Saturday, June 4, 2011


Three years ago I visited the Mexican army’s Museo de Enervantes (Narcotics Museum). At that time President Calderon had just started his drug war and the government was optimistic about ending Mexico’s narco problem quickly. The army, which had until then been mostly just a spectator of the drug war, began a full-frontal assault against traffickers throughout the country. As part of its daily activity, the army decommissioned shipments of illegal drugs and dismantled clandestine laboratories. Besides the drugs themselves, rifles, vehicles, agricultural and laboratory equipment, as well as personal items of the traffickers, were also confiscated. While (in theory) most of drugs were destroyed, many objects were kept as evidence. Some of these objects, especially the most extravagant and unique pieces, wound up in a very special museum that you will never visit.

Located on Military Industry Avenue, hidden away on the seventh floor of a fortified concrete bunker inside the central military compound in Mexico City, off-limits to all but military personnel and high-ranking police officers, this is one of the most high-security museums in the world. 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) created a drug museum inside its offices in Washington, D.C., since 2002 Myanmar has its Drug Elimination Museum, and China 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, hangs a dedication to all the soldiers who have “offered their lives in the line of duty” in Mexico’s war on drugs. The plaque lists the name and rank of each of the soldiers who have sacrificed their lives combating traffickers of controlled chemicals. Over the last few years, the number of fallen soldiers and officials who have had their name etched onto this metal plaque keeps climbing, with 2010 listing more than twice the number of deaths just three years ago.

Just inside the entrance, a new mural painted by a retired officer depicts soldiers in a poppy field bravely defending civilization as balls of fire fall from the sky. Although the museum is presented as a showcase of the military’s achievements in its war against drugs, in the first of the museum’s ten sections, World History of 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. One glass display case exhibits pre-Hispanic drug objects, 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 pulque). One fact that isn’t mentioned in the museum is how, after the Spaniards 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.

Although the Spaniards considered indigenous Mexicans as drug-addled pagans, marijuana was in fact first brought to Mexico by conquistadores. During WWII, the US actually helped Mexico produce opium to supply it with the morphine needed to treat its wounded soldiers, a practice that eventually led to the birth of the first Mexican drug cartels (also not mentioned within the museum).

During the last few decades, Mexico has become the largest exporter to the United States of marijuana, heroin and, most recently, methamphetamines, and is as well as the main point of entry for Colombian cocaine (an inflatable globe on display shows the main drug routes around the world with colored arrows). The United States sees its southern neighbor as the source of much of the problems that drugs are wreaking among its citizens, and the US government continually complains that Mexico is not enough to crackdown on narco traffickers. In fact, though, it is the use of these controlled chemicals within the United States, the largest consumer of illegal substances in the world, that is the reason why Mexican drug trafficking exists, and it is the US-made weapons, both those supplied by the US government, licensed arms dealers and the Texan gun shops that sell directly to narcos, that are responsible for much of the hyper-violence within Mexico these days.

As can be seen in the museum, although the drug trade is a multi-million dollar industry the local farmers supplying them still use rustic, hand-made equipment (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) for the cultivation of plants and the drugs’ extraction. In one elaborate 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 spying helicopters.

As in the cultivation of the drugs, narcos tend to rely more on ingenuity than high-tech means to smuggle their products across the US 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, inside a framed painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe, and even inside women’s bodies (one photograph shows bags of cocaine that were concealed within a woman’s buttocks, while a female mannequin shows a mula who faked being pregnant). To illustrate the military’s strategy in the war on drugs, detailed dioramas of dramatic operations have tiny military action figures in armored vehicles, helicopters and high-speed boats battling 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.

What makes this drug museum different than all the others around the world is this museum’s willingness to show in detail the splendors of narco culture, rather than treating them just as faceless criminals or ignoring them completely (the other museums show only military or undercover police memorabilia). Within the section entitled Narco Culture, a dark-skinned, handsome male mannequin wearing a cowboy hat, cowboy boots and sunglasses displays the latest in narco fashion and bling accessories. Three years ago this same mannequin was dressed in a shirt decorated with a colorful cockfight, a belt buckle emblazoned with a cannabis leaf, and a gold chain with a skull and crossbones. The same mannequin now sports a snake-skin and leather vest, a shirt decorated with wild horses, a belt buckle with a rooster and several gold necklaces, one with a green marijuana leaf, and a diamond-studded, gold-plated cell phone.

This section also includes a real wooden door carved with the portrait of a narco, rifle in hand and marijuana leaves all around him, which opens up to reveal a wall painting of his 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 preferred narco saint, and there is also a display case full of figures of La Santa Muerte and trolls. Hung on one wall are photographs of customized narco vehicles, including an armor-plated pick-up truck that fires smoke, tear gas, oil and tacks.

The most prized possessions of the museum collection, however, are the weapons. Several glass cases proudly display the silver and gold-plated and/or diamond-studded guns and rifles (AK-47s, of course) confiscated from some of the most important capos. The most recently acquired weapon is a cuerno de chivo confiscated from Comandante Amarillo, a leader of the Zetas, gold plated and customized with dragons and tigers. The exhibits in this section are surprisingly similar to the exhibitions in Mexico City’s Anthropology Museum that illustrate the daily life (clothes, jewelry) and work (tools, weapons) of indigenous cultures in Mexico. This reveals how those who created the museum viewed 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, still untranslated in English). 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. Yet, despite its contradictions, by respectfully pay homage to a millennial tradition of drug use, as well as realistically depicting a unique outlaw culture, the Mexican Drug Museum captures much of this complex social phenomenon.

Although only minor changes have been made within the museum over the last few years, things have changed radically outside the walls of the museum, and this of course affects how the museum is perceived. Three years ago people in Mexico and abroad were fascinated by the style and eccentricities of Mexican narcos. They were seen as peoples’ heroes and the cutting edge of Mexican culture (they made popular the cult of Malverde, narco corridas and Mexican bling). Songs touting their exploits were composed and sung by some of the country’s most popular bands. Today, 35,000 narco-related deaths later, people’s perception of narcos has changed a bit. The war between rival cartels, exacerbated by political favoritism and the military’s incursion into narco territory, has completely changed the face of drug trafficking. After dozens of the musicians who sang the glories of narcos were brutally murdered, the radios stopped playing narco-corridas and they soon went out of fashion. Although narco culture is still coveted by cultural connoiseurs, and although people are fascinated by the huge sums of money generated and by the extreme measures taken to protect their profits, there are no particular narcos that people (at least those not on the narco payroll) hold in high esteem.

Over the past three years, The New York Times and El Pais (to use only two examples) employed full-time writers to report only and exclusively on narco violence and ran front-page news of narco violence practically ever day. After years of photos of ever-greater atrocities, people outside of Mexico have become either repulsed by or at least habituated to Mexican narco ultra-violence, and today narco news is almost nowhere to be seen within the major international news sources.

Within Mexico, however, the culture industry still owes much to narcos: the highest grossing films, novels, artwork and soap operas all deal with the drug trade, and local news is still mainly centered on narco activity. Many of these cultural works, though, seem out of step with the current reality, portraying a nostalgic, romanticized or merely comic view of narcos and their milieu, one that doesn’t coincides with the daily slaughter that an increasingly competitive drug trade demands.

Due in part to the brutal tactics now being employed to compete with rival gangs in an effort to control markets and smuggling routes and to escape detention by the military, narcos have become dehumanized within the media, devoid of any particular personality that is not related to violence. All the cultural subtleties and details that this museum has so carefully documented have been washed away by bloodshed. Perhaps that explains why the museum hasn’t been adding material and updating the documentation of narco culture, as the only data of interest these days is the body count on both sides of the war.

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