The agents moved in to seize the illicit shipment, but the traffickers turned on them, shooting the senior officer and destroying his vehicle. With the local courts hopelessly compromised and corrupt, the outraged authorities wanted to extradite the perpetrators. But this only made them more defiant and violent, and they were never caught or prosecuted.
This may sound like Tijuana or Juarez in recent years, but the year was 1772, and the place was near Providence, Rhode Island. The ringleader of the attack, John Brown -- a prominent local merchant whose business interests included smuggling and slave trading -- helped found the university that bears his name (and happens to be my employer).
The famous incident came to be known as the Gaspee Affair, in which a British customs vessel, the HMS Gaspee, was stormed, looted and torched late at night by an armed group of local citizens in retaliation for cracking down on their illicit trade (though exactly what cargo they were smuggling was never determined).
Today, local residents proudly point to this historical episode as Rhode Island’s opening salvo in sparking the American Revolution. A plaque on South Main Street near downtown Providence, commemorates the event. Gaspee Street is a few blocks away. Of course, most Americans no longer have such a sanguine view of illicit trade, and law-enforcement officials, like the British imperial authorities before them, are increasingly preoccupied with fighting it.
Which brings us to Mexico and President Felipe Calderon’s crackdown on drug trafficking. At first glance, Mexico’s deteriorating situation (some 50,000 drug-war-related deaths since 2006) wouldn’t seem to have much in common with late colonial America. But, in fact, there are some striking parallels that offer lessons for Mexico’s escalating drug war.
The most important illicit trade in colonial America was the smuggling of West Indies molasses to produce rum -- the drug of choice at the time and New England’s top export (probably more important for the local economy than illicit drug exports are for Mexico today). Not unlike the situation in Mexico before Calderon launched his offensive, British authorities tolerated smuggling for many decades through a combination of neglect, incompetence and corruption.
The earlier corruption-plagued decades of the 18th century actually had a pacifying effect. Institutionalized bribery made bullying less necessary in port cities such as Boston, Providence and Newport, Rhode Island -- just as was the case not long ago in Mexico’s border cities.
Both crackdowns provoked a violent backlash. Starting in the 1760s, bullying -- in the form of mob riots, the burning of customs vessels, and the tar-and-feathering of informants -- became increasingly common as bribery became a less dependable way of doing business. Then, as now, the authorities were overconfident. Instead of imposing order, there was more disorder. In tightening its grip, Britain ultimately lost its grip entirely.
And both efforts became increasingly militarized. The Royal Navy was unleashed against colonial smugglers because civilian customs agents had proven too corrupt and unreliable. Benjamin Franklin was among the many who denounced this punitive move.
As he sarcastically wrote: “Convert the brave, honest officers of your navy into pimping tide-waiters and colony officers of the customs. Let those who in the time of war fought gallantly in defense of their countrymen, in peace be taught to prey upon it. Let them learn to be corrupted by great and real smugglers; but (to show their diligence) scour with armed boats every bay, harbor, river, creek, cove, or nook throughout your colonies; stop and detain every coaster, every wood-boat, every fisherman...O, this will work admirably!”
Although much has obviously changed since Franklin’s time, his basic criticism of drafting the military for anti-smuggling police work still holds true. Like Calderon’s army-led crackdown, the British Navy’s efforts led to growing opportunism and abuse by heavy-handed officials, generating local anger and resentment.
Fortunately, the parallels end there. Despite their extreme violence, Mexican traffickers are far less of a threat to the Mexican state than colonial smugglers proved to be to the British. Mexico isn’t a failed state and traffickers aren’t insurgents -- they lack political aspirations and want to be left alone.
But the surest way to politicize Mexico’s drug war and turn drug trafficking into a political cause would be for the U.S. to escalate its already considerable on-the-ground involvement. The more Mexico’s drug war looks like an American-orchestrated crackdown with direct U.S. military participation, the more Mexicans will view it as a foreign imposition -- risking a nationalist backlash that would erode public support and breed the type of local hostility that became all-too-familiar to British administrators in the colonies.
More constructive -- and with less collateral damage -- would be to focus on strengthening Mexico’s fragile judicial system, curbing the illicit flow of U.S. firearms across the border and reducing America’s seemingly insatiable drug habit.
(Peter Andreas is a professor of political science and the interim director of the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. This essay partly draws from his book, “Smuggler Nation: How Illicit Trade Made America,” forthcoming from Oxford University Press. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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