By William Booth
washington post foreign service
Thursday, January 14, 2010; A06
MEXICO CITY -- When the Mexican military opened its Museum of Drugs in 1985, there were only a couple of dusty display cases in a small cramped room.
A year earlier, journalist Alan Riding had published a book still cited today about contemporary Mexico called "Distant Neighbors." His examination of all things Mexican was omnivorous: chapters on energy, politics, culture, corruption, poverty, agriculture. Yet there is only a single paragraph on narcotics trafficking. A short one. On Page 337.
How the situation has changed. The museum is now housed in spacious suites at Mexico's version of the Pentagon, but its curators say they are running out of room for all the contraband they would like to showcase.
The legacy of President Felipe Calderón will be, for better or worse, his confrontation with the drug mafias, which continue to shock and amaze with their brutality and brazenness. On Saturday, Mexicans opened their morning newspapers to read that cartel assassins in the state of Sinaloa had peeled the face off their victim and sewn the skin onto a soccer ball.
The museum is open to Mexican officials, visiting diplomats and graduating army cadets, who tour the exhibits to learn about their only real enemy, the drug cartels. Occasionally the brass lets a journalist have a look, but the greater public is not permitted.
Army Capt. Claudio Montane, the museum's curator, meets visitors at the door and explains, "The idea is to show the history of drugs, the various methods of the narcos, our operations and interceptions against them, as well as their mode of life, the social phenomenon of this narco-culture."
Though many U.S. and Mexican officials prefer not to call this a "drug war," a large mural at the museum entrance depicts a D-Day-style invasion, with Mexican troops rappelling out of helicopters and running across fields of opium poppies and marijuana, their weapons drawn, as they lay waste to the crops with torches ablaze. The smoke morphs into a screaming eagle wrapped in the Mexican flag.
Inside, the exhibits begin with the history of drugs. An old black-and-white photograph of a vendor in a Mexican market with a straw basket filled with cigar-size joints reminds the viewer that marijuana was once legal here, as it was in the United States.
On the wall is also a photograph of a wounded U.S. soldier in Vietnam beside a plaque that dates the beginning of the war there: "With the appearance of the hippie movement, a large number of young Americans and Europeans defended their right to live under the banner of 'Peace and Love' and consume vast quantities of drugs."
There is a display of medals awarded by Mexico's military for fighting drugs. The greatest honor is to capture a high-level target. There is also a medal for honesty and another for large seizures.
Probably the best-known exhibit is the life-size diorama of a grower in the countryside guarding his crop. Montane flips a switch and a cassette player begins a bouncy narco-corrida, the popular ballads honoring the derring-dos of drug outlaws. In the corner, a mannequin lounges in his dark shades, a shotgun across his lap, beside a pile of empty Tecate beer cans. In front are beans on the stove and a bust of Jesús Malverde, a highwayman who legend has it was killed by authorities in 1909 and is revered as a patron saint of traffickers and a Robin Hood for the poor.
Around the corner, the exhibits show how drugs are smuggled, and here human ingenuity is on full display. There is dope hidden inside picture frames, logs, gas tanks, clay pots, tamales, concrete blocks, truck tires, soda cans, car bumpers, shoes, stuffed armadillos and a statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
There is a kind of James Bond or Dr. Evil quality to some exhibits. An attache case confiscated from an outlaw surveillance team holds computer boards and other gadgetry to monitor cellphone calls. The cartels now employ their own fleets of semi-submersible submarines. On display is a large sea buoy with a coded beacon device the traffickers attach to huge payloads of drugs they can dump into the sea and pick up later.
Also, apparently, the narcos now have their own line of clothes. There are dark blue polo shirts sporting a kind of family crest for the Zetas, a notorious cartel founded by former special forces soldiers that controls vast swaths along the Gulf of Mexico from Brownsville, Tex., to Cancun. The shirts, which appear to be 100 percent cotton, are emblazoned with a Z and the words: "Cartel del Golfo."
Montane reads from his clipboard: In the past three years, Mexican forces have confiscated 443 airplanes, 14,622 vehicles and 43,118 weapons, including bazookas and grenade launchers. They have seized $113,990,520 in cash.
As in many anthropology museums, there are cult and fetish items -- gold and silver semiautomatics and revolvers, precious metals engraved with images of Pancho Villa or Santa Muerte, the death saint, or the brand mark of Versace. There is a pair of Christian Dior sunglasses worn by one of the notorious Arellano Félix brothers. A shirt worn by one of the Beltrán Leyva thugs.
At the end of the tour, Montane stops at a memorial plaque. From 1976 to 2009, 636 Mexican troops have died in battles with the cartels -- 133 of them in the past three years. "The message we would like to convey," Montane said, "is that taking drugs is not for fun and that these drugs cost lives in Mexico. We want people to know how hard we work in Mexico to combat this."