5. Counterinsurgency and Drugs in Cold War Thailand and Mexico

About this Episode

Guests
Daniel Weimer, Alexander Aviña, Aileen Teague

On this episode of Prologued, we continue our examine of how the War on Drugs intersected with the Cold War by examining domestic politics in Thailand and Mexico during the 1960s and 1970s. 

Cite this Site

Brionna Mendoza , "5. Counterinsurgency and Drugs in Cold War Thailand and Mexico" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
March, 2022
https://origins.osu.edu/listen/prologued/counterinsurgency-and-drugs-cold-war-thailand-and-mexico?language_content_entity=en.
March, 2022

Transcript

Episode 5: Counterinsurgency and Drug Control in Cold War Thailand and Mexico

 

Brionna Mendoza

Previously on Prologued

James Bradford

The United States essentially becomes one of the major contributors to Afghanistan's economic and political development. And opium played a pretty big role in that. The major reason why the Cold War shapes Afghan drug politics is that Afghanistan is neutral.

Brionna Mendoza

But development & drug control efforts during the era of the Cold War weren’t always so peaceful.

In the fight against communism, American policymakers and their allies viewed social uprisings as threats to be extinguished. Not only did revolutionary politics threaten the status quo, but it was also suspected that revolutionary groups funded their movements through a shady source: drug trafficking.

Today, we start to unravel the tangled logic of the Cold War on Drugs, where in the minds of many, insurgent and trafficker were one and the same.

I’m Brionna Mendoza, and this is Prologued.

(music)

 

Daniel Weimer

The drug war has endured for as long as it has because it performs a lot of functions that are not always distinctly related to what you would say is drug control.

Brionna Mendoza

This is Daniel Weimer, a scholar of U.S. foreign policy with a special focus on the role that drugs have played in its history.

Daniel Weimer

I've been especially focused on how the U.S. tries to work with foreign nations to enact drug control within whatever states such as Mexico.

When looking at drug control, and the relationship between drug control and counterinsurgency and modernization or development, that counterinsurgency and modernization are two sides of the same coin. They they work hand in hand.

Brionna Mendoza

During the last episode, we briefly discussed the idea of “modernization” as a key strategy that the U.S. deployed during the Cold War. Essentially, by funding infrastructure and education projects in the Third World, the logic went, the United States could accelerate countries’ development towards a capitalist democracy. Doing so would prevent them from falling into the Communist camp.

An essential aspect of this approach that we didn’t discuss, though, is counterinsurgency.

Daniel Weimer

So counterinsurgency is the means by which you deal with insurgents.

Brionna Mendoza

Insurgents, guerrillas, freedom fighters—there are many different names for groups of people who work to implement economic, political, and/or social change against the wishes of an established state. For the purposes of our discussion, I myself am going to use the term “revolutionary” as a general descriptor.

A major red flag that indicated to the United States that a country might be vulnerable to Soviet influence was the presence of a revolutionary movement, especially in areas with entrenched poverty. However, it is exceedingly difficult to start a development project in a war zone. That’s where counterinsurgency came in.

Take, for example, a United Nations-endorsed crop substitution program in Thailand during the 1970s. A report from a U.S. Congressman described the Hmong as in desperate need of aid to help them grow according to U.S. standards of life…including a drug-free economy. The Hmong were a hill tribe that not only were involved in a rebellion against the Royal Thai Government [RTG], but they also grew opium.

Daniel Weimer

Their dependence upon the the poppy economy is keeping them in this stalemated state of development. So, if we can get them to engage in other economic activities, it will modernize them, it will bring them into the mainstream fold of Thai life. At the same time that you're trying to deal with putting down insurgents, government exerting control in that territory, the U.S. is looking at its endeavor in Thailand, which it did with with the United Nations and other countries.

Brionna Mendoza

The RTG was just as invested in the project as their American counterparts. By allying with the United States on a development program, the Thai government would protect and extend their power as well as establish a positive international reputation by cooperating with anti-Communist and anti-drug initiatives. Thus, funding for the crop substitution program included resources for police forces that would pursue interdiction and inhibit rebellion.

Daniel Weimer

I think the relationship between militarization and drug control is a natural flow in some respects. Out of the fact that we're a source control or source control nations, enacting source control is seen as part of a military operation.

So that's one pretty strong strain when it comes to militarization. At the same time policing in the United States over the course of the 80s, 90s, up to today becomes more militarized. And so I think there's this kind of back and forth flow between what's happening abroad and what's happening inside the United States.

Brionna Mendoza

Ultimately, the program had little effect on drug trafficking in Southeast Asia. Due to the decentralized nature of trafficking networks, corruption in the RTG, and an unabated demand for heroin, opium production simply moved to surrounding areas. Bangkok did, however, create a very effective counterinsurgency force to ensure its hold on power remained secure. And since the RTG was an anti-Communist ally…the program wasn’t a complete loss for the United States in light of the ongoing Cold War.

This complex dynamic between the Cold War and the drug war wasn’t unique to Thailand. It emerged in other places, too.

Daniel Weimer

Mexico also was, I wouldn't say, dealing with full scale counterinsurgency, but it had insurgent groups, particularly in the in the south, and I’m sure you talked to Alexander [Aviña] about this, real fear that if these dissident groups, these rebels start to tap into the opium production as a source of funding, well then that makes things much, much worse.

And so drug control gets really tied in with internal security efforts, with the United States providing equipment resources which will A) help reduce drug production in Mexico, which then benefits the United States because then there is ostensibly less heroin coming into the United States. And at the same time, we're fostering internal security in the hemisphere.

And I think that interplay between counterinsurgency and drug control—that happens in many places in the Western Hemisphere.

Alexander Aviña

The war on drugs is not a war on drugs, per se, it's a war on poor people. It's a war against marginalized poor populations, who may or may not be engaging in an “illegal economy” to make ends meet and to survive.

Brionna Mendoza

This is Alexander Aviña, an Associate Professor of Latin American and Mexican history at Arizona State University.

Alexander Aviña

In 2014, I published a book called Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in a Cold War Mexican Countryside with Oxford University Press. I am a historian of the Left in Latin America, specifically in Mexico.

So if you understand the War on Drugs in that way, then the War on Drugs is actually about political and social control, not about the eradication of the production and distribution of things that are turned into commodities, then deemed illegal by state powers—and supranational powers as well, right?

There's a consistency in Mexican history from at least the 19th into the 20th and 21st centuries that the wars on drugs are used as a way to expand state power into regions where different manifestations of the Mexican state that have had issues and difficulties in consolidating their power. So whether it's poor, urban, rapidly growing, impoverished urban communities or neighborhoods in Mexico City at the turn of 20th century, or unruly Highland peoples in northern Mexico in Sinaloa or Sonora or Guerrero in the 1950s 60s and 70s, the thread is always that, the thread is always there as an effort for the Mexican state to expand power and social control into regions that have long resisted that type of power, and have tried to negotiate in a Mexican state along their own terms, local terms, their own autonomous terms.

Brionna Mendoza

One of the fault lines that runs throughout the country and makes establishing state power difficult was (and arguably still is) race.

Alexander Aviña

 I would make the argument that race is always at the heart of war on drugs, regime, or effort, whether it's the U.S. or Mexico. That also forms part of this effort to use the War on Drugs, to use coercive measures to fashion the type of citizenry that is racialized in a way that is more universal—in like the raza cosmica way, right?

Brionna Mendoza

In the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, the new revolutionary government had to figure out how to unite its country across significant geographic and cultural differences. Their solution? Appeal to a supposedly common racial and ethnic background.

Alexander Aviña

You have the idea of a post-revolutionary Mexican citizen, that is mestizo that is based on mestizaje, that is based on the blending of all these different groups.

Brionna Mendoza

Specifically, a blend between European and indigenous backgrounds.

Alexander Aviña

Which is a form of erasure, right? It’s a different manifestation of settler colonialism. And what we see in other words, because you're asking for people to set aside their particular identity’s histories and communities to become part of this weird blend, that only works if you erase people's histories and identities.

Brionna Mendoza

Instead of creating a post-racial society, though, race and ethnicity were simply reconfigured in Mexico according to the new mestizo ideal. Many of the political, economic, and cultural challenges that the postrevolutionary government faced were filtered through this lens, including questions surrounding drug use and control.

Alexander Aviña

So the War on Drugs becomes a way—it’s not that widespread in the 20s and 30s. It’s not going to be the type of huge militarized drug interdiction campaigns that we see after World War II, but there are efforts to target communities that are racialized, whether they're Chinese communities in northern Mexico, whether they’re indigenous communities in southern Mexico, the fact that they're somehow imagined to be linked to drug consumption or cultivation is enough to get them to be targeted by by different coercive state apparatus within this emerging post-revolutionary state. So the idea in northern Mexico that the opium business is being promulgated by Asian, by Chinese immigrants, and that somehow they are causing the corruption of good Mexican citizens, opens them up to be targeted by a post-revolutionary state and its coercive apparatuses.

Brionna Mendoza

WWII and the international order that emerged afterwards, as we’ve previously discussed, significantly affected the trajectory of the Global War on Drugs.

Alexander Aviña

But Mexican officials are also really clever in how to to use what they see as a U.S. obsession with drug control in ways that benefits then. After 1947, they announce

d the permanent campaign against drugs. From the Mexican post-revolutionary state perspective, it allows them again to project state power into troublesome highland rural regions that had remained outside of their political jurisdiction to an extent after the revolution.

Brionna Mendoza

Much like the RTG in Thailand, Mexican officials recognized that they could use drug control as a way to remain in the good graces of the Americans and accomplish their own domestic political goals.

Alexander Aviña

So in a place like Guerrero or Sinaloa, you have outright class warfare between peasant communities adamant about actually applying the 1917 Mexican Constitution laws about agrarian reform against local elite land holders and power holders who are refusing to follow the Mexican Constitution and will fight tooth and nail to prevent any sort of large scale agrarian reform that was put into place.

Brionna Mendoza

A bit of context here: a major goal of the Mexican Revolution that was then promised in the new constitution was land redistribution.

Alexander Aviña

What someone like Ben Smith argues, what he finds in Sinaloa after 1940, is that drug production becomes a way to kind of mediate that type of class warfare. So landed elites will say, Look, you're not going to get a you're not going to get my land, you're not going to get our land. But what if we engaged in this type of drug production that will be lucrative, and that will allow you small peasants to gain can make a little bit more money. And what he argues for Sinaloa, from the 1940s to the 1970s, you have this “narco-populism” in which you have a sort of negotiated class alliance.

Brionna Mendoza

This alliance involved a lot of violence and murder by landed elites against recalcitrant peasants, but for a while it did work. For a time, anyways.

Alexander Aviña

 By the 1970s, in the midst of broad popular turbulence and social mobilization, that kind of alliance broke down. And actually if you look at Sinaloa in the 1970s, it becomes a really violent, particularly in a place like Culiacán, becomes really violent when you have different groups of traffickers going at it trying to control the marijuana and, increasingly in the 70s, the opium and heroin business.

When I refer to autonomy, there's both like, you know, peasant communities, peasant organization autonomy and their fight against local caciques, local power holders. But there's also an autonomy enjoyed by some of those local power holders who may or may not do what Mexico City is telling them to do. So something like the first permanent campaign against drugs becomes an effort to project state power through the use of the military and through the use of the Federal Police into these regions that, on the one hand, are characterized by outright political violence between peasants and land elite. But on the other hand, they're fighting against a certain autonomy that tries to prevent the grand plans and designs coming from Mexico City to be implemented.

Brionna Mendoza

The situation that Dr. Aviña just described is another great example of what a global perspective of the drug war reveals that might otherwise be obscured. Yes, to some extent the violence was motivated by the power and money that drug trafficking brings. But also, engaging in the drug trade and the alliances formed between cultivators, traffickers, and landowners enabled resistance against attempts at state control emanating from Mexico City.

Alexander Aviña

They're responding to global shifts and the supply and demand of illicit drugs. But they're also responding to very local conditions. And some of those local conditions involve the failure of a state mandated agrarian reform, the failure of the Mexican government in supporting and fomenting an ejido-based peasant agriculture. They've devoted most of their state resources to this capitalist agricultural system, mostly located in northern Mexico that was producing crops for the global market, particularly for the United States.

So this is one of the reasons that I view the War on Drugs in Mexico in the 60s and 70s, as a form of counterinsurgency It's a counterinsurgency in the sense that they’re only going after the symptomatic manifestations of deeper structural factors that explain fundamentally why poor people decided to grow illicit drugs. And that those deep underlying factors are never addressed, and they use overwhelming levels of violence to wipe out symptomatic reflections of that discontent—in place like Guerrero and Sinaloa, by the 60s and 70s, you have both urban and rural guerrilla movements who are fighting to overthrow what they see as a oligarchic corrupt Mexican stat and to bring about a more just, socialist Mexico. And counterinsurgency becomes a way of of just simply eradicating the guerrillas, eradicating political protest and dissidents, while leaving the structural underlying roots in place. It just more or less ensures that there will be a future cycle of protests and rebellion against those conditions that created popular protests and armed guerrilla movements to begin with.

Brionna Mendoza

The 60s and 70s marked the beginning of what people call The Dirty War in Mexico. Here’s Dr. Aileen Teague, who we’ve heard from in previous episodes.

Aileen Teague

I think historians are still trying to really understand the period that people call The Dirty War. And this is a period, there's been similar periods throughout Latin America, but it's one in which the Mexican government and its ruling party the PRI—

Brionna Mendoza

--The PRI, that's the Institutional Revolutionary Party—

Aileen Teague

—in some areas of the country putting down threats to its rule from the Mexican Left. You've seen dirty wars, in other parts of Latin America, like Argentina, and other countries with a Right-leaning governments putting down any sort of Left-leaning dissent. And a lot of times this Left-leaning dissent on the part of their counterparts in these countries, in this sort of Cold War framework, the local actors, the Right-leaning actors tie this descent to the global Cold War and Soviet conspiracy, but in many cases, the Left in many of these Latin American countries are just segments of society advocating for more transparency and policies and democratic reforms. And Mexico is sort of dealing with the same type of situation and during the 1960s and 1970s.

Brionna Mendoza

Following the Mexican Revolution, the PRI was the state party responsible for carrying forward the mantle and spirit of the revolution. But after a couple of decades, challenges to its monopoly on political power emerged.

Aileen Teague

It was supposed to be this party of Left, party of reform, but by mid-century, it was a very much into authoritarianism. And the people that are considered “less” are starting to take issue with the authoritarian bent of the PRI and the PRI doesn't do anything but push this down. In fact, it silences dissent, which makes it more authoritative. That is where the Mexican Left emerges. In general, it was taking issue with the way in which the PRI was running the country, in a way that it that did not fulfill the promises of the Mexican Revolution, which took place from 1910 to 1920.

Brionna Mendoza

Resistance to PRI leadership, the influence of the Cold War, and ongoing drug trafficking all came to a head in 1960s Guerrero, a western state famous for its coastline.

Alexander Aviña

What you have in the 60s in Guerrero is, on the one hand, a lot of this popular discontent with this socioeconomic inequality that was intensified by the Mexican state’s economic policies after World War II in the rural sector that that again, lavishly supported the large scale capitalist agribusiness sector to the detriment of the small scale, peasant, ejido-based, rural sector that was still expected to produce enough food to feed the nation. They're under incredible pressure. And then politically, you also had a series of multi-class movements that emerged to protest what they identified as increasing PRI political authoritarianism as manifested at the local and state level.

So what you have in Guerrero in the 60s then is this cycle of popular protests that tried to work within the confines of the 1917 Mexican Constitution. They tried to petition the government for the redress of grievances. They tried to organize opposition political parties. They tried to organize independent unions that were not linked to the PRI and its structures of patronage.

Brionna Mendoza

When advocating through the established channels of communication with the government didn’t work, they turned to more confrontational approaches.

Alexander Aviña

And they use direct action, right like us marches. They took over the occupied spaces in the capital city of Guerrero, Chilpancingo, in Acapulco, and with each type of popular movement in protest, the different manifestations of the Mexican state responded increasingly with violence.

By the mid 1960s, you have descending in are the Mexican military. Under the auspices of waging a war on drugs because Guerrero had long been a producer of marijuana and opium poppies. They use that as an excuse to send in the Mexican military to tamp down and eradicate this civic-minded type of popular protests that had emerged in the late 50s and early 60s. So by 1963, 64, 65, you get terrible reports of what the Mexican military to dissidents individual dissidents: torture, rape, the wholesale destruction of entire peasant community, the expropriation of their lands. This further radicalized, then, some of the veterans of the earlier civic constitution-based the protest movement to the point that by the late 60s, you had two separate peasant guerrilla movements in the state of Guerrero led by two communist school teachers, Genaro Vázquez and Lucio Cabañas.

Brionna Mendoza

But what did drugs have to do with this political conflict?

Alexander Aviña

When I was doing research for that book, I'm trying to trace the history, you know, narrate the history of these guerrilla movements. But as I was reading the military documents and the police documents, they talked a lot about drugs. It became really clear that on the one hand, there was, in Guerrero, there was an intensification and industrialization of drug cultivation in the late 60s and early 70s, first marijuana and then opium poppies. So there is that. And the fact that that existed gave the Mexican government excuse to send in more federal police officers, gave them excuse to send in more military. But the primary mission of these military people and police people that were being sent, their primary objective was to get rid of the guerrillos that were up in the mountains. The Mexican government never acknowledged that they existed, they referred to them as not guerrilla fighters or revolutionaries—in this sense they would be delegitimizing themselves—they referred to them as common thieves. They referred to them as cattle wrestlers as bandits. They referred to them as drug traffickers. And the War on Drugs in Guerrero served as a cover for this counterinsurgency that gets waged against both these two guerrilla movements and the dozens of peasant communities primarily on the coast and the highlands that supported them.

Brionna Mendoza

We should note here too that by this time, the United States was providing significant funding to Mexico for the purpose of expanding its drug control efforts.

Aileen Teague

Some of this policing aid at times is in the efforts to put down or the efforts to repress the Mexican Left. And there's been cases that sometimes when there's a real confusion or conflation between people who are of the Left and people who are produce or traffic drugs. And so there's a conflation between the two, so that from inside of Mexico, it would seem that Mexican policing actors are putting down threats to PRI rule. Or, as seen from the outside, it could be conveyed to U.S. partners as they are that Mexican policing actors are going after potential drug suppliers or drug traffickers.

Brionna Mendoza

The War on Drugs in Guerrero served as a cover for the counterinsurgency war that the PRI waged against revolutionary groups in that state, a cover that the PRI desperately required to protect its reputation as the inheritors of the Mexican Revolution.

Alexander Aviña

It's a really like, complex, messy matrix, right? I don't want to say that there was no drug interdiction effort in Guerrero—there was. But it wasn't the primary motive. The primary motive was to eradicate this, particularly the party of the poor movement that was growing and that demonstrated the potential to expand beyond the state of Guerrero.

There's a famous quote that I draw from a Mexican historian. He managed to interview an officer who was involved in these efforts and the officer said something to the extent that, “Look with the marijuana growers we had no beef, but with the guerrillas we had to f*** them up.” But to me, like that says a lot to me right there in terms of what this War on Drugs was functioning as politically and discursively for the Mexican government in the 70s, as they tried to present it, both for a domestic audience and for an international audience. This obviously provided cover for the horrific state terror and violence. The military disappeared, we think, between 700 to 1,000 people in Guerrero, hundreds and thousands of tortures, rapes.

Brionna Mendoza

The actions undertaken by Mexican authorities in Guerrero in the 60s served as a template for similarly motivated action elsewhere in the nation throughout the 70s.

Alexander Aviña

They try to tamp down in 1975, 76, and 77, with the explosion of opium poppy production in northern Mexico in a place like Sinaloa, Sonora, Durango, and Chihuahua, which is usually referred to as cuadrilátero del oro. What happens in 1976, 1977 is the Mexican government orders something called Operation Condor which thousands of soldiers and hundreds of federal police officers are sent into Sinaloa, Durango and Chihuahua to virtually go on a rampage. The same thing they do in Guerrero, they do in Sinaloa: going after highland peasant farmers who are growing opium poppies, and marijuana. And it's striking to read the reports and in the newspaper accounts of what the army is doing in Operation Condor. You compare that to what they were doing in Guerrero just five years earlier and it's almost the exact same thing. It's counterinsurgency, except the target is different. The targets are these highland peasant farmers who are growing marijuana and opium poppies for the American market.

One of the interesting things about Operation Condor, though, is that there's intense intra-state squabbling and conflict. There's actual outright conflict between the state police in Sinaloa who in some cases are collaborating and protecting local traffickers. Some of these police will be tortured and disappeared by the military. There’s multiple layers of conflict going on between local powers and then state power in the form of the military and federal police who were seen as kind of outsiders who are coming in and committing horrible numbers of atrocities. By 1979, 1980 you have a convergence of human rights organizations that will lead a really famous hunger strike—I think it was in Mexico City in 1980—by families of the disappeared. It was people from Guerrero whose loved ones had been disappeared by the Mexican military because they were “guerrilla” and they were aligning themselves with the families of highland peasant farmers from Sonora and Sinaloa, whose loved ones have been disappeared, but they had been disappeared because they were accused of being drug farmers. And they come together in Mexico City, and they launched this hunger strike. So that's another way to kind of trace the connections.

And again, under the broader argument that the War on Drugs for me is always a war against poor people. It's a war on poor people, again, in the drug producing growing country. And if we take it to the United States side, it's a war on poor people who are accused of, on the one hand, becoming participants in the illegal economy, and on the other hand, also becoming the consumers of these drugs So poor communities that are always racialized in very specific ways as well.

Brionna Mendoza

Much like with development efforts in Thailand, the dual counterinsurgency and interdiction campaigns in Mexico did little to halt the production and consumption of drugs.

Alexander Aviña

One of the the consequences of Operation Condor one of the drug traffickers, the big one managed to escape Sinaloa, and they managed to go into other parts of Mexico, places like Guerrero, where they start to use that region to produce opium poppies or marijuana. It really forces like a nationalization of drug cultivation throughout Mexico. And it also weeds out like some of the smaller players in the business who couldn't pay for government protection. And it ironically, forced the centralization or organization of big time drug smugglers in Mexico, which leads the creation of something that we now refer to as the Guadalajara cartel, these smugglers who decide to create what is really not a cartel, but it's more of a federation, a loose alliance of big time drug smugglers who decided to come together and work together. They're doing that in response to Operation Condor and this effort from the Mexican government to completely eradicate drug cultivation in northern Mexico.

Brionna Mendoza

One of the takeaways from this is something we already know: the War on Drugs as waged according to the American model of prohibition and policing has failed. But what else can we learn from this history of drug control in Mexico?

Alexander Aviña

It’s a window or a vantage point into broader questions of power both domestically in the U.S. and internationally with regard to the U.S. empire. It allows us a way to trace how and why U.S. imperial power works in the way that it does.

It says something about how powerful this discourse is because the War on Drugs is similar to the War on Terror: it's like the war itself produces the very conditions that it presumes to be fighting to eradicate. So if that's the case, then it's not really a War on Drugs. If the War on Drugs is producing more drugs and more drug users, then this really isn't a war on drugs. It’s a war on something else and that reasoning you could substitute you could change drugs and you can put the war on terror. The war to eradicate terrorism has only generated more terrorism—why is that? If that's the case, then this is not really a war on terror we would this is a war against something else. And this is where I think we get to questions of U.S. empire. Why does the U.S. enjoy this international power to judge other countries’ ability or inability, or willingness or unwillingness to wage war on drug-producing farmers?

Brionna Mendoza

And to add my own two cents to the wealth of insight that Dr. Aviña has already provided, we cannot ignore the particular local and regional histories that shape struggles over drugs in countries like Mexico or Thailand. Myriad actors pursued their own agendas and collaborated with the United States in a way that created a multidirectional, dynamic, truly global War on Drugs.

Brionna Mendoza

Next time on Prologued

We take stock of what we’ve learned, where we are, and where we might be headed in the Global War on Drugs.

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Brionna Mendoza

This season of Prologued was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication created by the Public History Initiative, the Goldberg Center, and the History Departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Special thanks to The Stanton Foundation for their ongoing support.

Our editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn, and Nicholas Breyfogle. Researched, written, and hosted by Brionna Mendoza. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our production specialist is Brandon MacLean at Oranjudio. Our theme song is Hot Shot by Scott Holmes.

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