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Doing Drug History from a Drug War Zone

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

A Student Murdered

One hot morning last May, the El Paso Times brought news that many of us had been dreading—a student from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) had been murdered in the drug-trade violence that has disrupted our neighbor city, Ciudad Juárez, for three years.  Like many UTEP students, Alejandro Ruiz, 18 years old, lived a binational life.  A dual citizen, he lived mostly in Juárez, but commuted to UTEP.  On that day last May he and a friend were traveling from a boy scout meeting when their vehicle was riddled with machine gun fire.  His murder, like almost all the killings (more than 3,000 in 2010 alone) remains unsolved and unexplained.  Although Mexican political leaders have tried to dismiss the dead as criminals and effectively erase their existence, one thing seems certain, Alejandro himself had no direct involvement in the drugs trade.  We are left only to speculate. Was this a case of mistaken identity?  Did his or his friend’s families have some connection to the trade?  Were they somehow associated with one side or the other? Had their fathers or brothers resisted the cartels?  Or were they involved in them? The long drug war has destroyed public order in Juárez; tens of thousands of businesses have closed down, and thousands have fled a city with a population of more than a million.  Those who remain live in fear, with police and soldiers unable or unwilling to control the criminals who have seen the drug war as an opportunity to steal, extort and murder.

Alejandro Ruiz (1992-2010)

When I looked at Alejandro’s photo in the paper that day, I realized with a sinking feeling that he was not only a UTEP student, he had been my student—in a very large lecture course I had taught the previous semester.  He might have remained anonymous in a class of more than 300, but he had always sat right down in front.  And with his wild curly hair and infectious personality, he was hard to ignore.  In occasional chats in the few minutes before class, I learned he had graduated from the same magnet high school as my own daughter.  Suddenly the drug war hit home.   Since May, two more UTEP students have been murdered and stray bullets from gun battles across the border have hit buildings on the University campus.  Many of our students have experienced loss and disruption in their lives—many live in considerable fear.

Safe in El Paso

Yet, even as the violence across the border has risen, El Paso remains one of the safest large cities in the US. The number of murders recorded for 2010—just five—was the lowest total since the 1960s, when the city had fewer than half the 600,000 people who live here today.  The spillover of drug violence predicted by Texas Gov. Rick Perry and others has not occurred.  One reason may be that El Paso has one of the most intense concentrations of military and police personnel of any city in the US—US Army, Border Patrol, DEA, etc., etc.  Still, the drugs trade surrounds us, as warring cartels fight it out for control of one of the most lucrative drugs trans-shipment points in North America.  The discovery of large caches of drugs is a daily occurrence as the drug trade industry moves marijuana, heroin and cocaine across the border and arranges for its shipment across the US.  The El Paso police force has a special “stash house” team.   Cash and guns flow in the other direction, with a very large proportion of the weapons used by the cartels having Texas origins.

Writing Drug History

This devastating eruption of violence in Ciudad Juárez and the State of Chihuahua belongs, in scholarly terms, in the context of the history of the drugs trade in the Americas.  Until recently, as a historian of Africa, I mostly ignored how that history surrounded me.  But as the drug trade escalated, and then the drug wars, I started to see my academic interest in the history of alcohol use and control in Africa in the broader context of the history of drugs—as the work of David Courtwright and others suggested I should.  I developed a course on “drugs in modern history.”  My predictable take on that was to place US history in a broader context, but at the same time, increasingly disturbing news from home required that I focus on the intersections of state power, commercial capitalism and drug demand.  Suddenly, the circumstances in which alcohol restrictions had been imposed on Africa, redolent with imperial power and race ideas, had renewed and broader resonance in a larger history of drugs.  Suddenly, also, it was harder to conceptualize the history of alcohol in Africa in relationship to ideas about race and colonial control and more important to understand how it was produced, who profited from it, and perhaps most important how its production, distribution and consumption impacted the lives of ordinary people.  What the death of Alejandro Ruiz has stressed for me as a historian is the importance of documenting in graphic terms how drugs impact individuals and communities.  And how important it is not to sanitize this history with the generalizations–“drug use grew dramatically”–that do not begin to convey the atmosphere surrounding, for example, the consumption of drugs in the context of civil war in Liberia.


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