Points Interview: “Taking the War on Drugs Down South: The Drug Enforcement Administration in Mexico (1973–1980),” with Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

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. Carlos A. Pérez Ricart. Ricart is an assistant professor in International Relations at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Economicas, CIDE) in Mexico City and a postdoctoral fellow at the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford. He holds a PhD in Political Science from the Freie Universität Berlin and a degree in International Relations from El Colegio de México, Mexico City. His research has been published or is forthcoming in journals such as Global Governance, The Social History of Alcohol and Drugs, Historia Mexicana, Foro Internacional, Frontera Norte, Contextualizaciones Latinoamericanas, Kriminologisches Journal and others. His forthcoming book (Penguin Random House) explores the activities of US drug law enforcement agents in Mexico.

You can see Ricart’s article here. Contact the University of Chicago Press to subscribe to the journal or request access to any other article from SHAD’s history.

Tell readers a little bit about yourself

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Dr. Carlos A. Pérez Ricart

I was born in Mexico City in 1987. I am currently assistant professor in International Relations at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics (Centro de Investigación y Docencia Economicas, CIDE) in Mexico City and have been working as postdoctoral fellow at the Latin American Centre, University of Oxford for the last three years. I hold a PhD in Political Science from the Freie Universität Berlin and a degree in international Relations from El Colegio de México, Mexico City. 

I consider myself a political scientist with a strong interest in history. While I haven’t had any formal training as an historian, I have been working with archive documents for more than a decade. I also prefer to get involved in historical discussions rather than in finding statistical significance in regression models. And I prefer drinking beer with historians rather than political scientists.

Having said that, I am a fervent follower of the idea of placing politics in time described by Paul Pierson. I believe that the Historic Turn in Social Science should mean not only the “study of the past” or the “hunt for illustrative material” but the “exploration of the temporal dimension of social processes”. This exploration can’t be done without some degree of political science theory. In that sense, I am happy to balance on the line between politics and history. 

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

Rather than drugs and their history, my interest is in the actors, agencies and institutions that have created and promoted the policies of prohibition and criminalization of drugs and their users.

My interest in the topic goes back to the years in which I was starting my graduate training in Berlin, some ten years ago.  I was trying to understand the influence of the government of the United States, in particularly its drug enforcement agencies in the way drug policy was designed, implemented and evaluated in contemporary Mexico. 

While the theoretical tools for approaching the topic were there, the empirical data wasn’t. I struggled to get any sort of primary data that would allow me to understand the specific ways in which US law enforcement agencies were shaping drug policy. Interviews were difficult to come by, and all relevant documents were classified. Secondary sources were massive but didn’t offer me the details I was looking for.

My frustration with contemporary sources is what took me to look at history as the only possible alternative to gain some insights about the topic of US law enforcement agencies and their activities in Mexico. 

Thanks to two research stays in Mexico City and Washington D.C. I discovered the incredible number of (neglected!) documents collected in Mexican and US archives for the pre-1970s period. Many of them had recently been declassified and were ready to be examined by anyone, including a graduate student! 

I did not take me long to realise that while it was pretty impossible to get good empirical material for contemporary Mexico, the archives could offer not just the material to write a PhD dissertation on how the US drug law enforcement used to pressure the Mexican government in the past, but also insights on how the agencies might be using its tools to pressure the Mexican government in the present. While scholars should be careful in establishing general inferences, historical examinations do offer clues and insights of how current processes might happen. At the end of the day, power relations haven’t changed that much over the last 100 years! 

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

You have watched “Narcos”, the Netflix series in which Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents travel to Mexico (and Colombia) to “fight” drug lords, right? Well, my article presents the real story, a behind-the-scenes if you will! 

Now, seriously, the article offers what I think is the first systematic and comprehensive account of the activities and policies of DEA agents in Mexico between 1973, the year in which the agency was founded, and 1980, the year when most of the documents related to the DEA’s presence in Mexico were declassified. Most of the article draws on primary sources, including many recently declassified cables, letters, intelligence reports, and internal memorandums produced by DEA officials. 

While the article engages mainly with the activities of DEA agents in Mexico, the text also offers significant insights around the unintended consequences of police training programs sponsored by the DEA. In doing that, the article contributes to the broader bibliography interested in examining the intersection between human rights and drug policy. The last part of the article presents an examination of the concerns raised by journalists and activists who claimed that the DEA was fostering, or at least not hindering, human right violations in rural Mexico. Does that sound interesting enough? 

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

Yes, indeed. This is part of a book project (forthcoming in Penguin Random House) that aims to demonstrate the overall relevance of drug law enforcement agencies in shaping Mexican drug policy throughout the 20th century. The research is based on two main questions: What impact did US anti-narcotics agencies have in the development of anti-narcotics policies in Mexico’s 20th century? How and by what mechanisms did they influence the anti-narcotics policies developed by the Mexican State during that period? 

I am also working in a second research project on the history of the Mexican police from a long-term historical and global perspective. I aim to answer general questions: How did police practices and police organisation models make their way to Mexico in the 19th and 20th century? How did they change as they passed through space and time? The project draws on an interdisciplinary approach, working with insights from global history, international relations, criminology and historical sociology.

In addition to these two main projects, I am working on other collaborative projects on processes of militarization in Latin America, arms transfers between México and the United States and on the theoretical understanding of the study of state-organized crime dynamics in Latin America.

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

The examination of the history of US narcotic policy in Latin America is still to be written. There is such a wide range of fascinating topics that remain to be analysed that I don’t know where to start! Therefore, I will just mention some comments related to the DEA in Mexico and Latin America. 

First, much more remains to be written about the actual activities of the DEA in Mexico. At the time of responding to this question, the DEA maintains 11 offices and dozens of agents working in Mexico, thereby continuing to wage the war on drugs down south (the title of the article). Very little is known about these agents’ activities, their main contacts, and their strategies. A research effort between journalists and scholars could inquire into these issues. The work of Ginger Thompson recently published in ProPublica shows the way to go. 

Second, in relation to the history of DEA’s presence in Mexico, further research still needs to uncover the social and political consequences of their activities. Admittedly, we still know very little about their activities in Mexico and the rest of Latin America since 1973. However, as new archives get declassified, new areas of research open. In addition to new case studies as the one offered in my article, I would love to see more comparative work (what was different/similar about the DEA’s work in Mexico, Afghanistan or Argentina? What distinguished the transgovernmental relations with local actors established by DEA agents and the ones developed by CIA officials?), and a more comprehensive analysis on the unintended consequences of the activities of the agency at a regional and global scale. 

Finally, the role of local actors in the construction of the war on drugs should be acknowledged, identified and unpacked. While the US and its agencies have promoted the enactment of prohibitionist policies throughout Latin America, the reality is that the war on drugs wasn’t driven entirely from Washington, D.C. It is a complex transnational process in which local bureaucracies and conservative elites played a fundamental role as well.  

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

While writing these responses, I am in lockdown due to the COVID-19 Pandemic. So having dinner with any scholar, even someone from the natural sciences or an historian of 13th century Britain, would be great!