Well-researched and comprehensive, A Narco History proves to be a slog through what is an otherwise riveting, terrifying and altogether fascinating subject.
The history of the Mexican Drug War is full of bloodshed, corruption and a cast of characters that reading Carmen Boullosa and Mike Wallace’s A Narco History requires a detailed flowchart to keep everyone straight. Unfortunately, the onus is on the reader. Add to this the countless acronyms used by both the U.S. and Mexican governments over the last 100-plus years and you’ve got a dense stack of information. Well-researched and comprehensive, the book proves to be a slog through what is an otherwise riveting, terrifying and altogether fascinating subject.
Given our asshole-in-chief’s penchant for sabre-rattling and early morning Twitter rants while fantasizing about his mythical border wall, any discussion of U.S./Mexico relations is very much relevant. That Boullosa and Wallace take the time to provide the reader with a full chronological look at how we ended up in this situation is all the more impressive given the book’s subtitle, How the United States and Mexico Jointly Created the “Mexican Drug War.
Beginning in the late 19th century, all manner of now-banned narcotics were being used by appropriately-titled druggists in the U.S. When these started to become a problem, the white majority began coming after the country’s minorities with racially-charged accusations of deviant and decidedly un-American behavior. As with the current administration, these were thinly veiled acts of racism passed off as political discourse. By riling up their equally racist constituents with tales of cocaine and marijuana-addled blacks and Hispanics raping white women and Chinese opium addicts wreaking havoc on the country’s West Coast, the groundwork for our current issues were being firmly laid.
Indeed, the same inherent racism and xenophobia is what is and has been driving the current administration’s entire platform for “Making American Great Again” – a slogan none too subtly borrowed from Germany’s equally intolerant National Socialist German Workers’ Party and their hot-headed, blowhard leader whose name has become synonymous with evil. But where before there were still those living who recalled with fondness the practice of human slavery, contemporary bigots are adopting these regressionist ways of thinking a full half-century after the last major struggle for basic human rights.
Because of this, the start of Boullosa and Wallace’s narrative reads as much like a contemporary account of the contentious relations between the two countries as it does a historical one. As the U.S. increasingly cracked down on drug use and its importation from once impoverished but soon to be thriving regions of rural Mexico, violence and political corruption rose precipitously. As with the passage of the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act that kicked off what became known as the Prohibition Era, this first push to combat drugs gave life to a new form of crime and violence affecting both sides of the border.
Yet despite the U.S.’s complicity in giving rise to some of the largest, most violent drug cartels this side of Columbia, it has been saddled with the stigma of being a purely Mexican problem. Then as now, there were discussions surrounding ramping up border security in order to keep “undesirables” (read: non-whites) out of the country. Then as now, alternate means of achieving the financially-motivated end of getting drugs into the United States continue to be a hot button issue that thinly-veiled political bigots can use to rally the equally intolerant masses.
That we refuse to acknowledge that we brought much of this trouble upon ourselves is lost in the typically xenophobic rhetoric that passes for informed discussion. From Harry Anslinger’s initial push for a war on drugs via the Federal Bureau of Narcotics through Nixon’s establishment of the Drug Enforcement Agency, once policymakers cracked down on what had previously been a recreational and even medicinal practice, things got ugly. With overwhelming profit margins for drug kingpins and the politicians in their pocket, the implementations of both agencies proved little more than a roadblock and, ultimately, a case of pouring gas on what was once little more than a simmering fire.
Of course Boullosa and Wallace make clear that Mexico was equally, if not more complicit in the resulting drug war. Whether through rampant political corruption or a blatant disregard for law and order, the social and political rot that gave rise to what an unimaginably violent culture functioned largely from the top down. The practice of looking the other way allowed the cartels to become all the more emboldened, coming up with means of torture and murder that would make even Eli Roth squirm. From bodies being dumped in the streets, horribly mutilated, to the thousands who were simply “disappeared,” the modern-day half of the narrative is the stuff of nightmares.
Not designed to legitimize anyone’s involvement in this crisis, A Narco History focuses on the sobering facts of what led to its tragic rise. It’s a sobering look at the harsh realities of Edmund Burke’s axiom of “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” Indeed, we seem to be stuck in something of an infinite loop from which there appears to be little escape. In one fell swoop, we’ve regressed more than 100 years. That, coupled with the horrors described herein, is utterly terrifying.