Tuesday, November 25, 2008


[published in the London Guardian Weekly in 2008]

Over the last few months, the Mexican army, called in by President Calderon to launch a full-frontal assault against narco traffickers operating throughout the country, has decommissioned record shipments of cocaine and has uncovered huge extensions of marijuana and opium fields. Besides the drugs themselves, rifles, pick-up trucks and some personal items were also confiscated. While, in theory, most of the drugs are destroyed, the other objects are kept as evidence. Some of these objects, especially the most extravagant and unique pieces, might well wind up in a very special museum that you will never visit.

Stashed away on the seventh floor of a fortified concrete bunker inside a sprawling military compound in Mexico City, off-limits to all but military personnel and high-ranking police officers, the Museo de Enervantes (enervante encompasses both stimulants and narcotics) is a well-guarded treasure. A unique concept when it was founded in 1985, it is no longer the only drug museum on the planet. In 2000, the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) opened a drug museum inside its offices in Washington, D.C., since 2002 Myanmar has its Drug Elimination Museum, and China only just recently opened the doors to its Anti-Drug Museum. Unlike their Mexican counterpart, however, these museums are all designed for a general audience, a fact that fundamentally influences their curatorial approach to drugs and drug culture.

On a wall at the entrance to the Mexican Drug Museum, above some (perfectly legal) potted plants, is a dedication to all the soldiers who have “offered their lives in the line of duty” in Mexico’s war on drugs, an honor roll designed to inspire all those who enter. The plaque lists the name and rank of each of the more than 500 soldiers who have sacrificed their lives combating traffickers of controlled chemicals over the last three decades, and every time another soldier is killed in action a new plaque is hung on the wall.

Although the museum is presented as a showcase of the military’s achievements in its war against drugs, it also faithfully documents the wide varieties of psychoactive substances that have existed in the country for thousands of years. In Mexico, indigenous priests and shamans utilized in their religious practices various hallucinogens and stimulants, including plants, weeds, flowers, cacti, mushrooms, tree bark and even toads. Recreational use of these substances was restricted for royalty only (Moctezuma was famous for his magic mushroom orgies), and unauthorized use was severely punished. On display in glass cases is a selection of pre-Hispanic drug paraphernalia, including a pipe (used with tobacco), a hollowed-headed figurine in which peyote buttons were stored, and a knife used in religious rituals to remove still-beating hearts from sacrificial victims (both priests and the victims were usually tripping their brains out from a mix of hallucinogens and an agave alcohol called pulque).

Once the Spanish had decimated the local population, destroyed their temples and pyramids and burnt all their books, they made a point of outlawing the consumption of all ‘drugs’ associated with pagan religious practices. The indigenous people who continued to supply the shamans and other religious practitioners with traditional psychoactive substances after the Conquest thus became the first narco traffickers in the Americas.

Oddly enough, marijuana was first brought to Mexico by the first Spanish conquistadores. The Spaniards used the cannabis plant not for its psychoactive properties (banned by the Catholic Church) but rather as rope and in textiles. In Mexico, as in much of the world, opium was not only legal but was actually considered a beneficial medicine. In fact, during WWII, the US actually helped Mexico produce opium to supply it with the morphine needed to treat its wounded soldiers in Vietnam. When the war was over, the joint US/Mexican Operation Condor eradicated much of the opium plants in Mexico using Agent Orange left over from the Vietnam War. Soon after, the Mexican government used its war against opium trafficking to violently expel much of the Chinese population from the country, at which time local entrepreneurs gladly stepped in to maintain the supply of opium to the US, thus giving birth to the first Mexican drug cartels (these sordid chapters in the war against drugs, along with several other embarrassing moments, are absent from the museum).

During the last few decades, Mexico has become the largest exporter to the United States of marijuana, heroin and (most recently) methamphetamines, as well as the main point of entry for Colombian cocaine. The United States sees its southern neighbor as the source of much of the problems that drugs are wreaking among its people, and US presidents and ambassadors have historically complained that Mexico is not doing its part to crackdown on narco traffickers. Seen from the other side of the border, it is the loud toking and snorting sounds coming from the United States, the largest consumer of illegal substances in the world, that is responsible for the drug trafficking that is causing so much hyper-violence within Mexico these days.

Drug trafficking in Mexico is a multi-million dollar industry, yet narcos still use rustic, hand-made equipment for the cultivation of plants and the drugs’ extraction, such as homemade wooden knives to scrape the poppy bulbs, empty battery casings to receive the sap, and improvised water sprinklers made from scrap metal. In one life-size installation in the museum, a peasant sits calmly, a rifle on his lap, a cigarette in his hand, a hat pulled down over his eyes, some simple food cooking on a rustic stove, giving the appearance of a typical campesino working in the fields. Upon closer inspection, however, the accoutrements of criminal activity become visible: the presence of a shortwave radio, a wolf trap, a board containing long rusty nails covered in human excrement (to infect the wound inflicted on unwary soldiers), and low-lying cables strung above the poppy and marijuana fields (stretching off into the painted horizon) designed to bring down prying helicopters.

Narcos tend to rely more on ingenuity than high-tech, costly means to get their products across the border. As the photographs and objects in the exhibition bear witness, drugs can be concealed in almost anything, including dictionaries, concrete bricks, canned goods, quesadillas, tacos and donuts, dolls, a stuffed armadillo, a hot water heater, a surfboard, truck wheels, a shirt decorated with cartoon stickers soaked in LSD, inside a framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and even inside women’s bodies (one photograph shows the gaping wounds in one woman’s buttocks in which two large bags of cocaine were concealed). To illustrate the military’s strategy, detailed dioramas of dramatic operations display tiny action figures attacking narcos in poppy and marijuana fields, spraying fields with pesticide (represented by thin strips of plastic streaming down from a helicopter), or intercepting a large tractor-trailer transporting drugs.

The drug traffickers who have amassed enormous fortunes are never mentioned in Forbes’ list of the world’s wealthiest people, nor do their faces ever grace the social pages of glossy magazines. In an effort to help military and law enforcement agents understand and better identify their enemies, the exhibition includes a whole section with artifacts and objects of narco culture decommissioned during raids on their homes and workplaces. This section includes Cds of narco corridas that narrate the exploits of local drug lords. Due to their high profile, these singers and musicians, whose musical production is often underwritten by the narcos they sing about, have recently become the preferred target of vengeance of rival cartels. There are also several exhibits of flashy narco fashion, including one full-sized narco dressed in a shirt designed with a colorful cockfight, a belt buckle emblazoned with a cannabis leaf, and a bulletproof leather jacket (the fashion-world mannequins used to portray the narcos made them look like model citizens). Bling accessories, such as a diamond-studded, gold-plated cell phones and pistols, and a thick link gold chain in the shape of a skull, are the prized possession of the museum collection. Photographs of customized vehicles, including an armor-plated pick-up truck that fires smoke, tear gas, oil and tacks, reveal the wonders that narco money can buy. A real wooden door carved with the portrait of a narco, rifle in hand and marijuana leaves all around him, opens up to reveal a wall painting of a ranch house’s Greek columns, glitzy chandeliers and bubbling fountain. Mexican outlaws tend to be very religious, though not always in Church-approved ways, as can be seen by the recreation of an altar to Jesus Malverde, the “generous bandit” who was hung by a wealthy landowner at the end of the 19th century and has recently become the favorite narco saint. These installations are surprisingly similar to ones in the Anthropology Museum designed to illustrate the lifestyle of indigenous people, thus revealing how the curators see narcos as a legitimate, though marginal, social group with particular cultural characteristics worthy of study.

In order to keep the military and police officers that visit the museum abreast of the latest trends in consumer drug culture, the last part of the exhibition is dedicated to drug paraphernalia. Among all the pipes, rolling paper, and marijuana and LSD memorabilia is a copy of Antonio Escohotado’s encyclopedic Historia General de las Drogas (A General History of Drugs). Despite the book’s groovy psychedelic cover, it is, in fact, a well-documented indictment of drug wars throughout history, from ancient sacrifices of scapegoats and medieval witch hunts through the Spanish Inquisition and US Prohibition, and up to contemporary US drug hysteria. The book illustrates how socially-accepted psychoactive substances used for religious and medicinal purposes become persecuted as a pretext to debase traditional beliefs and cultures, monopolize the sale of substances, and justify governmental wars against it own citizens, an argument which tends to undermine the museum’s glorification of Mexico’s own war against drugs.

Despite its contradictions and lack of self-criticism, by respectfully documenting a millennial tradition of drug use, as well as paying homage to a unique outlaw culture, the Mexican Drug Museum documents a colorful, complex social phenomenon that permeates everything from nerve endings to the production and marketing techniques of global capitalism’s rogue players.

No comments: