beginning, this is a market ecosystem, this is about supply and demand, this is not really about individuals.

[00:29:51] Barry: The answer is to control demand, but that is almost as difficult as controlling the supply. So let’s talk a little bit about the Mexican drug cartels. They control over 70 percent of the foreign narcotics that flow into the United States. We’ve had a lot of press coverage here, some action in Congress dealing with fentanyl — 80 percent of the fentanyl, largely coming from China, comes through Mexico. Can you unpack for us the relationship between the cartels, foreign countries, and our illicit drug market?

[00:30:21] Ben: Yeah, I mean, this is extremely complicated and still, to this day, kind of endlessly debated over by experts. So, effectively, people say — and they’re right to say — that fentanyl comes from Mexico, but there is, and the fentanyl that sadly Americans are taking is coming over the U.S. Mexican border. But one of the big questions is, are Mexican cartels basically buying up precursors in China, but also in India? And then making that fentanyl in labs in Mexico and then smuggling it into the United States. Or — and this is what the Mexican government claims — are basically Mexicans only working as the trans-shippers of fentanyl. That is, is this fentanyl actually all made in China, and then all the Mexicans are doing is basically pressing it into small pills. So, not actually fabricating the chemical itself and taking it over the border. So there is a kind of big discussion about this. In terms of which cartels are making the fentanyl, the DEA about six months ago put out a list of 28 members of the Sinaloa cartel — that it said was very linked to the fentanyl industry. The Mexicans captured a man called Ovidio Guzman, who’s Chapo Guzman’s son, claimed that he was connected to the fentanyl industry since then.

[00:31:46] Ben: Since then, the Sinaloa cartel has been putting notices around areas it’s controlled saying please basically stop producing fentanyl. Now, some people say this is kind of self-preservation, but in actual fact Chapo’s sons and a lot of the Sinaloa cartel are trying to get into the what will soon be the legal weed industry, that they want to get out of the hard drugs. Other people say this is a sham, that it’s simply that these notices mean nothing and they’re simply to kind of demonstrate to the U.S. government that they’re doing something. So, as I say, one of the problems is we have so little information on these networks. The best report you can get is if you go to Insight Crime, which is a news service done by a guy called Steve Dudley and other very good journalists, they have a long, 150-page report, which is probably the best thing done at the moment about these different networks, some of which are producing the chemicals, producing the fentanyl in Mexico, and some of them which is just importing it from China and India.

[00:32:49] Barry: The Learning Curve is an education podcast, and I think maybe we should close our question-and-answer part of the program today with response from you about the big picture lessons that policymakers, educators, the general public should know about the Mexican drug trade, the cartels, and what we should be teaching young people about this wide-ranging problem?

[00:33:11] Ben: I always like talking to Americans, because Americans ask me for answers. And I’m not entirely sure I have any. The one answer I would give is I think we’ve seen, and certainly I did at the beginning, we’ve seen some kind of form of decriminalization of narcotics or legalization even of narcotics as being a kind of silver bullet to the problem. I don’t think it is anymore. I mean, frankly, the United States and about half of its states has now de facto legalized marijuana. All that has done — the idea was this would suck profits from the cartels, that we would kind of undermine the cartels and their source of money. All the cartels did was turn to other more socially destructive forms of crime. So, protection rackets, extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, stuff that really badly affects Mexican communities. So I think, be wary about what effects you think legalization and decriminalization might have on the Mexican drug cartels. And I think, I think that’s about it. It really is a pretty depressing story, I’m afraid.

[00:34:18] Barry: There are no easy answers here, I’m afraid, and we, it took a while to get into this problem, and it’ll take quite a while to get out of it. One of the things we like to do on The Learning Curve is to give the author books that we invite conversation about an opportunity to read a paragraph or so from his or her book and your book The Dope: The History of the Mexican Drug Trade is a terrific read we recommend it to our listeners and maybe you could share a paragraph with us as we go out this afternoon?

[00:34:44] Ben: Thank you very much. Okay, so I’m gonna start with Chapter One:

“Meet Mexico’s first narco. For public enemy number one, José del Moral, was a bit of a disappointment. As the police dragged him out of his house on Calle San Jeronimo in the center of Mexico City on July 20, 1908, he cut a disheveled figure. Grimacing from his toothless mouth, he was in his late fifties, grey-haired, and dressed in a tattered waistcoat and trousers. Of course, the tabloid press of the time didn’t call him a narco. They had yet to come up with such convenient shorthand. Instead, he was “the capital’s poisoner in chief” and “the king of the grifos [stoners].” Del Moral was not royalty, but he was the capital’s biggest marijuana wholesaler. Three days earlier the police had raided his warehouse south of the city. Here they had discovered thousands of marijuana cigarettes. The newspapers had reacted with full-blown hysteria. “Marijuana factory” with enough marijuana “to poison the whole capital” ran El Imparcial. “The terrible cannabis indica of the healers is the opium of our lower classes,” opined the slightly more cerebral El País.

Mexico’s first narco—meet Mexico’s first drug panic.”

[00:35:57] Albert: Thank you Professor Smith. That was fascinating. [00:36:00] Learned a lot and thanks for being on the show.

[00:36:01] Ben: Thank you very much.

[00:36:03] Albert: Fascinating interview indeed. I learned quite a bit from this conversation. But before I close out, the Tweet of the Week, which comes from the Gilder-Lehrman Institute. And it’s a tweet about a new book by Jeffrey Rosen entitled The Pursuit of Happiness, How Classical Writers on Virtue Inspired the Lives of the Founders and Defined America. Justice Anderson, I don’t know if you caught wind of this release, but it looks like a fascinating title. Certainly with my own interest in classical education and, and Western civilization sounds like it would be a great read.

[00:36:59] Barry: Well, I’ll just say that we just finished celebrating the 300th anniversary of Adam Smith. And it turns out he’s just as relevant today as he was when he was writing in his prime.

[00:37:06] Albert: Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. Join us next week for another episode of The Learning Curve podcast, where we’re going to have Professor Beverly Gage, who is a professor of history at Yale and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a book G Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century. So, should be another fascinating conversation next week. And stay tuned for the release of a new white paper on the Pioneer website written by Cara Candal who we had on the show a few weeks ago to talk about National School Choice Week. She’s got a paper about NAEP scores and accountability policy. This is actually going to be the first of three reports, so keep your eyes peeled for that coming out this week. I’m your host, Albert Chang. And I want to thank my co host Justice Barry Anderson for joining me this week. Justice Anderson, it was great to have you on the show. Same to you. but until next week, I hope you have a great time and you’ll tune in again for another episode of The Learning Curve.

This week on The Learning Curve, guest co-hosts Prof. Albert Cheng of the University of Arkansas and Minnesota Supreme Court Justice Barry Anderson interview UK University of Warwick Prof. Benjamin Smith, author of The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade. Smith provides insights into various aspects of the Mexican drug trade, including its historical context and the evolution of illicit drug products over time. He discusses key cartels and their methods, the impact of the drug trade on Mexico’s murder rates, the immense financial scale of the trade, its effect on Mexico and the U.S., and the challenges law enforcement face in combating it. Smith explores the relationship among Mexican cartels, other foreign countries, and the illicit drug market in the U.S. He closes with a reading from his book, The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade.

Stories of the Week: Albert discusses an article from the Wall Street Journal on vocational technical-education in Maine; Justice Anderson shares a story from The Guardian on the importance of education in Africa.


Benjamin Smith is a professor of Latin American History at the University of Warwick in the U.K. He specializes in the grassroots political history of Mexico and has published four monographs, four edited collections, and dozens of academic articles over the past 16 years, including his 2009 book, Pistoleros and Popular Movements: The Politics of State Formation in Postrevolutionary Oaxaca. Prof. Smith has worked on issues as diverse as Mexican social movements, market women, Catholicism, conservatism, journalism, censorship and the press, while his most recent research has focused on drugs and violence in twentieth-century Mexico. His book The Dope: The History of the Mexican Drug Trade was an Amazon Best Book of 2021. Smith earned his PhD in History from the University of Cambridge, U.K.


Tweet of the Week: