Points Interview: “Serrano Communities and Subaltern Negotiation Strategies: The Local Politics of Opium Production in Mexico, 1940–2020,” with Nathaniel Morris

Editor’s Note: We’re continuing our series of interviews with the authors of the newest edition of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, ADHS’s journal, published by the University of Chicago Press. Today we feature Dr. Nathaniel Morris, whose article you can see here. Dr. Morris is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow attached to the History department at the University College London. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to this article, or any other article from SHAD’s history.

Tell readers a little bit about yourself

Screenshot 2020-06-01 at 7.34.59 PMI’m a historian, and sometimes I pretend to be an anthropologist, I suppose. I’m from London, England – or Great Britain, or whatever else this strange old island is calling itself at the moment. I’ve been interested in Latin American history, politics, cultures and all the rest of it since I was an undergraduate – which I now realise is way longer ago than I would like! – and I’ve always been drawn to Mexico in particular. I’m halfway through a 3-year postdoc at University College London, researching the history of indigenous militia groups in Mexico and trying to work out the links between armed community guard units that emerged during the Revolution in the 1920s and 30s, and the contemporary ‘autodefensa’ militias that are playing a key role in the ‘Drug War’ ongoing in many parts of the country. This research has followed on from an earlier project on indigenous relations with the Revolutionary state in a particularly rugged, diverse and beautiful bit of western Mexico, which – completely shameless plug alert – is coming out as a book with Arizona University Press this autumn. It’s called ‘Soldiers, Saints and Shamans: Indigenous Communities and the Revolutionary State in Mexico’s Gran Nayar,’ and you can pre-order a copy here.

What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

Well, I suppose my ‘gateway’ into the study of drugs was doing fieldwork in Mexico, up in the mountains of the Gran Nayar, where various Indigenous Náayari, O’dam, Wixárika and Mexicanero people – even whole communities, in a few cases – are part-time poppy farmers / opium-producers. I was there to investigate the events of the Revolutionary period, but it was impossible not to learn about the drug trade, too – the dynamics of which today are intertwined with the developments of the period I was researching. During interviews, and just hanging out with people, I heard lots of stories about their daily lives, including those which centred around caring for their small, illicit plots of poppy – including guarding them against police, soldiers, rivals and also opportunists who might rob their opium, harvesting most of a season’s production in a single night. Fluctuations in the price of the raw opium they were producing, and violent confrontations between the cartels active in the surrounding region, were also frequent subjects of conversation. I couldn’t help but want to know more about how it all works, and, well, here I am now, publishing about it in the SHAD!

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

Screenshot 2020-06-01 at 7.43.02 PMMy contribution to this special edition of the journal explores why people in rural Mexico grow opium poppies, and how they manage to survive the many dangers that come with getting involved in this business. Because as soon as you start cultivating poppies, and then harvesting and selling the opium to local cartels, you start dealing with all sorts of violent people and institutions, from heavily armed traffickers who want to keep opium prices down, to policemen and soldiers who either want to destroy your poppy fields (and probably arrest you, give you a good beating, and maybe even straight-up kill you), or want a piece of your profits… I end up identifying three main strategies – legal manoeuvring, passive resistance, and the threat or use of open violence – that poppy farmers use to mitigate the dangers of their participation in the drug trade. I finish up by discussing how these strategies get used in practice, and the factors that determine when and where they are used.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on?

A lot of the information that went into this paper I kind of picked up incidentally while working on other research projects, particularly during my PhD, which involved a lot of fieldwork in opium-growing zones of Mexico. And a lot of the other sources I’ve used I gathered while working on a post-doc research project, helping Benjamin T. Smith and Wil Pansters with their epic history of the Mexican drug trade. I’ve written a couple of other papers based this same research, too – a history of opium production in the state of Durango, for example – and I’ll be doing further fieldwork (once this damn pandemic has let up a bit, anyway!) in opium hot-spots as part of another project I’m putting together with some colleagues now.

At the same time, right now I’m working on a related but also distinct research project out of University College London, sponsored by a very generous grant from the Leverhulme Foundation, which centres on Mexican militia groups. In the autumn of 2013, militias made the international news headlines when they rose up against Mexico’s drug cartels – and for that matter anyone else, including generals and politicians, who threatened their families, lands and livelihoods. These militias are often portrayed as radically new phenomena that pose unprecedented challenges to the rule of law; especially because many of these groups were (and still are) based in Indigenous communities, which raises complex questions about the nature of Indigenous autonomy in Mexico, and how far it can, and should, extend. But although the role of indigenous militias in regional politics, and in the formation of the Mexican nation-state itself, has been largely ignored, they’ve actually played a key role in Mexico’s history since the mid-nineteenth century. The basic aim of my project – which will hopefully end up being my second book – is to demonstrate the strong ties of history, memory, space and culture linking Mexico’s modern indigenous militias with their mid-nineteenth and early-twentieth century forebears.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

I think there’s a lot more to work for scholars to do in terms of linking up on-the-ground case-studies of local aspects of the drug trade – peasant producers, urban cooks, the dynamics of production in a particular village, or trafficking along a single highway – with the more top-down research that’s been done into drug policy, prohibition regimes, policing, global trafficking. I think there’s a lot of very interesting work to do in this area

What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

I’ve always thought Herodotus would have some excellent stories to tell – full magical realism vibes. Or else, going fully off-piste, maybe Indiana Jones? He’d be great craic as a dinner guest!