The Original 'War on dRUGS'

Humans have used hemp and cannabis for thousands of years around the world. In fact, Jamestown settlers began producing the crop soon after they landed and it was vital to the foundation of the United States. George Washington literally grew the crop at his home on Mount Vernon. Not only does the 1914 US $10 bill depict its cultivation, the note is literally made out of it.

Why did it all change?

When the Mexican Revolution leaders took over control of their government, they nationalized the country’s oil industry which was producing over 25% of the world’s supply. However, 61% of their industry (and profits) were going to US industrialists, who were not happy about the actions of revolutionaries.

Parody Song

Pancho who was a fan of music, was known to keep bands and musicians around him and his men. Even though Villa personally abstained from drugs and alcohol (and lead the prohibition effort in Mexico) soldiers were often boisterous. Before the revolution, a traditional Spanish folksong originally about the Moors and infantry, had morphed into a song about a captain and cockroach. When the revolution armies who had spent a lot of time marching and fighting would sing the song, they would change the words again. “The cockaroach can’t walk anymore, because it doesn’t have marihuana to smoke.” The folksong took on a life of its own and variants began to spread all over Mexico throughout the revolution.

As an attempt to demonize hemp and cannabis as strictly a Mexican-related crop, regulations against “marihuana” began to spread across the US. The first city in the United States to ban the sale and use of “marihuana” was El Paso. On June 4th, 1915 the city council lead by Mayor Tom Lea, took a stand on “the deadliest drug on the market... known to create a lust for human blood.”

Lasting Affects

Racial conflicts would ignite multiple times throughout 1916 and 1917. Once WWI began, Pershing and the US military would withdraw from Mexico and reduce the numbers at Fort Bliss. But the longterm damage was already done. The bathhouse operations with US Calvary oversight were the beginning stages of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and Border Patrol. “Higher-class” citizens would still enjoy a fairly open border for another 20 years, but after 1917, 2nd-class citizens were required to pay a head tax and have their access limited.

The Border Patrol did not officially start until 1924, four years after the Mexican Revolution ended. So there are no verifiable numbers related to how many immigrants came into the US or El Paso during the decade-long war. Some migrants in El Paso would return to Juarez –– whether by choice or by force –– and others would spread across the region. Many settled further away like San Antonio, Albuquerque, or even Los Angeles. Some speculate as many as one million immigrants in the U.S. were a direct result of the Mexican Revolution. Regardless of the exact numbers, El Paso was becoming the Ellis Island of the southwest. Ironically, around the same time, to promote the selling of savings bonds during WWI, a replica Statue of Liberty was placed a few blocks away on El Paso Street.

Escalating Violence

Following the US Navy’s assault and occupation of Veracruz, Revolution leader Victoriano Huerta was forced to step down. As a result, US President Woodrow Wilson would formally recognize politician (and Villa rival), Venustiano Carranza as the “official” President of Mexico. Exactly two months after the declaration, on December 15th 1915, General Pershing and Mayor Lea announced all Villa affiliates and “undesirables” from Juarez had “6 hours to leave El Paso.” Weeks later, Carranza and his supporters arrive to El Paso and make the Hotel Paso del Norte a northern headquarters.

Possibly as a message, Villa supporters killed 16 Anglo engineers in Chihuahua en route to El Paso. When their bodies arrived, hundreds of Anglos attacked local Hispanics of South El Paso. General Pershing imposed marshall law and sent in Fort Bliss soldiers to patrol the area. In March, still being forced to take kerosene baths, over 30 primarily Hispanic prisoners were burned alive when an open flame engulfed the bath area of the county jail. Upon hearing the news en route to Palomas, Villa’s men raided the US-side of the border in Columbus, New Mexico.
Similar to the aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt 230 years earlier, the influx of people caused tensions to spike. In 1915, Mayor Lea ran on the premise that El Paso needed to be cleaned up. Before the city of El Paso even had street signs, some buildings in Mexican-populated areas were demolished and belongings were either hosed-down or burned. For fear that Mexicans were contaminated by disease and lice, it became routine for authorities to subjugate Mexicans to haircuts, body inspections, and baths in a mixture of kerosene, vinegar and gas. These bath houses and quarantine areas were set up at the border as well as the county jail.

Local Agitations


Once the revolution broke out, much of the aristocracy of Mexico started seeking refuge in the US as well, claiming political or religious persecution. Some closest to the border were also fleeing to avoid Federal military service. Within the first two years of the revolution, some estimated as much as 75% of Juarez’s population had moved into El Paso. Approximately 2000 Mormons of Casa Grandes had also made their way north. Those in the city of Chihuahua would spend 8 days walking to Ojinaga. In January of 1914, as many as 3000 refugees would arrive by train from Presidio (the US side of the Ojinaga border). As a response, Fort Bliss housed the most soldiers than any outpost, since the Civil War.


However, the southwest and El Paso del Norte were involved long-before the official start of the revolution. The industrialized era happening in the north was capitalizing off of the cheap labor being generated by those most in need. In the late 1800’s, the United States banned Chinese immigrants and labor, but left the door open for Mexicans. Without any way to get ahead in Mexico, the labor demands in the U.S. led many migrants north of the river.


Mexico, who had technically been free from the Spanish crown for nearly 80 years, still saw a lot of it’s power and wealth concentrated to very few. This included the church, those with noble Spanish backgrounds, or those helping American industrialists. Regardless of the inequalities, in 1910, their president was “unanimously reelected” for the 8th time.
In an almost perplexed tone, one early account acknowledges the presence of “semi-civilized Indians.” Valley natives spoke Spanish and performed their traditional indigenous rituals after Catholic celebrations. Some natives and Paseños were spreading into Las Cruces, working on the railroads alongside hundreds of Chinese immigrants (smuggled in and out of El Paso del Norte). Mexico abolished slavery 40 years before the US and even had the first Black President in the mainland Americas. Runaway slaves would often head west or south to try and join the largest free-black population in the hemisphere. Seeing a Spanish-speaking Black Mexican in El Paso del Norte was in the realm of possibility. This might have seemed like a strange dreamland to the first tourists. Especially those only knowing the over-simplified “savages” portrayed by the US. Obviously, the tribes who had surrounded El Paso del Norte did a good job of adding to the insulation of our home over the years, but that was about to end.

The confusion wasn’t just on the northern side of the border, either. During the 1921 census in Mexico, officials were puzzled by the results from Chihuahua. 36.3%  of Mexicans in the northernmost state were ethnically self-described as “White.”  Which was exponentially higher than the national average of 9.8%. Quickly adding new perspectives and origin stories to the mix would create a series of chain reactions that would try to redefine our home.
Ethnocentric perspectives often begin El Paso’s relevance as an intersection with the railroad. When realistically, the United States’ path through Spanish territory –– and even Spain’s path through the river, were merely following ancient indigenous routes.

Historians have also been quick to point out that in 1890, the City of El Paso’s population saw a 1300% increase from the previous ten years. Because the train arrived in 1881, much of the 10,338 people –– presumably in the middle of nowhere –– are credited as being a byproduct of the industrialized effort. However, most fail to mention that the population of “El Paso, Chihuahua” had already reached 10,000, in 1872. Whether semantics or propaganda, the railroad tracks did create a momentous shift –– just maybe not in the way it’s been portrayed.

People were not coming to this part of the world for first time. But for the first time, people from this region were able to influence the world. The speed in which our enclave was able to collide (and sometimes adopt) opposing ideologies, made it unlike any other place in the world. This was before the advent of air travel and commercial flights. For the first time, Anglos were departing from areas close enough to arrive in a day. Yet, they were still from far away enough to feel like foreigners. El Paso del Norte gave birth to escapism.

But it wasn’t just superficial differences the newcomers were experiencing, it was immersive. The environment and dry habitat was alienating. By the time the railroad arrived, Paseños could have had hundreds if not thousands of years of genetic acclimation to Aridoamerica. The food, language, and culture, were an inexplicable amalgam that had obviously taken generations to develop.

Revolution Recap