The Western Hemisphere has been subjected to Washington’s war on drugs for more than forty years. Countless lives destroyed, billions of dollars wasted, civil liberties and human rights violated on a massive scale; and drug trafficking continues today unabated with an accompanying violence beyond comprehension. That violence is present wherever the drug war is waged, from large US cities and streets of small town USA to the villages and mega-metropolises of Latin America and Asia. Millions of people around the world are negatively affected by this war, with hundreds of thousands in prison and many more under threat of violence from numerous well-armed groups and individuals.
If one is to believe the agencies involved in this “war on drugs” and the media that slavishly repeats their version of events, the current battle in this war is between criminal cartels involved in drug trafficking and the law enforcement and military of the nations affected. Furthermore, goes the story, the only purpose of this war is to end the trafficking of drugs. Once that is done, the war will be over. Naturally, this begs the question: what will it take to win the war? The answer to that does not exist, simply because it is a war that cannot be won. Instead, it is a war designed to go on forever, making money for those who profit from its very existence. Drug traffickers and government agencies set up to end that trafficking need the war to continue in order for their existence and cash flow to go on. This fact is not part of the discussion. If it were, then the numerous police agencies and private corporations that exist because of and profit from the permanence of this war would cease to be.
According to journalist Dawn Paley, there is another even more disturbing reason for the war on drugs. In order to see this reason, one must discard the existing binary that describes the war as between the criminal cartels and government agencies. Instead, the war needs to be looked at through a lens that redefines the opposing sides in this way: The criminal gangs who traffic in drugs are in an alliance (consciously and otherwise) with multinational corporations and capital to take land historically owned in common by indigenous and local people. The land is then privatized and profited from via resource extraction and other means. In its most obvious form, if there is a conscious link between the criminal cartels and the legal capitalists, the role of the traffickers is often one of forcibly removing the people living on the desired land. If there is no such link, then that role is more passive and involves the military and law enforcement using the presence of cartels somewhere in the general area as an excuse to force the removal of the area’s residents.
Back in the 1990s, I worked with different groups opposed to the war on drugs in Colombia. In what would become a template for succeeding theaters of this war, the US sent military advisers, weapons and transport, and billions of dollars to the government of Colombia. Although the US aid was sold to the American public by minimizing the military aspect and promising that the Colombians would adhere to strict human rights guidelines, the fact is the opposite occurred. As the aid program expanded (eventually being known as Plan Colombia), more and more peasants, workers, and indigenous Colombians were killed, tortured and forcibly removed from their homes. Labor leaders and religious workers were specifically targeted by the military and deals between drug cartels and the Colombian government gave the cartels paramilitaries virtually free rein to do the regime’s bloodiest and dirtiest work. This meant that, together with the military, they could target not just civilians but also the long-standing insurgencies in the country, thereby providing an equally disturbing political cover to their murderous endeavors.
Drug War Capitalism discusses this history and then proves its repetition in every subsequent battleground of the drug war. Although other countries are not home to political insurgencies like Colombia, the war on drugs is a political war. One can state this confidently by looking at who benefits from its being waged. This is especially true in Mexico where the primary benefactors of the US war on drugs are: corporations and banks often based in the United States and their allies in the Mexican political and financial world. Paley’s work details many linkages between the armed state and the armed traffickers. Furthermore, she documents a direct relationship between an increased military and police presence to an increase in civilian deaths in the newly militarized area. From the countless murders of women and girls in Juarez to the unexplained mass graves recently discovered in the wake of the massacre of 43 students in Guerrero, Paley’s descriptions of drug war violence is a relentless as the violence itself. In Guatemala US Marines are on the ground under the guise of fighting drug gangs while actually serving as advisors in a battle to force that nation’s brutalized indigenous farmers from their lands once again, this time in the name of oil extraction. It cannot be stated frequently enough who are the losers in this scenario—the poor and defenseless. In the nation of Honduras, meanwhile, the US-approved coup continues that nation’s tragic legacy of economic and military brutality while simultaneously encouraging the so-called drug gangs to take care of those Hondurans opposed to the government’s plans for low wage development.
This is an important book. Ignoring the truths in its pages is tantamount to complicity in neoliberal capital’s ongoing attack on the worlds’ disenfranchised. Paley has written an excellent piece of journalism describing a lopsided war taking place every minute of the day, every day of the year. It is a war funded by taxpayers in North, Central and South America being fought by often brutal means and under false pretenses. Drug War Capitalism makes this last element abundantly clear. This is not a war on drugs. It is a war on people whose lives and communities stand in the way of multinational exploitation and profiteering. Like every other war waged in the past fifty years by Washington, its truth is far different from the hyperbole used to sell it. Paley’s text is one of the best attempts to expose this. In fact, in terms of today’s reality, it is the best.
Ron Jacobs is the author of a series of crime novels called The Seventies Series. All the Sinners, Saints, is the third novel in the series. He is also the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground . Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. His book Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies will be published by Counterpunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.