Secret Museum Chronicles Mexico’s War on Drugs

In museum-packed Mexico City, this heavily guarded nondescript brick building may house some of the more interesting, if not bizarre, exhibits. But don't look for it in Lonely Planet. There are no tourists here on the seventh floor of the Defense Ministry's headquarters. The only VIPs allowed are military officials and counternarcotic cadets only, along with the occasional diplomat and journalist.

When it made its debut in 1985, the Museo de los Enervantes (Drug Museum) was just a one-room display of some marijuana plants, cocaine and heroin. Since 2000, it has expanded to 3,000 square feet and 10 exhibit areas. The so-called narco museum now forms part of the government's message to counternarcotic cadets, whose age averages 23, about what to expect and watch for in the field. Given the museum's guns, smuggling techniques and drug labs, officials figure its better to keep it from public view.

The first gallery gives a whirlwind tour of drug use and cultivation history in Mexico. Placards chronicle how ancient Maya and Aztecs used natural drugs like the hallucinogen peyote and mushrooms during rituals. There's the story of Chinese immigrants who introduced opium poppies in the 19th century. A black-and-white photo shows two wounded American World War II combatants. The legend explains how the United States approved the growth and export of opium poppies in Mexican states like Guerrero and Chihuahua to be manufactured into wartime morphine (Asian sources were blocked because of the war).

Unfortunately for authorities, that cultivation never stopped. By the time Mexican brown heroin hit the world scene in the mid-1970s, sold at cut-rate prices to the U.S. market, Mexico had secured its spot in the global drug trade. "Now, we have all of the trafficking and violence that comes with drugs. So this is one way to show new soldiers what they'll see out there," said Army Maj. Mario Ayala, a uniformed tour guide instructed to not allow in any other visitors as he escorted a reporter on a recent visit. On display is the gear that keeps the trafficking business moving: grenades, machine guns and rocket launchers, along with GPS equipment, scuba gear and tiny replicas of the Cessna airplanes and speedboats used to smuggle the goods. Actual drugs are shown packed in everything from stuffed animals and propane tanks to encyclopedias, empanadas and a framed print of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Moving along, there's a soup-to-nuts display detailing heroin production. It shows photos of opium poppy fields along Mexico's temperate Pacific Coast, to samples of flower pods and the crude wood-handled, bladed instruments that harvesters use to gently score the pods and allow the opium-enriched sap to ooze out. There are glass jugs, chemicals, cooking pots and other equipment used in gritty clandestine labs to process the plant material and its morphine alkaloid base into heroin.

Next to the lab, a diorama shows a drug-growing farmer who sits at a campsite, guarding his poppy and pot fields (painted on a wooden background). Wearing rugged jeans and a plaid Western shirt, the lean cowboy mannequin keeps a rifle on his lap as a cigarette dangles from his hand. Pesticide is near and so is a length of scrap wood with large nails protruding from it—a perfect tire-popping tool to thwart intruders. Around the cowboy's neck is a pendant featuring Jesús Malverde, Mexico's Robin Hood and the saint of bandits and drug barons.

"[The museum] is psychological prep," says Jose Luis Piñeyro, a military expert at the National Autonomous University of Mexico who has toured the facility. "It's a way for soldiers to see what's important to narcos and how their world works."

Indeed, Malverde represents just one aspect of narcocultura, the fashion, music and aesthetic that revels in gangster life. The exhibit has music CDs of narcocorridos, ballads that tell swashbuckling tales of drugs and guns. There is confiscated bullet- and knifeproof clothing, including a leather jacket worn by former Gulf cartel leader Osiel Cárdenas and made by Colombia's high-security tailor Miguel Caballero. A mannequin sports drug-lord attire, a pot-leaf belt buckle, gold bracelet and top-dollar cowboy boots that were especially popular in the 1990s. Today's kingpin doesn't dress like that anymore. "They're now more low-key," says Ayala. It's safer that way as President Felipe Calderón turns up the heat. Soon after taking office in December 2006, Calderón ordered tens of thousands of soldiers and special agents to try and crush the illicit business and its violence in Mexico's central and northern states.

But not all traffickers are so cautious. Narco bling on display includes a diamond-encrusted cell phone confiscated from Daniel Pérez Rojas, a founder of the Zetas, killers for the Gulf cartel responsible for beheadings and other gruesome acts throughout Mexico. And there's bling bang like gold-plated, initialed pistols featuring the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. A golden .38-caliber Colt revolver, once held by Sinaloa druglord Alfredo Beltrán, captured in 2008, is inscribed with the motto favored by the Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata: "I'd rather die on my feet than always live on my knees."

Traffickers can also be showy when rewarding a job well done in a business that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimates is worth some $20 billion. A confiscated gold plaque honors "Comandante Tiburón" (Spanish for shark) for his successful maritime smuggling in 2007 on behalf of the Gulf cartel. Outside the museum, a small candle flickers under another plaque. It honors the 557 soldiers who have died on duty since 1976, when Mexico's military began fighting drugs. "It's one way to remember those fighting the bad guys," says Ayala. For all the captured high-powered weapons on display here, Ayala knows there are many more still out there--meaning more soldiers' names will likely be added to the memorial.

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