This article is the First Chapter of Noria’s “Violence Takes Place” ongoing Series.
It is part of our Mexico & Central America Program.
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Farmers fought victoriously for and against the national government, but then lost to coconuts. Under the leadership of local businessman Amadeo Vidales, laborers from coastal Guerrero first took up arms to defend the post-revolutionary government in 1923, but three years later launched a small scale rebellion of their own and won. The state granted Vidalistas access to land and palm trees in 1930, as officials did with countless other ex-soldiers after the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920). But neither revolution nor rebellion prepared these ex-rebels for the three waves of violence that accompanied coconuts: agrarian, economic, and ecological.
This essay is not about drugs, but instead details a slippery slope between licit-oilseed and illicit-oilseed expansion set into motion by multiple forms of violence. Both legal and illegal crops grow best on slopes in Costa Grande, but methodologically this slippery slope aims to draw a correlation between the two. It suggests that environmental history offers an angle of analysis into understanding drug cultivation.
In coastal Guerrero, the political history of coconut development helps us understand the proliferation of marijuana cultivation in the 1960s. By that decade, Guerrero was the largest producer of coconuts in the Americas but was better known for Lucio Cabañas’s peasant rebellion and a strain of marijuana called Acapulco Gold. I suggest this social resistance and drug cultivation emerged in the region due to coconut-related state policies rather than the absence of the state.
This account of the Vidalistas’ ejido in Cacalutla, Atoyac de Álvarez demonstrates how oilseed development fostered new social dynamics of violence, economic precarity, and environmental change, which drove many copreros (coconut growers) toward migration and drug cultivation. Moreover, Cacalutla offers an early example of anti-drug policy: officials hoped redistributing land would prevent illegal activities. As early as 1931, the ejido—a land-grant contract bound to state-sanctioned social and economic expectations—helped officials surveil former insurgents.
Why else was the government expressly concerned about the “production and consumption of narcotic drugs” in Cacalutla?[note]Manuel Pérez Trevino, Informe, 2 de marzo de 1931, Archivo General Agraria. Estado: Guerrero; Municipio: Atoyac de Álvarez; Ejido: Cacalutla, Leg. 3, ff. 89. Municipal President of Badiruguato to President Miguel Alemán, April, 10 1948, AGN, Fondo Alemán: Campaña contra Estupefacientes en Sinaloa,” box, 726, exp., 609.264.[/note] Were officials worried about Amadeo Vidales because he was a merchant who owned a shipping company? Were they following leads on the constant rumors of gunrunning in that period? Or was this a classic case of Mexican policymakers buying the idea that Guerrero is ungovernable by nature and therefore needs Federal authority?[note]Armando Barta, Guerrero Bronco: Campesinos, Ciudadanos, y guerrilleros en la Costa Grande (1996).[/note] It is hard to know or show how an individual coprero came to grow drugs, but on a regional scale, oilseed modernization definitely offers a pronounced slippery slope toward illicit oilseeds.
Political economy of coconuts
Locals could tell the history of coastal Guerrero through licit oilseeds. Chocolate came first, then cotton, then coconuts. For centuries, Spanish settlers controlled coastal lowlands surrounding Acapulco, Guerrero to grow oil-producing plants. Settlers first introduced coconuts to Guerrero from the Philippines in the late sixteenth century, but a royal decree in 1612 quickly banned the transplant because coconut wine competed with grape wine.[note]María Inés Mombelli Pierini, “ La formación histórica del paisaje en el Corredor Acapulco-Zihuatanejo,” Geografía humana, 72, (2009); Zizumbo D. Villareal, et al., “Coconut Varieties in Mexico,” Economic Botany, 47, (Jan-Mar., 1993), 66.[/note]
However, in the wake of revolution, government officials believed that coconuts were essential to various industries and promoted copra production along the dry tropical Pacific coast. Without copra, the dried fleshy part of the coconut from which coconut oil is extracted, many domestic factories could not manufacture soap, butter, livestock feed, industrial lubricants, medicines, or oenanthic ether (for flavoring food and beverages). It was even difficult to make synthetic rubber, glycerin, absorbent for gas masks, or hundreds of other manufactured goods without coconuts. To supply Mexico’s 106 soap factories and 69 oil mills in the late 1930s, the Pro-Oilseed campaign of President Lázaro Cárdenas integrated copra production into agrarian reform.[note]Donald D. Brand, “Dividivi and Sesame in Mexico,” Economic Geography, 17, 2 (Apr. 1941), 152; Montes de Oca S., Francisco. Cultivo e Industrialización del Cocotero. México, DF: 1943, 5.[/note]
Vidalistas’ socialist proclivities set a tone for political culture and popular protest in Guerrero. As a social movement in the 1920s, they represented workers and peasant farmers from Acapulco, and the regions of Costa Grande and Costa Chica. Vidalistas named their settlement after their first organizer, Juan R. Escudero. Two generations of socialist guerrerenses saluted to Escudero as their “Lenin of Acapulco” before Lucio Cabañas took the title. As mayor of Acapulco after the revolution, Escudero helped organize labor against capital by connecting workers unions in Acapulco with agrarian struggles in the countryside. But after local elites connected to oilseed money had Escudero killed in 1923, Amadeo Vidales became the leader of worker and agrarian struggles.
When Vidalistas rebelled against the national government in 1926, they aimed to undermine the region’s political economy of oilseeds. Amadeo famously mobilized men from oilseed plantations to destroy oilseed mills.[note]Enrique Colunga to the Governor of Guerrero, April 2, 1924, Archivo General de la Nación (AGN), Galería 5. [/note] But when the rebellion lost its fuel, a lesser-known socialist leader in Guerrero history intervened, Governor General Adrián Castrejón. As a Zapatista during the revolution and an ally of Vidales, the socialist governor was sympathetic and helped end the rebellion through agrarian reform and a coconut plantation in Cacalutla, Atoyac.
On January 16, 1930, 825 ex-Vidalistas and their families became ejidatarios of Juan R. Escudero when they received 3,000 hectares of land expropriated from the Hacienda of Cacalutla in the municipality of Atoyac de Álvarez, 68 kilometers west of Acapulco.[note]Ex-Vidalistas technically became settlers until the reorganization of the colonia into an ejido, but I’ll use ejidatarios or farmers for consistency.[/note] The state engineers who measured and divided the land described the colonia as enclavada, or nestled. Between ejidos, haciendas, and a lagoon, the settlement was in fact situated in a restless and contentious territory.
The ejido consisted of dry-tropical savanna, which is characterized by prolonged wet and dry periods. The shrub land was neither fertile nor irrigated. Swaths of it were only suitable as temporary farmland at best or for pasture at worst. But in certain strips of soil, it was just wet enough for drought-resistant sesame seeds and maize to grow between coconut palms. Dry seasons could last up to seven months each year, so water shaped the place, production, and power along the coast. In the case of coconuts, both the presence and absence of water mattered. Palms lined the sloping banks of lagoons, the Pacific Ocean, and numerous creeks and rivers.
If water influenced where coconuts grew, drought helped decide how they were grown. Without rains, ejidatarios could control the drying process to make copra without the assistance of modern drying centers. After harvesting maize and sesame in October and November, respectively, farmers had until May to gather and prepare dried copra before the rains. Ejidatarios could also water palms without irrigation infrastructure, because, like sesame, cotton, opium, or marijuana, coconut palms are fairly drought resistant if grown on slopes that circulate water by gravity.[note]Oscar K. Moore, “The Coconut Palm—Mankind’s Greatest Provider in the Tropics,” Economic Botany (1948), 119-144.[/note] Botanically speaking, drought stress even encourages oilseed plants to store more energy and water in oil, which helps explain why oilseeds grow better in the dry tropics of the Pacific than in the humid tropics of the Atlantic.
Coconuts and Agrarian Violence
Not only did ex-Vidalistas have a reputation of organizing labor; their neighbors also held them in low repute. The owners of properties of the Hacienda Cortés, who lost access to the lagoon to ejidatarios, were especially vindictive and vituperative. Perhaps only the Cortés brothers were as harsh as Costa Grande’s environment. Before economic and ecological changes rattled Cacalutla, armed militias called guardias blancas (white guards) used violence to control the political economy of coconuts with mixed results. Ex-Vidalistas came to Cacalutla from other parts of the Costa Grande and the Costa Chica, and hostile locals reminded them of this often.
While the Luna brothers terrorized ejidos across Atoyac, no group expressed their hatred for Cacalutla more than the Cortés family. The Cortés brothers hated former Vidalistas because they fought against power structures on the coast and won. Moreover, ejidatarios gained right to a small grove of the finest coconut palms along Mitla Laguna, which the Cortés family believed was theirs. Try as they might to defer the dreams of the farmers, the Cortes brothers ultimately suffered the same fate as all Vidalista opponents before them: tragic loss.[note]Paul Gillingham, Unrevolutionary Mexico: The Birth of a Strange Dictatorship (2020), 123; Ing. Armando González Garza, Informe General, July 20, 1930, AGA, Ejido: Cacalutla, Legajo, 2. [/note]
Led by Celestino Cortés, his four brothers and two sisters, the Cortés brothers led guardias blancas that murdered dozens of ejidatarios in the 1930s and 1940s. According to Marte Gómez, the national director of Agriculture, the murders began in 1931. However, it was the assassination of Amadeo Vidales in 1932 that altered the legacy of Juan R. Escudero. After their leader’s sudden death, the colonia turned to its second-in-command, Feliciano Radilla. In his new role as president of the colonia, Radilla continued the Escudero and Vidales legacies of fostering cooperation between agrarian communities and worker unions in the coast. Radilla quickly became the president of Guerrero’s socialist party, and after anti-agrarian governor, General Gabriel R. Guevara, succeeded socialist Castrejón as governor in 1933, Radilla stepped up to lead the Worker and Farmer Resistance League. In Cacalutla, Radilla won the local battle against the Cortés family over coconut production but not without great loss of his own.[note]Ing. Marte R. Gómez, “Exposición de datos relativos a la Colonia “Juan R. Escudero” y poblado de Cacalutla,” AGA, Ejido: Cacalutla, Legajo 6. [/note]
As a statewide agrarian leader, Radilla made Cacalutla a center of agrarian struggle and oilseed expansion on the coast. It did not take long for the brothers to come directly for Radilla’s family. After killing Radilla’s brother Emilio in 1933, anyone was fair game. Along with other guardias blancas supported by Governor Guevara, Celestino and his brothers killed at least ten members of the colony in 1934 and burned down several homes in 1938. Unfortunately for the Cortés family, the ejidatarios of Juan R. Escudero had the military acumen to fiercely defend their land, and they killed Celestino and his four brothers.
Due to the extreme agrarian violence in the region slated for coconut expansion, President of Mexico Lázaro Cárdenas stepped in to help the ejidatarios reorganize and provide equipment and the political support necessary to plant more palms. By the time any new trees bore fruit, however, pistoleros added Radilla to the long list of murdered agraristas in the region. Tragedy notwithstanding, Radilla’s efforts centered Atoyac at the core of the region’s agrarian politics and helped Cacalutla gain more land for coconut groves in the postwar era expansion. These legacies of agrarian violence shaped how locals trusted state and national governments and mobilized as copreros to protect their interests.
Economic and Ecological Insecurity
As Guerrero became the largest copra producer in the Western Hemisphere, oil mills and companies often hurt oilseed growers by relying on imported copra from Southeast Asia. This began to change when Japan invaded the Philippines and destroyed their factories and plantations in World War II. Prices encouraged Mexican production. But unfortunately for Mexican copreros, this international shift never fully benefited local economic security. Many had to do more with less. As coconut acreage quadruple in size between 1943 and 1953, and the ejidatorios of Cacalutla harvests grew ten fold, but their landholdings only grew 14% in size.
Growing coconuts offered ejidos some semblance of autonomy, that core ejidatario value, before global competition increased the need for agrochemicals and modern farming equipment. Residents of Cacalutla once grew maize and sesame seeds between palms and mixed their own pesticides, but with nearly 32,000 trees on their lands, they had to plant fewer subsistence crops and buy more synthetic chemicals. Fruit-bearing palms are not tremendously labor intensive, but growing competition forced ejidatarios to keep tending to young orchards to keep up with demand. With monoculture came plagues, pesticides, and soil exhaustion.
While the cost of farming increased, farmers became more concerned with copra quality because the rise of synthetic soaps (detergents) lowered the price of coconut oil in the 1950s. Copreros expanded acreage from 32,665 hectares in 1950 to 79,185 in 1960, but in lowering costs they relied more on the Agrarian Bank credit for seeds and fertilizers and middlemen to broker trades.[note]Rosa Cueva Martín del Campo, “Estudio geográfico de las oleaginosas de México.” Tesis: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, México, DF, 1953, 14; Numbers represent averages from 1950-1954 and 1960 to 1964, Zizumbo, et al., “Coconut Varieties in Mexico.” 69.[/note] In Cacalutla, intermediaries came in the forms of a new military colony, which hoarded the Laguna coastline for its own oil mill, and steady incursions by the two surviving Cortés sisters. Facing this reality, the ejidatarios of Caculatla and ten thousand other copreros joined the Unión Regional de Productores de Copra to cultivate their own economic and political protections.
Three different Mexican presidents visited the coprero union in the 1950s to address the “prejudicial importation of foreign copra” increasing insecurity on the coast. However, their administrations did little to discourage factories and middlemen from taking advantage of copreros during economic downturns. Instead they regulated domestic copra prices to support the manufacturing sector and failed to prevent businessmen from hoarding domestic copra or purchasing cheaper foreign varieties. The union initially lost over 80 million pesos worth of palms in the early 1950s due to crop plagues and low prices, but by 1959 it became the first agrarian institution in Mexico to export products directly without intermediaries.
Yet, even though copreros unionized and had the support of multiple presidents, vulnerable copreros started growing more marijuana in the 1950s.[note]Esteban Hernández Ortiz, “La Narcoeconomía En La Sierra de Guerrero: 1965-2018.” (Thesis: Universidad Autónoma de Guerrero, 2019), 58.[/note] The social, economic, and environmental shifts associated with agricultural modernization pushed many farmers to grow and save small amounts of marijuana to supplement precarious incomes. Marijuana is not a strawberry; like other oilseeds, it can be hoarded until the market comes knocking. Farmers felt this crisis of agriculture more frequently in the 1960s alongside the presence of government and local institutions. This was not paradoxical. The state supported the coconut oil industry at the expense of coconut growers.[note]“El Problema de la Importación de copra, la industria y los consumidores de jabón,” El Universal, 20 de agosto, 1933, Recortés Económicos, PO5018: Copra, Comercio Exterior; “Producción de la copra: dos graves defectos tiene,” Boletín Mensueal de Estadística Agrícola, 9 octubre de 1934, Recortés Económicos, PO5001: Copra, Destrucción; “La importación de la copra es perjudicial,” El Universal, 11 de diciembre de 1937, Recortés Económicos, PO5018: Copra, Comercio Exterior.[/note]
The misfortunes of monoculture also mattered. The coprero adage that “plagues trail hurricanes” seemed to come true when Hurricane Tara (November 1961) was followed by fungal epidemics in 1963, 1964, and 1967. As thousands of growers lost their palms in Atoyac and other parts of the Costa Grande, many migrated and some turned to illicit cash crops. The union scrambled to get government fungicides to its members, but the disease spread too fast, too far, and too often; in 1964, fungus infected 4.8 million of the Guerrero’s 8 million palms and three years later it forced 12,000 families to leave their fields to rot.
Harmful plagues and economic policy encouraged copreros to take to the streets to protest. On August 20, 1967, hired gunmen killed dozens of copreros and injured over a hundred more at a march in Acapulco, but violence convinced others to head for the sierra and raise hell.
There were no random acts of violence in Costa Grande. The massacre of 1967 and the plight of copreros only fueled the insurgency already emerging from Atoyac under Lucio Cabañas after a massacre earlier that May. As the Mexican government continued to pour money into coconut development projects, officials increasingly sent federal troops into Costa Grande to find rebels, marijuana, and opium.
Military and political leaders quickly agreed on aerial pesticide and herbicide campaigns to simultaneously kill fungus and narcotics, monitor insurgents, and modernize Acapulco. By the 1970s, violence literally fell from the skies. This ecocide, or destruction of the ecology and its local economy, was repeated in the 1980s and 1990s as economic shifts, plant epidemics, and outright violence continued to force copreros to abandon their palms.[note]Ecocide usually means only the destruction of ecology, but since economy and ecology have the same etymological root—oikos or home—I use ecocide here to mean the destruction of home, economy and ecology. [/note]
The history of oilseeds in coastal Guerrero sheds light on the environmental, economic, and political pressures that characterized local insecurity. The ecological connections between licit and illicit oilseeds in Pacific lowlands were not the only slippery slopes; cycles of agrarian violence, political mismanagement, and economic shifts also undermined copreros’ ability to sustain their livelihoods with coconuts alone.
Continue reading our “Violence Takes Place” Series
Read the General Introduction, by Irene Álvarez : Rurality, Drug Trafficking, and Violence. A Model to Assemble.
Read Chapter n°2, by Nathaniel Morris: “Now the Youngsters are Masters of the Opium Harvest”: Opium, Agriculture and Indigenous Identity in the Sierra of Nayarit.
Para leer este artículo en Español, haga clic aquí.
Want to know more about the Noria Mexico & Central America Program? Click here.
Jayson Maurice Porter is an environmental historian of Mexico and the global tropics and a Fulbright-García Robles Scholar.
Based between Mexico City and Chicago, Jayson is a PhD candidate of history at Northwestern University and visiting scholar at Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas.
His dissertation research addresses arsenic pesticides, oilseed cultivation—of sesame, cotton, copra, opium, and marijuana—and military pest control in Sinaloa and Guerrero, but he also writes broadly on environmental change, science and technology, and race in the Americas. The Mexican Intelligence Digital Archive, Derechos Humanos de la Ciudad de México, and the Journal of the Early Republic have supported his archival work.
Jayson holds two masters degrees in history and has completed nearly three years of fieldwork experience in Mexico. Beyond historical research, Jayson has worked as an artist or educator for several museums, AmeriCorps, Stop Hunger Now, and COCOON public space sculpture.