Authors: Ioan Grillo
The meteoric rise of American drug taking in the 1960s and 1970s had dramatic impacts on a number of countries beyond Mexico, including Colombia, Morocco, Turkey, and Afghanistan. Within a decade, recreational drugs went from being a niche vice to a global commodity. In Mexico, the surge in demand transformed drug producers from a few Sinaloan peasants to a national industry in a dozen states. The government had to a respond to a much more widespread flouting of the law. But the industry began to pull in billions of dollars and politicians wanted to be in on the game. The raise in stakes led to Mexico’s first kingpins and unleashed the first significant wave of drug-related bloodshed. El Narco went through a sudden and astounding adolescence.
Efrain’s family became aware of the marijuana boom searing through the Mexican mountains when a cousin began growing it in a nearby village. Efrain’s father and grandfather had always known about cannabis, with the enticing star-shaped leaves cropping up sporadically all over the Sierra Madre. Unlike opium poppies, which were imported in the late-nineteenth century, marijuana had been used in Mexico since at least the days of Spanish rule, with some people arguing that Aztecs consumed the psychedelic weed. During the bloody campaigns of the Mexican Revolution, marijuana helped many soldiers forget their sorrows in clouds of smoke. Ganja also inspired the most famous verse of the folk song “La Cucaracha,” with the memorable lyrics “The cockroach, the cockroach, now he can’t walk. Because he doesn’t have, because he lacks, marijuana to smoke.” In peacetime, cannabis was popular in Mexican prisons while enjoyed by cultural icons such as muralist Diego Rivera.
When Efrain’s father saw his cousin making good profits from marijuana, he asked him about growing weed himself. His cousin happily gave him seeds and introduced him to his buyer. Efrain explains the decision to step into the drug business:
“My father had four fields so we were a well-off family by the standards of those mountains. We had some cows and grew corn and limes and some other crops. But it was still hard to get enough money to feed everyone. We were nine brothers and sisters, and my dad also looked after the children of his brother, who had been killed in a feud. My dad was lazy, but clever. He would look for ways to make money that took less effort and brought in better rewards. So we tried marijuana.”
Efrain smiles as he remembers his youth while we eat chili-laced eggs in a Mexico City diner. He has lived in the capital for decades now but still carries the mountain way: coarse but open and frank. He has weather-beaten skin with light eyes that he attributes to some French descendants way back over the centuries. But despite some European ancestry, he is proud of being a son of Guerrero—a state whose very name means “warrior” and has the reputation as one of the most violent regions of Mexico.
“First we grew marijuana in just half a field where we had been raising corn. Marijuana is an easy plant to grow—our mountains are perfect for it. We just left it out in the sun and the rain, and the earth did the work. In a few months, we had big plants shooting up. They were about one and half meters tall. My brothers and I harvested it, using our machetes. It was an easy plant to cut up. We filled a couple of sacks full of it. It smelled like crazy, so I guess it was good stuff. We took it down to the town to sell.”
The nearest market town was Teloloapan, a mountain enclave of stone streets famous for its dishes of mole (chocolate and chili) and festivals where locals dress up in devil masks. Efrain and his father found his cousin’s buyer, and he gave them a thousand pesos for the sacks stuffed with some twenty-five kilos of green. That was only worth about $5 per kilo and was a fraction of the price it would fetch on the quads of Berkeley. But to Efrain and his family, it seemed as if they had struck gold.
“It was the best crop we had sold, much better money than we got for corn or limes or anything. We had some great feasts with meat and all got new clothes and shoes. So we started growing marijuana in two of our fields, and then we sold harvests of marijuana every few months with up to a hundred kilos each. We were still not rich. But we didn’t go hungry like before.”
After Efrain and his family had been raising marijuana for two years, soldiers came through his mountain to destroy crops. Fortunately, their buyer warned about the troop maneuvers a week in advance—showing the organization moving the weed had some useful connections. As Efrain remembers:
“We cut up all the marijuana in a hurry. Some of it was ready, so we could hide it in sacks up in the mountains. Other crops were only half-grown and we had to throw them away. The soldiers came through our village but they didn’t even check our fields. Then my dad was annoyed that we had wasted so much marijuana.
“At first we didn’t even know where all our marijuana was going. All we knew is that we could go down to the town and sell it. But after we had been doing it for a while, we learned that it was going to El Norte [the United States]. Around the same time, some people from our mountains started heading up to El Norte to look for work. But I didn’t want to go there. I loved the mountains too much.”
Efrain and his family just called their product marijuana or by the Mexican slang
. But in the United States, it was almost certainly sold by the attractive brand name Acapulco Gold. Teloloapan is in the same Guerrero state as Acapulco, where Elvis Presley and Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller were sipping margaritas out of coconut shells in the 1960s. Over the years, tons of marijuana passed from the southern Sierra Madre into the beach resort, from where it could be shipped north on fishing boats. Years later, I would go to a federal police office in Acapulco to find a gold-chain-wearing officer sitting casually in front of a huge stack of three hundred kilos of seized Acapulco Gold pressed into compact bricks. The marijuana unleashed an odor so overpowering that it could be smelled right through the police station door. Up close, I could see it had a distinct brown-green color that is the source of its
Back in the 1960s, Acapulco Gold was a sought-after marijuana for American smokers, considered better quality than the weed growing in California or Texas. In any case, the U.S. marijuana market exploded so fast, dealers imported grass from wherever they could get it. By all accounts, Americans created the demand themselves and took to Mexico to supply it. Stoners rolled over the border to Tijuana in droves, buying ganja from anywhere they could. One group of students and their teacher from Coronado High School, San Diego, began sneaking marijuana into the United States off the Tijuana beach on surfboards. The so-called Coronado Company later graduated to yachts, before federal agents busted them.
Along the border in Texas, buyers would go down to the Rio Grande and wait for Mexicans to toss bags of marijuana over the river. Others would head down to seedy bars in El Paso or Laredo looking for any suspicious-looking Mexican who might be selling.
Marijuana on the border sold for about $60 per kilo compared to some $300 per kilo in East Coast universities. Some American entrepreneurs went deep into Mexico to get the product even cheaper. Among them was George Jung—a Boston stoner who began flying ganja across the country. Boston George later graduated to cocaine, had the hit movie
made about him, and has grown into a trafficker superstar with his own Web site, fan club, and T-shirt collection (Smuggler Wear).
A hippie with long blond hair, a big nose, and a thick Boston accent, George describes his exploits in numerous videos and memoirs written in his cell of La Tuna prison in Anthony, Texas, while serving a fifteen-year sentence. When he first looked for marijuana in Mexico, he says, he was inspired by the movie
Night of the Iguana
to go to the Pacific resort of Puerto Vallarta. Speaking only pidgin Spanish, he wandered round for two weeks before he scored. Soon he was making $100,000 a month, flying up ganja in light aircraft. Boston George bought from middlemen, who picked up the grass from thousands of peasant farmers like Efrain. These middlemen, he says, had connections with the Mexican military.
George eventually got arrested with a trunk full of marijuana at the Playboy Club in Chicago. Luckily (or unluckily) he shared a prison cell with Colombian Carlos Lehder, who introduced him to the Medellín Cartel and set him up to make millions in cocaine.
Shutting down George’s Mexico operation had little effect on marijuana flowing north. The market just kept growing until, by 1978, a White House survey found that 37.8 percent of high school seniors admitted to having smoked weed. During the same period, use of heroin and later cocaine also shot up. Drug warriors jumped on this as evidence that ganja leads people down a slippery slope to darker vices. Maybe they’re right. Or perhaps the bigger shifts in core social and economic factors triggered supply and demand in all three mind-bending substances.
Whatever the reasons, the period saw a radical change in America’s drugs-taking habits. In 1966, the Federal Bureau of Narcotics said the most profitable drug in the United States was heroin and estimated its black market moved $600 million a year.
By 1980, reports said the American drug market was worth over $100 billion a year. This was a truly seismic shift that reshaped America from its universities to its inner cities; and Mexico from its mountains to its government palaces.
During America’s drug-taking explosion, the president with the biggest impact on narcotics policy was unquestionably Richard Nixon. The feisty Californian declared the War on Drugs; browbeat foreign governments on drug production; and created the Drug Enforcement Administration. His thunderous actions defined American policy for the next forty years—and had a colossal impact on Mexico. However, as Nixon was so discredited by Watergate, later drug warriors prefer to downplay his titanic contributions. Meanwhile, drug-policy critics concede that while Nixon was confrontational, he gave more funding to rehab programs than some of his liberal successors.
Born in 1913, Nixon came to manhood during the antimarijuana drive of FBN director Harry Anslinger, who alleged that smoking weed caused repugnant, immoral behavior and drove people to kill. Such ideas are depicted in the classic 1936 exploitation film
Tell Your Children
), made at the height of Anslinger’s fervent campaign. The movie follows a group of clean-living high school students who are lured by a drug pusher to smoke marijuana and go on to rape, murder, and descend into insanity. It has some fantastic moments, such as when a suited student puffs on a reefer and unleashes an evil Hollywood cackle.
The idea that marijuana drove people to rape and murder was discredited by the 1960s. But Nixon did still believe that weed made people immoral, alleging it was driving youth astray and causing the countercultural revolution he found so abhorrent. His ideas were revealed most clearly in the White House tapes that were declassified in 2002. Drugs, he said, were part of a communist conspiracy to destroy the United States. As he said in one recording:
“You see, homosexuality, dope, immorality in general. These are the enemies of strong societies. That’s why the communists and the left-wingers are pushing the stuff. They’re trying to destroy us.”
Nixon was also concerned about heroin, which he blamed for rising crime from Washington to Los Angeles. In his election campaign, he promised law and order. And when he took office in 1969, he wanted to take action that showed he was putting his money where his mouth was. His first sledgehammer move was to shut down the Mexican border.
Operation Intercept was born after Nixon’s officials went to Mexico City in June 1969 to persuade Mexico to spray poison on marijuana and opium crops. Mexican officials refused, citing how Agent Orange sprayings in Vietnam were causing frightening side effects. As G. Gordon Liddy described the visit in his memoir, “The Mexicans, using diplomatic language of course, told us to go piss up a rope. The Nixon administration didn’t believe in the United States taking crap from any foreign government. Its reply was Operation Intercept.”
Under Operation Intercept, customs inspectors thoroughly searched—or in agent talk
—every vehicle and pedestrian trying to enter the United States along the entire southern border. In between posts, the U.S. army set up mobile radar units, while drug agents patrolled in rented planes. The operation wreaked havoc, backing queues of cars deep into Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez. Mexicans with green cards couldn’t get to their jobs; avocados rotted in gridlocked trucks; and Mexican expenditure plummeted in American cities. However, agents seized few actual drugs, with the smugglers waiting out the siege. After seventeen painful days and a barrage of complaints, Nixon called off the dogs. The United States and Mexico agreed they would work together in a new Operation Cooperation.
Historians are mixed on the merits and failures of Nixon’s aggressive experiment. On one side, it showed the United States could not afford the economic consequences of shutting down its southern border. Four decades later, with far greater trade between the two nations and the volatility of global markets, such a move is unthinkable. Customs agents have to contend with the reality that they can only search a fraction of cars and people coming from Mexico. However much they seize, a percentage of drugs will invariably slip through.
However, Nixon claimed it was a victory. He had shown his base that he meant business and strong-armed Mexico into fighting the drug trade. As part of Operation Cooperation, Mexico promised to crack down on drug crops, and American agents were allowed to work south of border. A new modus operandi was being developed for the drug war abroad—coercing countries to destroy narcotics at the source.
In 1971, Nixon extended the tactic to Turkey, where he pressured the government to clamp down on opium production under threat of cutting U.S. military and economic aid. He also worked with France to attack the so-called French connection of heroin labs. These actions had a serious impact on the Turkish product. But this was a blessing for Sinaloan producers, who expanded their own operations to fill the gap. Mexican mud and black tar were propelled from being a last resort for American junkies to a staple of their diet.