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The Drug Trade in the Americas (AM421)

Office Hours:


Dr Benjamin Smith
Room H338, third floor of the Humanities Building
Monday 2pm-3pm and Friday 12-1pm or by appointment.

Just email me with a time you can make.

+44 (0)24 76523422 (internal extension 23422)

Monday 11am-1pm and Monday 3pm-5pm





Over the past three decades, stories on the terrifying effects of the war on drugs have saturated coverage of the Americas. Barely a week goes by without the gruesome details of another mass grave, city-wide shootout, or tragic kidnapping hitting the news. Although individual reporters have sought to bring some complexity to their reports, repeated violent images and opportunist politicking have distorted visions of Latin America once more. Whereas the generation of the 1960s looked south and only saw Che Guevara and his battered, guerilla followers, now onlookers see Pablo Escobar, Chapo Guzmán and a mass of decapitated torsos. Despite this contemporary fascination with the cartels’ internecine warfare, few students understand the history, the context, or the trajectory of either the narcotics trade or the war on drugs.

This final year Advanced Option module, which looks at the production, trade, and prohibition of narcotics throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, seeks to contextualize the current situation, teasing out the social, economic, and political effects of the drug trade and its US-led opposition. On the one hand, the module will look at the history of marijuana, opium, and cocaine as commodities, focusing on their production in the Mexican sierra, the Peruvian region of Huallaga and the Bolivian region of Yungas. Building on new economic histories of Latin America, the module will look at how global and local technological advances, shifts in foreign demand and local political and socio-economic structures shaped the trade in individual regions. At the same time, the module will also look at how the rapid expansion of the trade and the wealth generated by it served to reconfigure these same social and political systems, creating a compromised political elite, a thin tier of plutocrat kingpins, and large groups of dependent peasant producers and urban go-betweens.

On the other hand, the module will also examine the attempts to regulate the industry from early twentieth-century prohibition to the contemporary war on drugs. The module will seek to integrate analysis of US planning, national and regional implementation, and its often counter-productive effects. Here, we shall pay special attention to the ways in which Cold War anti-communism often trumped anti-narcotics policy, encouraging US politicians, Mexican spies, and Colombian soldiers to covertly ignore government rhetoric and arm narcos against supposed left-wing threats.

Finally, although the module focuses on issues of political and socio-economic history, it will also include discussions of culture. The war on drugs has not only generated political and social conflict, but also undermined citizens’ ability to piece together the meaning of contemporary events. Anti-narcotics discourses have curtailed and skewed historians’ access to the reality of the American trade. Meanwhile politicians and drug barons have manipulated and distorted the public sphere, limiting discussion of the trade to the crime pages, rumor, song, graffiti, novels, covert cults, films, narco-messages and bodily mutilation. These new forms have both established counterpoints to the overwhelming discourses of the war on drugs and offered citizens the opportunity to peer through the fog created by increasingly militarized and secretive states.

A note on emailing: I will try to respond to e-mails in as timely a fashion as possible within normal working hours (i.e. 9-5.30 Monday to Friday). Please add 'AM421' to the start of your subject line so that I can spot course-related e-mails. Those that do not contain this often go into my junk mail. Please also understand that I often cannot give an instant reply.

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