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  • The Rise and Fall of NarcopopulismDrugs, Politics, and Society in Sinaloa, 1930–1980
  • Benjamin T. Smith

Gazing back over nearly 40 years of public service, Sinaloa’s former attorney general, Manuel Lazcano Ochoa, described the influence of the drug industry in the state as pervasive. “Politicians, merchants, businessmen, policemen, peasants, everyone knew who sowed opium.” Up in the mountains, “well-known inhabitants, peasants, and small property owners grew it”; while down in the cities “local government” held “jurisdiction over the activity” and was in charge of “watching over and controlling the sowing and trafficking [of drugs].”1 A few decades earlier, an anonymous journalist from the left-wing daily El Día came to a similar, if rather more precise, conclusion. Mocking the Mexican president’s theatrical attempts at land distribution, he argued that the drug industry, not agrarian reform, was central to Sinaloa’s “political and social equilibrium.” Peasants, encouraged to supplement their incomes with occasional sales of opium or marijuana, were “dissuaded from aggressive land reform.” Large landowners, funded by laundered drug money and free from the threat of land expropriation, could extend their lands. And, “middle farmers” or ranchers could channel their entrepreneurial skills to become major contrabandistas, “like the protagonists of Luis G. Inclan’s Astucia.2 As Lazcano and the El Día journalist argue, from the 1930s onwards, the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics [End Page 125] affected all social tiers of Sinaloa society, providing ready cash for peasant growers, economic opportunities and consumer goods for rural ranchers, and capital for large landowners. At the same time, the industry also shaped regional politics. In the immediate postrevolutionary period, state authorities harnessed the narcotics trade to pay off discontented right-wing rancher groups and placate former radicals. However, by the 1970s, this relationship between drug trafficking and potential dissidents shifted. As civil protest and federal antinarcotics efforts increased, regional politicians employed the smokescreen of the “war on drugs” to suppress radical groups.

Despite drug-trafficking’s broad historical impact, until recently few scholars sought to piece together the relationship between regional politics, social structure, and the trade or examine its unintended or unvoiced effects.3 Beyond a few tentative paragraphs on the links between poverty and the industry, most academic works, particularly those from the disciplines of international relations and comparative politics, treated drug trafficking and politics as broadly autonomous, self-contained spheres.4 As many of these works were primarily concerned with the effects of top-down policy initiatives, links to other sectors of society were described in clear, vertical, unilinear terms. Thus, national and international strategies passed down the political hierarchy to local enforcers. At the same time, drug traffickers’ cash-backed attempts at evasion moved up that same hierarchy. Where they met, scholars determined “corruption.” Although such approaches provided a framework for U.S. policy-makers to understand the mechanics of the drug trade in morally unambiguous, binary terms, they not only failed to capture the messy, multivalent reality of the drug industry, but also relied on unconvincing models of the state and the Mexican trade. First, many works based their assumptions on activities in Colombia, where, unlike Mexico, traffickers and policy makers maintained fairly independent spheres.5 Second, most works tended to view the postrevolutionary state as static, unified, and corporatist, with clear and unchanging lines of command from the president and the party through local governors, down to peasant commissars. Thus for Howard Abadinsky, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was “a tool of successive presidents using authoritarian methods to insure one-party rule.”6 Third, using the language of both the U.S. and Mexican governments and the literary conventions of true crime, they also tended to view the traffickers [End Page 126] as powerful, independent criminals: heavily armed, profit-maximizing rational actors.7 Portrayals of Jaime Herrera’s Durango-Chicago operation still rely on vastly exaggerated Drug Enforcement Agency descriptions of a 5,000-person “farm to arm” business, which had not so much bought off the power-structure as inhabited it entirely.8

Rather than relying on these reified, self-contained models, this article attempts to employ insights from the literature on Mexican state formation to understand...