Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

The United States, Mexico, and the Mutual Securitization of Drug Enforcement, 1969–1985

September 5, 2019

During the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. and Mexican drug enforcement actors rethought their policing efforts in ways that furthered distinct, security interests. The U.S. “war on drugs” in Mexico and its effects were shaped by the Mexican government’s repressive efforts, as well as shifting U.S. geopolitical objectives in Latin America. With the drug trade threatening the fabric of American society, U.S. leaders created policies based on militarized, supply-control measures abroad. Their efforts in Mexico seemed to escalate with the murder of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agent Enrique “Kiki” Camarena by Mexican drug lords in 1985. My article argues, however, that Camarena’s murder must be seen as the culmination of a decade-long interplay between the externalization of the U.S. “war on drugs” and Mexico’s local counterinsurgency war. During the 1970s, the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), Mexico’s authoritarian ruling party, was in the midst of eliminating threats to its power caused by leftist insurgencies in what became known as the Dirty War. With the increasing overlap between Mexican drug enforcement and counterinsurgency, PRI leaders appropriated U.S. antidrug policies in ways that facilitated their Dirty War, resulting in actual military conflict, human rights violations, and the production of more drugs. By the 1980s, U.S. drug agents in Mexico internalized the rogue practices of law enforcement and counterinsurgency that had facilitated Mexican drug control during the 1970s. My article highlights how the Dirty War legacy shaped the more aggressive U.S. drug enforcement practices in Mexico that led to Camarena’s death. It offers a case study in how the divergent objectives of U.S. and Mexican agents reified a drug war, and it reflects on the role of U.S. drug enforcement agents as unofficial military arms. Mexican antidrug agents, charged with the state’s counterinsurgency and antidrug efforts, utilized U.S. antidrug aid in eliminating both narcotics and insurgents. In this undertain environment, U.S. agents, intended to “advise” drug operations, overstepped jurisdictional lines, used force against local nationals, sustained casualties, and infringed upon Mexican sovereignty. Using Mexican and U.S. records, I explore how U.S. and Mexican actors employed security and drug control for distinct purposes. The interplay between their objectives produced results that no one could have foreseen.