The drug trade in Mexico and efforts by the Mexican government—often with United States assistance—to control the cultivation, sale, and use of narcotics are largely 20th-century phenomena. Over time, U.S. drug control policies have played a large role in the scope and longevity of Mexico’s drug trade. Many argue that these policies—guided by the U.S.-led global war on drugs—have been fruitless in Mexico, and are at least partially responsible for the violence and instability seen there in the early twentieth century.
A producer of Cannabis sativa and the opium poppy, Mexico emerged as a critical place of drug supply following World War II, even though domestic drug use in Mexico has remained low. Since the 1960s and 1970s, the drug trade in Mexico has reached epic proportions due to drug demand emanating from the United States. Mexico’s cultivation of psychoactive raw materials and its prime location—connecting North America with Central America and the Caribbean and sharing a 2,000-mile-long border with the United States—have made it an ideal transit point for narcotics originating from other parts of the Western Hemisphere and the world. Although Mexico implemented a smaller, less organized antidrug campaign in the late 1940s, the inauguration of the global war on drugs in 1971 represents a distinctive shift in its drug control and enforcement policies. The government began utilizing U.S. supply-control models, advice, and aid to decrease the cultivation of drugs inside the country. America’s fight against drug trafficking in Central America and the Caribbean in the 1980s and 1990s shifted the geographic locus of the drug trade to Mexico by the early 2000s. Mexico’s powerful drug cartels proved more than capable of eluding (sometimes colluding with) the Mexican government’s efforts against them in the first decade of the 21st century during the administration of President Felipe Calderón (2006–2012). Calderón’s fight against the cartels brought about a drug war in Mexico, characterized by widespread violence, instability, and an estimated death toll of more than 70,000 people.
U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America in the 19th century initially focused on excluding or limiting the military and economic influence of European powers, territorial expansion, and encouraging American commerce. These objectives were expressed in the No Transfer Principle (1811) and the Monroe Doctrine (1823). American policy was unilateralist (not isolationist); it gradually became more aggressive and interventionist as the idea of Manifest Destiny contributed to wars and military conflicts against indigenous peoples, France, Britain, Spain, and Mexico in the Western Hemisphere. Expansionist sentiments and U.S. domestic politics inspired annexationist impulses and filibuster expeditions to Mexico, Cuba, and parts of Central America. Civil war in the United States put a temporary halt to interventionism and imperial dreams in Latin America. From the 1870s until the end of the century, U.S. policy intensified efforts to establish political and military hegemony in the Western Hemisphere, including periodic naval interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, reaching even to Brazil in the 1890s. By the end of the century Secretary of State Richard Olney added the Olney Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine (“Today the United States is practically sovereign on this continent and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition . . .”), and President Theodore Roosevelt contributed his own corollary in 1904 (“in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to exercise an international police power”). American policy toward Latin America, at the turn of the century, explicitly justified unilateral intervention, military occupation, and transformation of sovereign states into political and economic protectorates in order to defend U.S. economic interests and an expanding concept of national security.