MEXICO CITY — At their best, museums are glorious cultural repositories, reflecting the highest flowering of human creativity, ingenuity and art. But not everything in every culture is glorious, and there are museums for those aspects, too, which is why, hidden from the public, there is an institution here devoted to Mexico’s dark side, the Museum of Drugs.
It is a place that leaves those who manage to get inside shaking their heads and lamenting the long, spirited but largely unsuccessful war this country has waged to control illegal narcotics.
Run by the Mexican military and open only to graduating cadets and select guests, the Museo de los Enervantes presents the drug war in all its ugliness and complexity. There is a room devoted to the ancient roots of drug use in Mesoamerica, like the use of hallucinogenic peyote and mushrooms by the Maya and Aztecs, and displays that show all the military does to try to stem the tide, uprooting marijuana plants and uncovering hidden caches of cocaine and heroin.
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At the Museum of Drugs, a farmworker mannequin was propped up
under a tree with a rifle in his hands, guarding a field of poppies and
“You eradicate in one place and you continue on, and when you go back they’re growing it again,” said Maj. Mario Ayala López, who insisted that his face not be shown in any photographs, an atypical request for a museum curator but a reality in present-day Mexico, where the drug violence knows no bounds.
To give young cadets a sense of what they will be hunting for once deployed into the field, drugs themselves are on display, real-life samples under glass of everything from methamphetamines, which are manufactured in huge quantities in Mexican laboratories, to heroin, to marijuana, which is grown in fields hidden away in the countryside. The museum itself could not be more secure, located on the top floor of the Defense Ministry.
Samples of drugs are displayed at the museum, on the top floor of
the Defense Ministry.
Along the halls, there is a farmworker mannequin propped up under a tree with a rifle in his hands, guarding a field of poppies and marijuana. Around his neck is a pendant of Jesús Malverde, considered the patron saint of outlaws. Nearby is a board with nails sticking into it, a makeshift trap set to injure anyone, but especially soldiers, who might creep near.
In a display case are actual notes that soldiers have recovered in raids on fields growing the precursors for the drugs that will be smoked, snorted or injected. The handwritten messages are pleas from the farmers to the soldiers to leave their fields alone in exchange for a little cash.
Getting the drugs to the biggest market on Earth, the United States, requires ingenuity, and there is an entire room devoted to that. Drug-filled shoes, beer crates and even a drug-filled surfboard are on display. There is a doughnut sprinkled with poppy seeds that were to be used to make heroin, and a doll that was stuffed with drugs and then handed to a child to carry.
A model of a woman who was apprehended in Tijuana shows her with a protruding stomach, which was caused not by pregnancy but by a package containing several pounds of tightly wrapped cocaine. A photograph features another female trafficker, this one with cocaine surgically implanted in her buttocks. She died after one of the packages burst upon her arrival at Mexico City’s airport.
Toward the end of the tour the museum, which opened in 1985, introduces the people who have turned Mexico into the prime trafficking country in the hemisphere. There is a model of a stereotypical trafficker wearing fancy cowboy boots, a big belt buckle imprinted with a marijuana plant and plenty of jewelry.
On the wall is a photograph of a trafficker’s child, a baby dressed in camouflage surrounded by dozens of shotguns. “There are generations that grow up in this culture,” Major Ayala said. “For them it’s normal.”
Farther on are some of the vestments recovered during drug raids, like a bulletproof trench coat and a protective polo shirt, both designed by Miguel Caballero, a Colombian clothing designer who runs a pricey boutique not far away.
Traffickers have plenty of money to spend, and this museum gives a taste of some of their buying habits. There is a gold-encrusted cellphone recovered from Daniel Pérez Rojas, a founder of the Zetas, a paramilitary group, and plenty of weaponry decorated with precious metals and stones. A Colt pistol recovered from Alfredo Beltra Leyva, a leader of the feared Sinaloa cartel who was arrested in January, bears the oft-repeated revolutionary quotation, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”
There is another Colt pistol encrusted with emeralds that once belonged to Joaquín Guzmán Loera, the leader of the Sinaloa cartel and probably the most wanted trafficker of all. It was marked with the initials ACF, for Armado Carrillo Fuentes, who once led the Juárez Cartel but died while undergoing plastic surgery in 1997. The gun was probably a gift from Mr. Carrillo to Mr. Guzmán, the curator speculated, and thus a sign of an alliance between their rival cartels.
Nowhere is the word “guerra,” or war, featured in the museum, because the Mexican military considers its counternarcotics mission to be something different from that. “We don’t use that term,” said Major Ayala, who was wearing his dress uniform as he strode formally through the museum.
At the museum entrance, though, is a shrine that features the names of 570 Mexican soldiers who have died fighting illegal drugs as far back as 1976. In the last two years, since President Felipe Calderón has sent soldiers on more antidrug missions than any of his predecessors, 67 names have been added to the list.
And, sadly, there is plenty of room on the wall for more.
By MARC LACEY, New York Times
Published: November 26, 2008