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Teaching Points– Cocaine, the Drug Trade, the War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Editor’s Note: We close out our back-to-school Teaching Points series this week with Myrna Santiago’s upper division undergraduate history seminar “Cocaine, the Drug Trade, The War on Drugs, and U.S.-Latin American Relations.”  Professor and Chair of the History Department at St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, Santiago comes to drug history through border, economic, and environmental issues, a nexus of ideas represented in her prize-winning book The Ecology of Oil: Environment, Labor, and the Mexican Revolution, 1900-1938 (Cambridge, 2007).  Here she looks at another commodity fetish–cocaine– across a span of a hundred years.


For the last thirty years, one of the dominant themes between Latin America and the United States has been the drug trade, specifically the trafficking in cocaine. The policy of successive US administrations has been to wage a “war on drugs” to the exclusion of alternatives. The question then becomes, what has such a war accomplished? How has it affected relations between the United States and Latin America? What effects has the war had on production, transportation, and consumption patterns? This course will examine these questions by looking at the history of cocaine production from the late 19th century until today, tracing the changes the humble coca leaf underwent to become a powerful addictive substance.

We will follow the trajectory of cocaine production and transportation through the countries most affected over the course of the late nineteenth and the whole of the twentieth century—Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, and now Mexico—paying attention to the impact such illicit trade has had on politics, economic development, and democracy. Objectives. The primary goal of this course is to have students develop an informed and sophisticated analysis of the impact the drug trade has had on U.S.-Latin American relations and within Latin American countries themselves, in addition to gaining knowledge about the history of cocaine and a developing a more critical view of media representations of drug matters in general.

Required Readings

Paul Gootenberg, Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug Gabriel García Márquez, News of a Kidnapping Roberto Escobar, The Accountant’s Story Coletta A. Youngers and Eileen Rosin, Drugs & Democracy in Latin America Jeffrey A. Miron, Drug War Crimes Articles from e-reserve

Schedule of Classes

Mon Aug 31 Introduction

Wed Sept 2: Coca and the first wave of cocaine, to 1890

  1. Gootenberg, Introduction, ch 1

  2. Learning objective: understanding the historiography

Locally Sourced

Fri Sept 4: Peruvian crude, 1885-1910

  1. Discuss: Gootenberg, ch 2

  2. Leaning objective: understanding what a commodity is

Mon Sept 7: Thank the (dying) labor movement and its unions for the day off!

Wed Sept 9: Cocaine goes global, 1890s-1930s

  1. Gootenberg, ch 3

  1. Learning objective: understanding what a commodity circuit is

Fri Sept 11: The first wave of cocaine flattens, post 1910

  1. Gootenberg, ch 4

Mon Sept 14:First wave of anti-drug policies, 1910-1945

  1. Gootenbeg, ch 5

  2. Evening showing of “Cocaine Fiends” (1936)

  3. Learning objective: understanding the logic of prohibition

Wed Sept 16: The first wave of narcotraficantes, 1945-1965

  1. Gootenberg, ch 6

  2. Learning objective: understanding the business of cocaine production

Fri Sept 18: The cocaine tsunami forming, 1970s

  1. Gootenberg, ch 7

  2. Learning objective: understanding context and structure

Mon Sept 21: Why Colombia?

  1. Francisco E. Thoumi, “Why the Illegal Psychoactive Drugs Industry Grew in Colombia”

  2. Learning objective: understanding the role of the state in cocaine economics

Wed Sept 23: The Colombian connection & the rise of Medellín

  1. Mary Roldán, “Cocaine and the ‘miracle’of modernity in Medellín” from Paul Gootenberg, ed., Cocaine: Global Histories

  2. Bruce Bagley, “The Colombian Connection: The Impact of Drug Traffic on Colombia,” from Deborah Pacini and Christine Franquemont, eds., Coca and Cocaine: Effects on People and Policy in Latin America

  3. Learning objective: understanding the effects of the cocaine trade in Colombia

“Blow” (Dir: Ted Demme, 2001)

Fri Sept 25: Conservatism and Cocaine in the US

  1. Belén Boville, The Cocaine War in Context: Drugs and Politics, ch. 5: “The Conservative Revolution”

  2. Dominic Streatfeild, Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography, ch 10: “George, Carlos, and the Cocaine Explosion”

  3. Evening showing of “Blow” (2001)

  4. Learning objective: understanding the second war on drugs

Mon Sept 28: The Central American Connection, Part I

  1. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, Whiteout, “Webb’s Big Story,” and “The CIA, Drugs, and Central America”

  2. Learning objective: understanding the role of the US press and contra politics

Wed Sept 30 The Central American Connection, Part II

  1. Mark B. Rosenberg, “The Politics of Drug Trafficking in Honduras”

  2. Evening showing of “Scar Face,” (1980)

  3. Learning objective: understanding the links between cocaine and anti- “communism”

Marquez, 1996

Fri Oct 2 Los Extraditables, November 1990

  1. García Márquez, chs 1-2

  2. Learning objective: analyzing a primary source

Mon Oct 5: Kidnappings

  1. García Márquez, chs 3-4

Wed Oct 7: Kidnappers

  1. García Márquez, chs 5-6

  2. Learning objective: understanding the effects of the drug war in Colombia

Fri Oct 9: Kidnappings and kidnappers

  1. García Márquez, chs 7-8

  2. Evening showing of “Maria, Llena de Gracia”

Mon Oct 12: los Extraditables and the State

  1. García Márquez, chs 9-10

  2. Learning objective: understanding the war on drugs in Colombia

Wed Oct 14: Who won?

  1. García Márquez, ch. 11

  2. Paper #1 due, hard copy and online

Fri Oct 16: Money Laundering, the 1980s

  1. Anthony P. Maingot, “Laundering the Gains of the Drug Trade: Miami and Caribbean Tax Havens”

  2. Learning objective: understanding the role of banking in the drug trade

Mon Oct 19: Money Laundering, the 1990s

  1. Ivelaw L. Griffith, “The Money Laundering Dilemma in the Caribbean”

  2. Learning objective: understanding the effects of the drug wars on the international banking system

Wed Oct 20: Guest Speaker: José M. Martínez, Assistant Special Agent in Charge, Criminal Investigations, Internal Revenue Service

  1. Speaking about money laundering cases

Fri Oct 23: Becoming narcos

  1. Russell Crandall, Driven by Drugs: US Policy Toward Colombia, pp. 25-39

  2. Escobar, chs 1-2

  3. Learning objective: analyzing a primary source

Mon Oct 26: Developing the business

  1. Escobar, chs 3-5

Wed Oct 28: Class, politics, and war

  1. Escobar, chs 6-8

The Context

Fri Oct 30: Who won?

  1. Escobar, ch 9-10

  2. Paper #2 due

Mon Nov 2: The Mexican Context

  1. Peter Reuter and David Ronfeldt, “Quest for integrity: The Mexican-US Drug Issue in the 1980s”

  2. Learning objective: understanding context

Wed Nov 4: Mexico vs. Colombia

  1. Vanda Felbab-Brown, “The Violent Drug Market in Mexico & Lessons from Colombia”

  2. Evening showing of “Traffic”

  3. Learning objective: understanding comparative cases

Fri Nov 6: Media and Culture Roundtable

  1. Alma Guillermoprieto, “Days of the Dead: The New Nacocultura,” The New Yorker (November 10, 2008)

  2. Phillip Smith, Book Review: Narcocorridos: A Journey into the Music of Drugs, Guns, and Guerrillas

  3. Gabriel Arana, “There’s No Drug Crime Wave at the Border, Just a Lot of Media Hype”

  4. Silja J.A. Talvi, “Mexico’s Drug War Bloodbath: Guns from the U.S. are Destabilizing the Country”

  5. Learning objective: being media critics

Mon Nov 9: War and its Impact

  1. Youngers and Rosin, ch 1

  2. Leaning objective: understanding the results of foreign policy

Wed Nov 11: Military Matters

  1. Youngers and Rosin, ch 2

Fri Nov 13: Drugs and Democracy in Colombia

  1. Youngers and Rosin, ch 4

  2. Learning objective: understanding the effects of war

Mon Nov 16: Drugs and Democracy in Peru

  1. Youngers and Rosin, ch 6

  2. Learning objective: understanding the effects of war

Wed Nov 18: Drugs and Democracy in Mexico

  1. Youngers and Rosin, ch 8

  2. Evening Event: Reception with Bob Gumpert, Library Photo Exhibit

  3. Learning objective: understanding the effects of war

Fri Nov 20: Drugs and Democracy in the Caribbean

  1. Youngers and Rosin, ch 9

  2. Learning objective: understanding the effects of war

Mon Nov 23: Solutions?

  1. Ted Galen Carpenter, “Troubled Neighbor: Mexico’s Drug Violence Poses a Threat to the United States”

  2. Statement by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy (February 2009), “Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift”

  3. Ethan A. Nadelmann, “Reducing the Harms of Drug Prohibition in the Americas,” La Jornada, November/December 2005

Thanksgiving Break

Mon Nov 30: The Critique

  1. Miron, chs 2, 4, 5

  2. Learning objective: analyzing an argument

Wed Dec 2: Alternatives?

  1. Miron, ch 6

  2. Mark Kleiman, “Drug Abuse Control Policy: Libertarian, Authoritarian, Liberal, and Communitarian Perspectives,”

  3. Learning objective: understanding ideological positions

Fri Dec 4: Paper #3 due

  1. Ethan Nadelmann, “Thinking Seriously About Alternatives to Drug Prohibition,” Part 1 and Part 2

  2. Drug Policy Alliance Network, “Reducing Harm Treatment and Beyond,” “Maintenance Therapies,” “Sterile Syringe Access (Needle Exchange),” “Overdose,” “Safe Injection Rooms,” and “Treatment vs. Incarceration”

Wed Dec 9: 9 – 11 am Presentations

Writing Assignments

Paper #1: Creating a Primary Source

This paper will be a drug story, in a contemporary, good journalistic style of writing that will catch the reader’s attention. It will be 4-5 pages, double-spaced, 1-inch margins (20% of the grade). For this paper, you will interview a person, who will remain anonymous, and answer the question: how have drugs affected this person’s life?

The objective of this paper is to understand how an individual has been touched by the structural issues discussed in class, showing the personal side of the more theoretical and academic matters analyzed in class.

Paper #2: Synthesis and Analysis

This paper will be an analysis and synthesis of the different kinds of texts used in class, focused on a topic of your choice. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate that you can do analysis and synthesis, that is, gathering a broad variety of materials and making sense of them in a cohesive and convincing argument.

Paper #3: Argumentation

In this paper you will answer one of the following questions:

1) What did the drug trade do to diplomatic relations between the United States and Latin America over the course of the 20th century?

2) What was the effect of the policy of “war” on drugs in Latin American societies in the twentieth century?

3) How did the drug trade affect the development of democracy in the Latin American countries through the twentieth century?

The style for this paper is a standard argument, with a clear thesis based on the evidence. Please highlight your thesis in this paper.

Group presentations on policy proposals

For this assignment, your group will answer the question, “what is to be done?” You may select any angle to answer that question, keeping in mind that you want to be convincing. You may choose to target a specific constituency (the local school board to implement your plan for effective drug education, for example; or the President of Mexico, Colombia, or the United States; or the Governor of California). Discuss your topic with the professor ahead of time for suggestions and direction. Your group will develop a PowerPoint presentation for the whole class. The PowerPoint will contain no text, only images. The text your group produces will be turned in to the professor and must contain the following (at least): the names of the presentation group, the outline or text used for the presentation, and the sources consulted and used for the presentation.

Participation Assignment: Drugs in the News or the News on Drugs?

Choose an item in the press in the days prior to your scheduled presentation date. You may use a mainstream source (a major newspaper or television source) or a more obscure source. Bring a copy of your article or the URL for the video clip to class and prepare a one-page paper (single space) that includes the following, in separate paragraphs: a summary of the article; your analysis of the tone of the article; your analysis of what is missing from the article; your evaluation about the sources the writer used, the reliability of the sources the writer used, and your explanation of why you concluded that the article was reliable or not, and what criteria you used to judge its reliability.

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