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A Chronology of Drugs

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Editor’s Note: During her career as a Professor of History, specialising in 20th century Latin America and the war on drugs, Myrna Santiago compiled a chronology of drugs. This contains a log of key dates throughout the history of drugs. We’re incredibly grateful that Myrna has offered to share her chronology within this blog post and will remain part of our Teaching Points collection. I’ll defer to Myrna to explain the rest…

I realized that tracking of the twists and turns of the drug trade would be a challenge as soon as I taught my first class on the history of cocaine trafficking in the Americas in 2000. New drug organizations appeared seemingly overnight to replace those that were crushed by rivals or dismantled by governments. The number of actors was staggering, from petty thieves who made the big time, to mercenaries involved in counterrevolutionary wars, to competing US intelligence agencies, to heads of state feathering their nests, to drug czars unwilling or unable to turn down millions of dollars to look the other way or favor one set of traffickers over another. And there were the other actors that made the front pages of the American press with increasing regularity: athletes and entertainers who overdosed in spectacular fashion or hurt themselves in the process of experimenting with new drugs or unknowingly. In Latin America narco beauty queens became a thing. The cocaine industry moved fast, jumping from region to region and country to country in all its facets: coca cultivation, cocaine production, transportation, distribution, money laundering, interdiction, consumption, and, of course, the violence that has permeated the trade throughout.

To try to keep up with the changes, I started keeping a chronology about the trade in cocaine between Latin America and the United States. Since I am a Latin Americanist, my courses and my reading is limited to the Americas, a fact that is reflected in the chronology. I organized the dates by country which I marked by changing the font for each nation involved. The chronology was not predetermined at all and had no rhyme or reason. I focused only on writing down the dates of events in the different countries mentioned by the authors I read. My sources were as reliable as possible in an illegal industry. They included newspapers, academic journals, popular and scholarly books, magazines, and a documentary here and there. The texts were in English or in Spanish. Sometimes the dates did not match from one source to the next, so I kept revising them as I read new texts, fact-checking them. Although the focus remained on cocaine and the Americas, whenever I read something new, I added information about other substances and the countries where they appeared. That explains the long gaps in the chronology and locations until the nineteenth century.

The chronology grew pretty long over the years as you can see. I consult it quite a bit every time I teach my class, every three semesters. But I also refer to it when something new appears in the news, such as a new capo or a new trend in a new country. I find the first reference to that individual in the chronology just to get a sense of how that career took shape; or I look up a country to see what had been developing behind the scenes before to the news du jour.

Eventually I realized that this unscientific (but accurate) list might be useful to others like myself who could use a quick date check or country check. Although there are no sources attached to the chronology, they can be easily found in the literature or sometimes online. At times the source will be obvious to the trained eye. The point here was not to create an annotated document, but rather a straightforward chronology that helped me follow developments in the world of drugs. My hope is that it can now be useful to others too: professors, students, or those simply curious about the progression of one of the oldest markets in history.


A history professor, Myrna Santiago specializes in 20th century Latin America, particularly Mexico, Central America and Cuba. Her recent teaching includes the war on drugs and U.S.-Latin American relations. She is the Director of Women’s Studies and Gender Studies at Saint Mary’s College of California.


Photocredit: Hennie Stander



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