In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Drug Trades in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Surveys and Edited Collections
  • Primary Source Collections
  • Testimonial, Biography
  • Documentaries and Film

Latin American Studies Drug Trades in Latin America
Paul Gootenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 04 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0176


Illicit drug trades of the Americas in the early 21st century are worth, in rough estimates, about $150 billion. They have inspired sharp conflict and violence (70,000 deaths in Mexico alone), corruption, human rights violations, new forms of popular “narco” culture, and powerful criminal organizations known as “cartels.” A long US-led “drug war” also marks the region, from the Andes to Mexico, though some Latin American nations are leading new reform efforts against the harms of both the drug business and drug prohibition. Such costs aside, drug trades of cocaine, marijuana, opiates, and amphetamines are paradoxically among the most “successful” and home-grown export industries in all of Latin American history. Illicit drug trades are also quite recent in origins, having taking off during the 1970s. The topic, however, lacks major research by historians. Invisible trades are hard to trace in sources and sensationalism about drugs holds off archival work. Thus, the literature about drug trades usually taps other fields, including political science, anthropology, and criminology, or draws on journalistic or policy-oriented writings. Key definitional problems also complicate “drugs.” Drugs are medicinal (the America’s botanical history) or they can include legal regulated drugs such as alcohol and tobacco, also prominent in the region. Drugs can include “soft” intoxicants, such as coffee and cacao and the many indigenous hallucinogens such as peyote and ayahuasca. Atlantic historians now view colonial stimulants, goods such as tobacco and cacao, as “drug-foods” that fueled, in David Courtwright’s term, a 17th-century Atlantic “Psychoactive Revolution” (Courtwright 2001, cited under Global Drug Histories), as well as the later Brazilian domination of world coffee trades. Thus in the wider drug trades, Latin America has been a leader for centuries. Nonetheless, for this article, citations are limited to the major illicit drugs of the late 20th century, namely cocaine, cannabis, and opiates, drugs in conventional terms. After 1900, a small group of world power began the movement to proscribe specific drugs, and, by 1961, a global treaty regime reigned that included the countries of Latin America. By the 1970s, modern drug trafficking bonanzas had begun—from Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and the Caribbean—that were influenced by local drug cultures and regional smuggling traditions. Since trafficking histories are rare, many sources below deal with drug cultures and restrictive laws, or they draw on the informed politics or journalistic research done amid Latin America’s drug boom decades of the 1970s to the 1990s.

General Overviews

Archival historical research on trafficking or drugs in Latin America has not, to date, reached the stage to merit a true synthesis. A new effort could help guide fresh research. No updated overviews exist of the history per se of Latin American trafficking: the closest work to a Latin American survey was first published in 1981 by a US diplomatic historian (Walker 1989). Good synthetic information, however, on drugs trafficking and its impact is often available from well-written and accessible official reports (Organization of American States 2013).

  • Organization of American States. The Drug Problem in the Americas: Studies: The Economics of Drug Trafficking. Washington, DC: Organization of American States, 2013.

    An up-to-date official report on the size of the current drug trades in Latin America, prepared by expert panels, part of a larger OAS policy reform effort.

  • Walker, William, III. Drug Control in the Americas. Rev. ed. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

    Focused on origins of controls and institutions, drawing on a wide use of US sources about Latin American, if mainly Mexican, drugs. A critical history that calls for new research. Originally published in 1981.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.