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"The Dope: The Real History of the Mexican Drug Trade”| Reviewed by Bill Schwab

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

“The Dope” is a comprehensive and compelling history of the Mexican drug trade written by British academic Benjamin T. Smith. It is a well-researched true crime story of how violence and corruption have escalated since the early 20th Century to plague modern Mexico.

The historian recounts how and why the once peaceful drug industry, controlled by farmers, families and healers, became dominated by illegal cartels and criminal kingpins, turned violent and markedly changed Mexico’s economic system, and most importantly, its relationship to the United States.

Smith traces the activities of a host of remarkable drug dealers during the last 100 years and shows how their actions have shaped Mexico. Some of the more notorious figures are Enrique Fernandez, the trafficker who became Mexico's first major narcotics dealer and one of the first to be killed in the war on drugs; Eduardo ‘Lalo’ Fernandez, Mexico's chief heroin chemist, and foremost cocaine importer; Leopoldo Salazar Viniegra, an outstanding doctor who attempted to legalize Mexico's drugs and failed; and Harry Anslinger, founder of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, whose sensational strategies led the way for U.S. meddling and heinous participation in violence in Mexico today (involving some 36,000 murders/year in Mexico and 14,000/year for the U.S.).

Smith’s knowledge of his subject is notably extensive. His razor-sharp critique details corruption on both sides of the border. He reveals atrocities committed by Mexico's Drug Enforcement agencies and the complicity of U.S. agents who look the other way when witnessing a crime.

In the book's last section, “Into the Abyss, 1990- 2020” Smith reports that, by early 1997, even the Mexican Army general in charge of the nation's war on drugs was taking payments to protect the cartels. Gangs, probably now numbering in the hundreds, have made extortion their primary business. Smith maintains the “war on drugs” has been a failure and that Mexico will not change as long as narcotics remain illegal.

Smith’s assessment of the political and economic issues of the Mexican drug wars is very readable. His depressing conclusion is, “A century and counting; the Mexican drug trade shows no sign of slowing.”

About the Author: Benjamin T. Smith, professor of Latin American history at the University of Warwick, has published dozens of articles in high-profile history journals and written widely on Mexico for “The Guardian” and other periodicals.

W. W. Norton and Co. is the publisher of this 452-page, thoroughly indexed book with many photographs that complement the narrative.

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