Mexico: From Cold War to Drug War

Earlier this summer, I participated in the Library of Congress’s first ever ScholarFest. My conversation partner, UVA’s Professor William Hitchcock, and I spent ten minutes discussing whether the Cold War still mattered. I imagine that very few people in the audience were surprised to hear two historians argue for the continuing relevance of the Cold War. They were surprised, however, by some of the reasons we gave.

What I told the audience was this: in the United States, in Latin America, and around the world, the wars that we are fighting today on drugs and terrorism both grew out of and bear a striking resemblance to the Cold War. Not only that, but many of the same people and groups that fought the Cold War are now fighting today’s wars, using the lessons they learned and the power and influence they gained from that earlier struggle.

The Cold War in Mexico

Mexico provides a perfect example: understanding the dynamics of the Cold War in Mexico provides important insights into why Mexico is currently losing its war on drugs. In Mexico, as in much of the rest of the world, the Cold War was a complex geopolitical and local contest over questions of security, ideology, economics, and culture. International events, like the Cuban Revolution, had local repercussions, and at the same time domestic politics shaped the Mexican government’s foreign policy. Mexico’s leaders believed that the greatest threat to the nation was internal opposition. Fearing a repeat of the Cuban experience, they targeted leftist groups and beefed up security capabilities, especially in the areas of surveillance and counterinsurgency.

While the specter of the communist guerrilla haunted the pages of the Mexican press and the speeches of the country’s leaders, it was actually the government that escalated the violence of Mexico’s Cold War and unleashed terror upon its own citizens. Soldiers and special agents assassinated political activists like Rubén Jaramillo, they massacred untold numbers of student protesters in Mexico City’s Plaza of Tlatelolco in 1968, and they tortured, ‘disappeared,’ and murdered thousands of residents of Guerrero in the 1970s. The hidden, undeclared nature of the Cold War made secrecy a priority for all sides. Opposition groups and government agents alike operated in a clandestine world of shifting loyalties and secret agendas.

…it was actually the government that escalated the violence of Mexico’s Cold War and unleashed terror upon its own citizens.

Eventually, Mexico’s government demolished the few guerrilla groups that actually existed and won Mexico’s Cold War. It was clear by the beginning of the 1980s that Mexico would not follow the same fate as Cuba, but instead would remain capitalist, conservative, and allied with the United States.

Exit Cold War, Enter Drug War

But as the Cold War came to a close for Mexico, a new war was ramping up that would quickly eclipse the earlier struggle. Like the Cold War, the War on Drugs has grown into a complex geopolitical and local contest. International events, like the recent soaring demand for heroin in the United States and the earlier crackdown on Caribbean smuggling routes and Colombian cartels in the 1980s and 1990s, have had significant local repercussions in Mexico. Even though the various sides are fighting for different goals this time around — the current war has much less to do with ideology and much more to do with wealth — the Drug War participants and their methods are remarkably similar to those of the Cold War.

In fact, some of the very same individuals most responsible for the violence of Mexico’s Cold War were also responsible for escalating Mexico’s Drug War. We now know that numerous government leaders and security agents who led the Cold War attack on leftist “insurgents” were also deeply involved in drug trafficking. Luis Echeverría, president of Mexico from 1970–1976, was rumored to have been linked through his wife to Cuban exile and drug kingAlberto Sicilia FalcónMiguel Nazar Haro, the head of Mexican intelligence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, used his position of authority to protect a stolen car smuggling ring and helped the Guadalajara cartel battle its competitors in Sinaloa. Some Mexican intelligence officials even conducted their own trafficking operation that involved sending tanker trucks filled with marijuana across the U.S.-Mexican border. Echeverría, Nazar Haro, and others led their country at a time when it was transitioning from Cold War to Drug War, and they played a significant role in enabling and accelerating that transformation.

Today, Mexico is engulfed in a drug war, and the nation’s leaders and security services are still engaging in similar questionable activities.

Today, Mexico is engulfed in a drug war, and the nation’s leaders and security services are still engaging in similar questionable activities. In both the Cold War and the Drug War, corruption and subterfuge have obscured the real nature of government activities and undermined public trust in the nation’s leaders. President Enrique Peña Nieto has been accused of corrupt dealings involving his wife and their opulent mansion, but he has so far escaped substantial investigation. The Mexican army has been exposed for committing extra-judicial executions, just as it did during the Cold War. Students,journalists, and other members of society are being murdered and disappeared. And just as it did in the past, the Mexico’s justice system is failing to solve these crimes. Given the Mexican government’s past record of atrocities during the Cold War, one has to wonder about official attempts to deflect blame for Mexico’s current problems.

Header Photo: A masked Mexican soldier patrols the streets of Veracruz, on October 10, 2011. Soldiers of the Army, Navy and members of Federal Police patrol the streets of the city as part of “Veracruz Safe Operation” after a rising tide of violence plaguing this tourist city. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images)

Renata Keller is an Assistant Professor of International Relations in the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University. She received her PhD in History from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012 and the author of Mexico’s Cold War: Cuba, the United States, and the Legacy of the Mexican Revolution, available from Cambridge University Press. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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