Chapter 9 – Narrating the history of poppies in Mexico. Infinite possibilities.

This is Chapter 9 of our Opium Project.

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As occurs with the history of other drugs, the story of poppy cultivation –and of the transportation and exportation of opium– in Mexico has become an increasingly frequent object of analysis by historians, sociologists, and political scientists. Sadly, such studies tend to be conducted in isolation, lying outside clear analytical frameworks or theoretical perspectives associated with well-recognized disciplinary backgrounds.

I sustain here that the history of poppies in Mexico would obtain greater importance if it were better articulated with established academic fields and perspectives. Pursuant to this idea, in this brief article I discuss three options: the focus of connected history, the historiography of bilateral Mexico-United States relations, and debates on State formation in Mexico. This list is clearly not exhaustive, but seeks only to evidence the infinite potential of the history of poppy cultivation to nourish and support the development of mid-range theories, disciplinary focuses, and theoretical perspectives, or to refute them, or perhaps to raise them to new levels.

In summary: the history of the cultivation, trafficking, commercialization, and consumption of the poppy and its derivatives can no longer be isolated from the world that surrounds it, but must be framed in a broader narrative that gives it meaning and rigor

The history of the poppy and State building

The concept of state-building – or State formation – refers to the process of developing a more-or-less centralized and effective governmental structure. The fundamental questions raised in relation to this perspective are how, and at what cost, certain institutions can exercise power over populations, territories, organizations, and other local actors.1 For a Latin American perspective on this debate, see: Marcus J. Kurtz, Latin American State Building in Comparative Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Miguel Ángel Centeno and Agustin E. Ferraro, State and Nation Making in Latin America and Spain: Republics of the Possible (Cambridge University Press, 2014); and Hillel David Soifer, State Building in Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2015). While the process of the construction of the Mexican State has been an object of analysis for decades –above all from the perspective of so-called cultural studies2The classic book is Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniel Nugent, eds., Everyday Forms of State Formation: Revolution and the Negotiation of Rule in Modern Mexico (Durham: Duke University Press, 1994).– efforts to relate this agenda to the history of poppies in the country are scarce.

The war on drugs – that in the early 20th century was simply a war on the poppy and its derivatives – is fundamental in the process of constructing the Mexican State.

In consonance with the theories of State formation which affirm that violence, conflict, and war are keys to the origin of national States, I consider that the war on drugs –that in the early 20th century was simply a war on the poppy and its derivatives– was fundamental in the process of constructing the Mexican State. Perhaps the best example to illustrate this is the deployment of the poppy eradication campaigns that began around 1936 in the sierra zone known as the Golden Triangle. The dominant narrative holds that those campaigns resulted from pressure applied by the U.S.,3Froylán Enciso, “Régimen global de prohibición, actores criminalizados y la cultura del narcotráfico en Mexico durante la década de 1970”, Foro International 197, no 3 (2009): 595-637; William Walker III, “Control across the Border: The United States, Mexico, and Narcotics Policy, 1936-1940”, Pacific Historical Review 47, no. 1 (1978): 91-106. but a more thorough analysis shows that the campaigns to eradicate poppy fields were conceived, designed, and carried out by the federal government from Mexico City as a means of demonstrating its presence in “peripheral, indomitable, and indolent” areas, to evoke the three adjectives applied by the anthropologist Salvador Maldonado Aranda.4Salvador Maldonado Aranda, Los márgenes del estado mexicano: territorios ilegales, desarrollo y violencia en México (Zamora: El Colegio de Michoacán, 2010), ch. IV. U.S. pressure certainly constrained the scope and rhythm of those operations, but it was not the motor that drove eradication.5Carlos A. Pérez Ricart, “U.S. pressure and Mexican anti-drugs efforts from 1940 to 1980: Importing the war on drugs?”, in Beyond the Drug War in Mexico: Human rights, the public sphere and justice, ed. Wil G. Pansters, Benjamin T. Smith, and Peter Watt (Oxford: Routledge, 2018), 33-52. In more than one sense, those campaigns functioned as a politics of centralization that brought innumerable advantages: maintaining part of the post-revolutionary army occupied in those far-off tasks, restricting the margin of action of local governors, keeping the aspirations of local caciques at bay, and appropriating part of the income that poppy cultivation generated.

In consonance with Charles Tilly, meanwhile, for whom war was a prerequisite of national construction in Europe6Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States (Cambridge: Blackwell, 1990)., I suggest that combatting the poppy and its derivatives can be read as a means through which the Mexican State –perhaps in a disordered and somewhat inefficacious manner– began to constitute itself in zones which would have been inaccessible through other means. This perspective is important not only for what it tells us about Mexican State formation in the early 20th century, but also about the motivations that have led the State to maintain its war on drugs into the present. As occurs in other latitudes, the process of the formation of the Mexican State is ongoing, a never-ending story that, if not so tragic, most historians would enjoy telling

The history of the poppy in Mexico and connected history

Connected history is one of the many focuses in this discipline that seek to study the transversal connections among distinct social actors, and the exchanges that link distant social systems.7Gurminder K. Bhambra, “Historical Sociology, International Relations and Connected Histories”, Cambridge Review of International Affairs 23, no. 1 (2010): 127-43; Sanjay Subrahmanyan, “Connected Histories: Notes Towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia”, Modern Asian Studies 31 (1997): 735-62. In contrast to the so-called world history or national history approach, what captures the interest of this focus are supraregional and transborder interrelations and interdependencies. It is a vision shared by historiographical currents that, despite various labels (global history, transnational history, entangled history), share similar premises.8Cfr with: James Belich et al., eds., The Prospect of Global History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Among these currents, connected history privileges the study of processes that cannot be reduced to perspectives that assume the link among territory, authority, and State as the natural, even immutable, social and political form of the modern world. It privileges, rather, movement, the transnational, and imbrication.

I consider that the history of the poppy in Mexico can be read as a paradigmatic case of connected history, for this perspective offers a broad analytical framework for examining the improbable arrival of poppy seeds in Mexican territory in the second half of the 19th century, the tensions that underlay their commercialization, and the ever-changing role that Mexico played in the global system of opium flows. A historiographic consensus holds that communities of the Chinese diaspora were responsible for cultivating the first poppy plants in Mexico in the early 1880s.9Luis Astorga, Drogas sin fronteras (Mexico: Grijalbo, 2003). This occurred in the context of the huge wave of migration that took place between 1848 and 1888, in which two million Chinese (almost all of them young men) to abandon their country due to the constant political and economic crises that the empire was suffering as a consequence, at least in part, of the two opium wars waged by Great Britain and its allies against it.

If we were to stop here, would this not suffice to affirm that the history of the poppy offers a tantalizing case study for connected history? But this is not all. Before settling in Mexico, most of the Chinese that traveled to America arrived in California, where railroad construction and gold fever offered work and promises, the latter almost always unfulfilled. In 1881, approximately 50,000 Chinese were living in California, almost 10% of the state’s population at the time.10Lucy Inglis, Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium (London: Picador, 2018), 219. The ships that brought them to America also brought poppy seeds that flourished in the fertile soils of the new continent. Thus it was that together with the construction of railroads in the West –symbol par excellence of early American capitalism– the first opium dens were established for the enjoyment of the Chinese and some Anglo-Saxons. This also spurred the consolidation of the first illegal networks for trafficking poppies and their derivatives.

Mexico has always been a center for the global opium market.

But none of this can be explained if we fail to understand the connected functioning of the poppy market on a global scale.

As mentioned above, almost all the Chinese migrants were young men who traveled without any family. They tended to segregate from Anglo-Saxon society, which always looked down on them with attitudes of disdain and superiority.11Inglis, 223. To complicate matters, their great capacity to work, even for low wages, created feelings of xenophobia that gradually crystalized, finding expression in deeply racist newspaper reports and laws. The Chinos, it was said, were corrupting good “white women” who had begun to frequent opium dens in San Francisco. This anti-Chinese sentiment culminated, in 1882, with the enactment of the Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that proscribed Chinese migration to the U.S. and opened, as an unintended consequence, the option for thousands of migrants to move to Mexico.12Jason Oliver Chang, Chino: Anti-Chinese Racism in Mexico, 1880-1940 (University of Illinois Press, 2017), 31-32.

The impossibility of traveling to the U.S., and the promotion of a colonization policy by the Porfirian dictatorship in Mexico, were the two conditions that triggered a massive migration of Chinese men towards the U.S.’ southern border, mainly to states in northern Mexico like Baja California, Sinaloa, Sonora, Chihuahua, but also as far south as Veracruz, Yucatán, and Mexico City. It was precisely this Chinese diaspora that played a fundamental role in three distinct but interconnected processes: first, the expansion of poppy cultivation on a scale that, while limited, exceeded the demand for internal consumption; second, the propagation of opium smoking that was likely unknown in the rest of the country; and third, the structuring of the first networks of the international opium trade in Mexico.13On these processes see: Julia María Schiavone Camacho, Chinese Mexicans: Transpacific Migration and the Search for a Homeland, 1910-1960 (UNC Press, 2012); and Cecilia Farfán-Mendez and Jayson Maurice Porter, “Setting the Table. The Licit Beginnings of Sinaloa’s Illicit Export Economy”, December 2020.

The ensuing decades brought intensive efforts to appropriate the value that poppies were generating through their derived products. The networks that formed with this goal in mind involved Romanian jewelers, Sinaloan peasants, German spies, Japanese sailors, the Paraguayan mafia, taxi-drivers in Mexicali, narcotics agents, United States consuls, and numerous other individuals who, together, reveal the transnational and connected character of the history of the poppy and its derivatives in Mexico. At some moments –concretely from the 1940s through the 1970s– Mexico was a center of the global opium market, though at others –especially between 1950 and 1970– it stood on the margins of that great history. But none of this can be explained if we fail to understand the connected functioning of the poppy market on a global scale.

In synthesis: beyond the case of the poppy, research on the history of drugs in Mexico would benefit greatly if this phenomenon were examined through the prism of connected history. None of this history is understandable if we fail to take into account the phenomena of imbrication, movement, and interdependence. What’s more, without these ingredients it will be impossible to understand anything about its future.

The history of poppies and relations with the United States

It is a mystery why so little interest or importance has been given to poppies –and drugs in general– in the grand panoramic histories of Mexico-U.S. bilateral relations, whether authored by scholars or diplomats. Attempts to understand how Mexico-U.S. relations were forged around the theme of drugs before this topic came into vogue after the assassination of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in 1985 are scarce and, almost always, poor. The lack of serious studies in this field is not only a mystery, but also a grave error. In more than one sense, this deficit has constituted an obstacle to understanding in greater depth the mechanisms through which the U.S. has exerted power over Mexico, and the ways in which Mexico has taken advantage of certain junctures to reduce the asymmetry that exists in those relations and assert the benefits of interdependence.

As understanding the history of petroleum is one key to comprehending the continuities and ruptures of the US-Mexico bilateral relation, knowing the history of the poppy is another.

Although what follows needs to be documented with greater precision, the earliest serious research in this area reveals that poppy cultivation and the transport of opium have been recurrent themes in relations between Mexico and the U.S. for over a hundred years. In fact, no important report or memorandum on bilateral policy over that time fails to touch upon –if only tangentially– the issues of poppy cultivation and opium transport. The comparison may seem exaggerated, but just as understanding the history of petroleum is one key to comprehending the continuities and ruptures of this bilateral relation, knowing the history of the poppy in Mexico is another.

Many still-open questions can nourish this line of research, including the following ones: was the prohibition on poppy cultivation in Mexico in the 1920s a consequence of U.S. pressure, or a policy that reflected the conservative character of Mexican elites? What influence did the U.S. Treasury Department exert over the carrying out of the eradication campaigns in the 1930s?; did the U.S. government make any attempt to foment poppy cultivation in northwest Mexico in the 1940s? How have variations in heroin consumption in the U.S. over the last half century impacted the living conditions of poppy-growers in Mexico? And, did U.S. narcotics agents participate in acts that violated human rights during the eradication campaigns conducted in Sinaloa in the 1970s?

Recently declassified DEA and State Department archives offer a magnificent resource that, in addition to elucidating questions of interest for researchers in the field of the history of drugs and efforts to combat them, will serve to broaden our knowledge of the complexities of Mexico-U.S. bilateral relations


The history of poppies in Mexico –and to a degree of marihuana and other drugs– cannot be abstracted from debates, perspectives, and theories that avidly await new objects of study. Although in this brief article I mention only three, the history of poppies in Mexico offers infinite possibilities for dialogue with well-established, well-defined academic fields. The degree of knowledge we attain of the plants that have reconfigured Mexico’s past –and present– will depend on the capacity of researchers to make the history of poppies interact, and dialogue, with other debates.

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