The Drug War: an intro class lecture

A Cannabis plant. By Cannabis Training University (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
I want to share this lecture on the drug wars. Although I now teach only online, I taught the face to face course for nearly twenty-years. This lecture is approximately six years old, so it would need to be updated. It also has references to my own experiences doing interviews with drug traffickers and users in Brazil, which wouldn’t be relevant for most people. My hope, though, is that it might be helpful to someone who is teaching the “Introduction to International Studies” class, who can take some of these ideas and make it their own.

Shawn Smallman, 2020

The Drug Wars


Realism; human security

The First Opium War

The Second Opium War

Lin Zexu



Crack cocaine


The Mexican drug war, 2006-present


Lecture Outline:

Realism versus human security

The Opium Wars

Early Drug Policy



Drugs in South America

The Mexican Drug War



Realism Versus Human Security

  • Security is the oldest issue in international affairs
  • In today’s lecture, I want to talk about two issues: the problem of unintended consequences, and difference paradigms of security
  • One of the great tragedies of trying to ensure security is that sometimes the very things that leaders may do to make their people safe may actually make them less secure
  • This has been realized ever since the ancient Greeks, when Athens efforts to build a great wall to protect the capital helped to spark a Spartan invasion
  • Sometimes preparing for conflict can spark war, by inspiring fear in your enemies
  • Another issue is when we talk about security, what do we mean
  • Predominant view: realism
  • In this paradigm, when we talk about security we are talking about the nation-state, and its ability to prevent invasion and protect its people from foreign threats. 
  • The emphasis is upon the state, and the main means of defense are the armed forces and security services, including the police
  • Over the past decade, another paradigm has become important in security studies
  • The idea of human security, which focuses on the security of populations, rather than the state
  • Tends to focus on problems based on how much of a threat they pose to people, rather than the state
  • Human security, therefore, might focus more on preparing for an influenza pandemic than a military invasion, because the odds of a pandemic are much greater
  • The chapter in the textbook talks about both paradigms, and the critique that each makes of the other
  • What I want to do today is to apply these paradigms to a case study, the drug war in Latin America
  • Talk about the origins of this conflict, and the current struggle in Mexico


The Opium Wars

  • Currently, security services in Europe and North America make substantial investments in keeping illicit drugs out of their nations
  • This was not always the case
  • In the nineteenth century, Britain went to war with China because the Chinese government tried to stamp out the opium trade
  • There were two opium wars: the First Opium War from 1839 to 1842, and the Second Opium War from 1856 to 186-
  • The British East India company had a trade imbalance with China
  • There weren’t that many products that Britain produced that the Chinese wanted
  • The company relied on opium to ensure a positive balance of trade, and invested heavily in this product
  • The Qing dynasty decided to suppress the opium trade
  • The British sent military forces to force China to continue the opium trade
  • The Treaty of Nanking not only ensured that the opium trade would continue, it also created the enclave of Hong Kong
  • Chinese unhappiness with these terms then led to the Second Opium War
  • Lin Zexu, the Governor General of Hunan and Hubei provinces, is now a hero in China, for having led the effort to suppress the opium trade
  • a substantial opium trade continued to exist in China until the 1949 Revolution
  • of course, the opium trade did not stay restricted to China
  • found in Chinese enclaves throughout the West
  • think of the Sherlock Holmes story “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” which described an opium den in Victorian London
  • Watson went to the den to bring out a friend, who was an opium addict
  • While there he was surprised to see Sherlock Holmes
  • Victoria was the main opium center on the Pacific Coast of Canada
  • White Euro-Canadians would travel there both to smoke and to purchase opium


Early Drug Policy

  • Western governments have not always been so concerned with the trade of drugs
  • In the nineteenth century cocaine was a common ingredient in all kinds of patent medicines
  • In Italy, it was sold mixed in wine
  • Coca Cola really did used to have cocaine
  • Even now Coca Cola legally imports substantial amounts of coca leaves to Atlanta, because their leaves help to flavor Coca Cola
  • For a time, cocaine was advocated as a tool to help people to overcome their addiction to morphine
  • Cocaine addiction very common: think of Sherlock Holmes in Victorian literature
  • In 1909 Ernest Shackleton took “Forced March” brand cocaine tablets on his march to the South Pole
  • Early twentieth century, large number of Americans and Europeans were addicted to cocaine and morphine, which were available over the counter
  • The government moved to restrict access to these substances
  • The sale and distribution of cocaine was outlawed in the U.S. in 1914
  • A growing movement in illicit narcotics was born
  • Of these, perhaps the most important was cocaine
  • I want to focus on cocaine, because my own area of research is South America, the region that I know best



  • Coca a sacred leaf in Andean society
  • Coca leaves have been found on Andean mummies
  • Coca leaves often exchanged in a ritual of greeting
  • Not the same as cocaine: as different as rye is from rye whiskey
  • The leaves are chewed
  • Need to be combined with an alkaline substance like lime to have an affect
  • Provide a mild sense of well-being
  • Also give one stamina
  • Commonly given to workers at high altitudes
  • Not that pleasurable: colleagues anecdote
  • Extremely nutrient rich
  • Andean diets very low calcium
  • Coca leaves have a great deal of calcium
  • People also drink coca leaf infusions
  • Taught a course and discussed coca: students told me that there was a “coca leaf” tea at World Market
  • I didn’t believe them: then someone brought one into class
  • Mildly stimulating
  • Now used to help people withdraw from cocaine use, although this is controversial
  • The FDA has tried to stamp out its sale



  • Invented in nineteenth century Europe
  • Chemists managed to isolate the active ingredient in coca leaves
  • A powerful nervous system stimulant
  • Creates a feeling of alertness and euphoria
  • Also brings feelings of anxiety and paranoia
  • Increases heart rate
  • Someone I know saw someone at a party who had just taken cocaine: could see their heart beating through their shirt
  • My own experience with sinus surgery
  • Done under a local anesthetic so I was awake throughout the process
  • Cocaine usually snorted into the nose through some kind of a small hose: such as a ball point pen
  • I can’t even imagine doing that after my experience with sinus surgery: makes me shudder just to think about it
  • In addition to free base cocaine, there is also “crack” cocaine
  • Crack cocaine is a lower purity product, which is usually produced using baking soda to create a hard and brittle, off-white material
  • Usually used by smoking
  • It makes a crackling sound as it is smoked, which is where the name comes from
  • Crack users are frequently burned by the pipes, which can also spread HIV
  • Some people also inject cocaine
  • Fairly rare in U.S.; much more common in South America



  • Colombia is the world’s major producer of cocaine
  • Does not grow most of the coca leaves
  • Most raw product come from Peru or Bolivia
  • But the production takes place in Colombia, and it a transshipment point to the North
  • Continues a long smuggling tradition in Colombia that dates back to the colonial period
  • Until the 1959 Cuban revolution, a great deal of the illicit drugs in the U.S. came through Cuba
  • Revolution shut down this trade
  • Production already existed in Colombia, but it increased rapidly
  • For poor farmers this represented a vital means to gain income
  • Coca can grow in poor soil
  • Harvests take place up to six times a year
  • They sometimes do the first stage of processing, which involves large buckets with first gasoline, and then battery acid
  • It is possible to synthesize cocaine, so that coca plants are not needed at all
  • Not economically viable


Coca Eradication

  • By the 1980s, the Colombian drug cartels dominated the drug trade
  • Became so powerful that they threatened the state
  • Pablo Escobar, the head of the Medellin cartel, fought a war against the government
  • My wife was in Colombia in 92/92, a time when car bombs were frequently exploded to pressure the government
  • The government finally defeated the cartels and killed Pablo Escobar
  • This did not end cocaine production
  • But it fractured it, so that no single person could form the same kind of threat to the government
  • Cocaine continues to flow north by various means
  • Recently, a number of submarines have been uncovered in the rainforest of Colombia, as well as the Pacific ocean
  • Becoming increasingly sophisticated
  • Very poor living conditions for the crew
  •  It also meant that control of distribution networks shifted north
  • production still continues in Colombia
  • since the late 1990s, the U.S. has financed “Plan Colombia” to help Colombia both fight left-wing guerrillas and the drug trade
  • the U.S. has provided billions of aid
  • the original plan called for 7.5 billion
  • funding the military to take a leading role in drug interdiction
  • aerial spraying with roundup of cocaine fields
  • controversial: ends the land’s fertility
  • huge areas sprayed: perhaps 8% of Colombia’s arable land was sprayed between 2000 and 2003
  • rumors of “round-up” ready cocaine
  • coca production has not declined in Colombia
  • producers have found tactics that have allowed them to maintain production
  • the price of coca did not increase
  • creates anger amongst farmers
  • the spraying is not always accurate: the spray may drift on the wind onto another farmers crops
  • sometimes crops are misidentified
  • once their land is destroyed, they may be forced to migrate
  • can’t turn to other crops
  • also people have health problems from exposure to the spray, such as skin and respiratory problems
  • the watershed is also contaminated, and the chemicals get into the drinking water
  • and resentment in other Latin American countries
  • echoes of the use of Agent Orange in Vietnam
  • Bolivia: opposes the use of aerial spraying and the U.S. program
  • Evo Morales: has defended coca as a traditional Andean product
  • Viewed the issue as one of national sovereignty
  • Has not permitted fumigation
  • Even many moderate Latin American leaders are angered by fumigation
  • But Plan Colombia has greatly weakened the hold of Colombian drug traffickers over the drug trade within Latin America


South America’s Internal Drug Trade

  • We commonly think of the drug trade as being one in which South America is a producer, and the West is a consumer
  • But in fact, Latin America has its own internal drug trade
  • Cocaine manufacturers in Colombia have a by-product of cocaine manufacture, which is called basuco
  • This is basically the dregs of cocaine, which is contaminated with manufacturing chemicals
  • Can’t market that internationally
  • They began to sell it to street children and the homeless in Bogota
  • Terribly destructive, but also addictive
  • Originally a Colombian product, but it has spread elsewhere
  • Cocaine became a drug mainly used by white, urban elites in the south
  • The irony is that the countries that primarily produce coca –Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador- have very low rates of drug use
  • The countries of the Southern Cone of South America –Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Brazil- have much higher rates of drug use
  • I spent some time in Brazil interviewing both drug traffickers and drug users, mostly crack addicts
  • Want to say a few words about that experience


Drugs in Brazil: my own experience

  • As I interviewed drug users in Sao Paulo, a number of clear patterns emerged
  • No one started out using hard drugs
  • People don’t get up and say, “I think that I’m going to use crack today”
  • Everyone started with marijuana and alcohol
  • For most people, they tried it once out of curiosity
  • With men, it was usually a friend who gave it to them at a party
  • For women, it was usually their partners who gave it to them
  • Often told that it was a sex drug, that would enhance their sex with their partner
  • Of course, once they’ve tried it, they’re hooked.
  • I think about what one person said he would say to someone thinking of trying it: “Don’t try it. Because you’re going to like it.”
  • He also talked about his experience trying crack cocaine
  • He tried one rock: “That was nice. I think I’ll try it again.” Then he had a second rock: “That was nice. I think I’ll try it again.” Then a third. Then he started yelling “More, more, more!”
  • For most people, the real turning point in their experiences was when they lost their job
  • I was struck by how sad people were about this event. 
  • They saw this as the real turning point in their lives
  • Of course, they still had to purchase drugs, so people turned to crime
  • For women, it was usually the sex trade
  • For men, it was violence: mugging, burglary
  • The drugs also changed their behavior
  • Anecdote: man hiding crack use from girlfriend; she leaves the apartment; tears up floor
  • There was a hierarchy of drug users: injecting drug users at the very bottom; crack cocaine users violent and paranoid; dealers wouldn’t let them consume the product near them; then cocaine and other users
  • Methamphetamines not a large product in Latin America in the millennium decade; may be changing
  • Also hard to categorize drug users: one person I interviewed said that there really weren’t categories
  • The same person could use many different drugs depending on what was available
  • Another thing that I learned was that the old adage that people don’t seem to be able to change until they hit bottom is true
  • Men: usually wound up in prison
  • Interview with one trafficker: first day in prison, you will be raped by every man in that cell. Ritual. There might be fifteen or sixteen men in the cell.
  • This man had done time in Carandiru prison, an infamous prison in Sao Paulo, now destroyed to make way for a university
  • Experience seeing the prison block blown up on television, and seeing his face
  • Some men stopped drugs in prison, although it is still possible to get drugs there
  • Most people stopped after a binge story: they’d spent a week or more doing drugs and wound up in prison
  • But there were different philosophies
  • Went to one NGO: they focused on harm reduction
  • They had given up on getting people to stop
  • Was there for some time before I realized that the employees were all drug users themselves
  • Many of them continued to use drugs
  • Anecdote: woman asking me if I wanted to see her crack pipe
  • Also realized the power that the drug lords have
  • Brazilian cities ringed by favelas
  • Not all favelas the same: visits to my friend in Rio
  • My experience walking down out of a favela in Rio
  • Some are huge: my trip to Complexo do Alemao
  • But the government historically ignored the favelas
  • They were taken over by the drug traffickers
  • The true source of power in the favelas
  • When I was in Sao Paulo at the NGO, we weren’t able to visit the favela
  • The drug lords had sent word that it was to be closed to the outside that day
  • I want to make the point that drugs are not only a problem in the developed world
  • They bring corruption, as regional armies have been deeply involved in the drug trade, particularly in Bolivian in the 1970s.
  • And the drug trade also has markets in the region.
  • Ironically, one of the regions that has had the lowest drug use has been Mexico
  • But it is Mexico that has been most impacted by the drug war


The Mexican Drug War- History

  • In 2006 President Calderon launched a war on drugs
  • Since that time over 45,000 people have been killed in the conflict
  • The majority of them have been civilians
  • You have multiple conflicts taking place: the government against the drug cartels, and the cartels against each other
  • With the suppression of the Cali and Medellin cartels in the 1990s, the drug trade has shifted north
  • In the 1980s there weren’t truly cartels in Mexico
  • It’s not that the drug trade is new
  • Drug War Zone: gives a good sense of the drug trades’ history in Mexico
  • Historically, Mexico was a major shipment point for heroin and cannabis
  • What has changed has been that both cocaine and methamphetamine have been added to the mix
  • The Sinaloa and Gulf cartel currently dominate the cocaine trade to the United States
  • In December 2006, President Felipe Calderon sent 6500 troops into the state of Michoacan to end drug violence there
  • As time progressed, more and more troops were required to restore order
  • At first, the violence was focused on the northern border, in cities like Tijuana
  • Entire villages were lost to the control of the state
  • The drug traffickers would threaten the major and the chief of police 
  • They would just flee



  • The media found it hard to cover the story
  • The narco-traffickers infiltrated the media and killed journalists who reported negatively on their work
  • For this reason people who have wanted information have increasingly turned to narcoblogs
  • The most famous is the blog del narco
  • These are posted by anonymous authors to follow the drug war
  • Most in Spanish: sometimes with gruesome content
  • I followed a number of these for a time, but I found that it became depressing
  • Cartel members posting murder videos to youtube
  • Please don’t watch them
  • Best source of information: LA times; NPR also sometimes has good articles
  • Also a drug culture: narcocorridos, singers who glorify the lifestyle
  • Magazines and media sometimes celebrate the drug lords
  • Sense of terror in Mexico, because people did not know who to trust
  • The police were infiltrated
  • The Mexican government has been forced to disband police forces in entire regions



  • The armed forces have been at the forefront of the struggle
  • Some army personnel have been coopted
  • Part of the reason that the Mexican drug was has been so violent has been that the cartels have fought amongst themselves for control of the trade
  • One of the factions: the Zetas
  • The Gulf Cartel originally hired special forces soldiers to act as enforcers
  • These people then broke off to create their own cartel
  • They are currently fighting for control of the drug trade with the Sinaloa cartel
  • So there are elements within the army that have been coopted
  • As the struggle continues, soldiers are sacrificing their lives
  • The government is relying on naval forces, because the navy is viewed as being less infiltrated by the drug lords


Guatemala and West Africa

  • Under pressure in Mexico, the cartels are beginning to shift their operations to Guatemala
  • In 2009, the Zetas cartel threatened to assassinate the President of Guatemala
  • The Zetas are the most powerful cartel operating in Guatemala
  • They killed the leader of the most powerful drug cartel in Guatemala and several senior figures in the organization
  • At this point, the Zetas don’t seem to have any major competition in the country
  • The cartels are also creating bases for operation in West Africa
  • This is a logical transshipment point for Europe


Current Position

  • We do see arrests of major cartel leaders
  • But this merely shifts power to other cartels
  • No clear end in sight to the conflict
  • Increasing calls for legalization
  • For example, former Mexican President Vicente Fox has advocated legalization
  • In the US, increasing frustration
  • US: not only the main market for the drugs, but also the main source of the firearms flowing south
  • Major scandal around the ATF’s program “Fast and Furious” which sought to end the gun trade to Mexico, but allegedly tolerated the sale of weapons
  • Fear in the U.S. that the violence may spill over
  • Many U.S. citizens of Mexican descent, who fear for their families at home in Mexico



  • I will put my own perspective on the table
  • I don’t usually do this in the course, because I don’t want anyone in the class to feel pressured to adopt a particular view, or that they are being indoctrinated
  • I have colleagues with different views, and they make very sophisticated arguments
  • But I’d feel dishonest hiding my feelings in this case
  •  I do not believe that the decades of fighting the drug war have succeeded
  • are we really better off?
  • Cocaine, heroin and other drugs are available in every city in America
  • The U.S. is the world’s major market for cocaine, and purchases 50% of the global supply
  • Their price has not consistently increased, nor has supply consistently declined
  • We have a huge prison population
  • And the rate of drug usage doesn’t seem to increase or decrease in correlation with interdiction
  • It is true that it’s use has declined since the 1980s
  • I believe that the drug war is a failure
  • Portugal: decriminalized the personal possession of drugs
  • Warnings: drug use would climb
  • Portugal would become a center for drug tourism
  • None of that has happened
  • People aren’t going to Lisbon for drug tourism
  • Drug usage has declined slightly 
  • The rate of people becoming HIV positive has fallen significantly
  • Portugal is not the only country taking this path
  • Spain and Italy have also decriminalized the personal possession of drugs
  • My argument against a realism based approach to the drug trade: What would victory look like?
  • Let’s say that tomorrow you could snuff out the drug trade in Mexico
  • The trade would not end
  • It would only shift to Central America, where the states have even less resources to fight this battle
  • Some signs that this is already happening in Guatemala and El Salvador
  • You have to focus on the demand
  • This war is too much like Prohibition
  • A few years ago I was very much in the minority on this position
  • My sense is that there is an emerging consensus around this
  • Very hard to fight this, when so much has been invested in drug enforcement agencies, prisons and military forces to fight this struggle.
  • If you wanted to defeat the drug lords, legalize marijuana
  • That step alone would cause their profits to plummet
  • I should say that I hate drugs, which are profoundly destructive and  social scourge
  • We have to be pragmatic
  • The costs are too high


Realism and Human Security

  • Really two different visions of how to confront a problem
  • Is drug use a security threat, or a public health problem
  • Only one example of how problems can be viewed either through a traditional security lens, or the perspective of human security
  • Critics: too many social issues becoming securitized
  • “When your tool is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.”
  • Realism: human security is too fuzzy a concept
  • Every problem can be defined in terms of human security
  • How then, is this argument relevant
  • A real weakness of a human security approach
  • Interesting debate between the two perspectives
  • One of the most vigorous arguments in International Studies theory right now




Do you agree with the idea of legalizing drugs (or decriminalizing them?)


Should we treat drugs as a public health problem?


What would be some of the risks of decriminalizing drugs?


What are the advantages to a security-based approach to the drug war? 


Should all drugs be legalized, or only some? Which would you choose? Who decides?

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