Cane liquor smuggling: the case of the La Viga canal

Legalizing booze manufacturing and installing checkpoints didn't curb smuggling. Learn why New Spain residents and even authorities joined this unlawful network through a trial.

Cane liquor smuggling: the case of the La Viga canal
The Canal de la Viga was one of the entrances to liquor smuggling. Credit: AGN, PAL, registry no. 6311.

The legalization of its production and the implementation of surveillance points were not enough to stop the smuggling of liquor. Learn about some of the reasons that led the inhabitants of New Spain and even the authorities to be part of this illegal network through a trial.

During the New Spain period, several alcoholic beverages were regulated by the Crown, which determined both their prohibition and their sale. Thus, to protect the import market, avoid damage to health, and maintain good customs, it prohibited sugarcane brandy, also known as chinguirito.

Naturally, part of the population of New Spain refused to buy imported spirits, since in New Spain they were available at a more accessible price and since agave and sugar cane, the main raw materials for the distillation of spirits grew in different parts of the territory.

This led to the proliferation of illegal producers and smugglers, who took advantage of the imperishable qualities of this elixir for its storage and distribution. This situation was alarming for the New Spain authorities, as the batches of liquor would discreetly leave an illegal factory, remain hidden in a ravine or cave, and then be transported to another point of sale.

The government of New Spain decided that it was impossible to stop the illegal production and sale of alcohol, so in 1796, they made it legal to make alcohol there. This was a late decision, though, because several smuggling networks had joined together and were still willing to avoid paying the tax to the Royal Treasury.

To put an end to these smuggling networks, the government focused on locating the manufacturing points and cutting the transportation network, an action that was more successful than the first one since one of the weak points in the production chain of illegal firewater was in the transportation of the merchandise, especially when it was headed to Mexico City. For this reason, the authorities implemented vigilant surveillance at the city's checkpoints to prevent the entry of prohibited alcoholic beverages and other products.

Several smugglers were caught "red-handed" by the border guards, who kept watch day and night at these points of entry to the city, while others tried to circumvent the obstacles by navigating the old canals of Mexico City.

Such was the case in June 1799 in the La Viga canal with the guard Don Vicente León, who saw a canoe pass by with three people in it, who, upon noticing the guard, hurried their march. This started a chase that ended up on the shores of a town where the suspects disembarked to escape, each one of them with a canoe loaded with liquor leather, leaving more merchandise in the canoe.

During the investigations, it was discovered that among the suspects was the indigenous woman Maria Ignacia, widow of Manuel Domingo and daughter of the grass cutter Domingo of the Santa Anita neighborhood. When Maria Ignacia was not located, her parents were detained for questioning. During the diligence, Domingo said that Don Francisco Marian, a wine merchant, had called him the night before to offer to trade two pesos for the transfer of a group of hides filled with liquor.

According to the statement, Domingo refused the order because he did not have a canoe; however, his daughter, Maria Ignacia, and two of her friends agreed to smuggle the firewater, while Domingo would stay on the banks of the Viga canal to keep watch and warn of the presence of any authorities.

After this statement, they searched for Maria Ignacia and her two accomplices throughout the town but were unsuccessful. Faced with this situation, the authorities proceeded to interrogate Don Francisco Marian, one more of those implicated, but he denied any business relationship with Domingo, ignored the arrival of the liquor skins in his canoe, and pointed out that the guards at the sentry box, who had reserved the liquor for them, were possibly implicated.

But the guard didn't believe Francisco Marian's story. He said that Francisco had come to the area to say that the liquor was his and to ask that it be kept safe so it wouldn't be taken by customs. His request was ignored, and the liquor was taken, which made the suspect angry.

Despite the statement that Francisco Marian was presumed guilty, he never went to jail, unlike Domingo and his partner, who remained imprisoned for nearly two months. This resolution shows how arbitrary the justice system became in New Spain since the people who were caught at the checkpoint and Francisco Marian were almost completely cleared of any wrongdoing, while two native people, who at most would have charged two pesos to move goods, were locked up.

This response on the part of the authorities recognizes the possible protection of some smugglers who were linked to the checkpoint guards, according to researcher Teresa Lozano Armendares. The specialist found several cases in which she identified the direct participation of the authorities in the smuggling, but when questioned, they denied their participation, so all the responsibility fell on the weakest link in the smuggling chain: the transporter, who often took on this job for the need of a few pesos.

Finally, the two indigenous people were released under the condition of handing over their daughter to the authorities, which was never fulfilled, and Francisco Marian suffered a sudden death, so the case was closed. A lot of liquor was auctioned, and the authorities of the Royal Treasury were satisfied with the 64 pesos and 3 reales obtained. Thus, this drink ended up being the favorite of the most lively.