Drug War Capitalism: An Interview with Dawn Paley


Dawn Paley is one of the best journalists covering the Drug War in Latin America in the English language. Her work has been published in NACLA and many other international publications, covering Latin America extensively.

Dawn’s book, Drug War Capitalism (AK Press 2014), provides a provocative thesis. The drug war is not about crime nor security. Rather, it enables global capitalist expansion through enclosure. In our hour-long interview we discuss how this understanding comes from a sense of justice and activism, from the periphery, from below. Dawn elaborates on how elites collude across borders for their own benefit at the expense of their populations. She describes the consequences of this collusion as militarism, human rights abuses, and insecurity. As the interview develops, Dawn brings optimism back into the equation, with a discussion of resistance in everyday life, activism, and grassroot, peoples’ movements.

This in-depth analysis is crucial for anyone who wants to understand and resist one of US foreign policy’s (and the transnational elites who execute it) greatest, ongoing failures and crimes against humanity.


Andrew Smolski: Before we discuss the details, could you explain what drives you as a journalist and how that has impacted your understanding of the drug war?

Dawn Paley: What drives me as a journalist, and as a researcher, is I think we need to, as writers, people of conscience, and activists, update much of the received wisdom about the conflicts that are happening around the world. So, Drug War Capitalism came out of a desire to challenge the mainstream media narrative with the hope that eventually different people, like anti-war movement people, people working around policing in the United States, and other folks who might not think of the drug war in Mexico and Central America as being actually a political issue, who might think of it as being more about crime. Or really just the analysis of the mainstream media, which is what we mostly have access to in terms of the drug war, to challenge that narrative and try and bring more people on board in terms of fighting these US policy programs in Colombia, Mexico, and Central America that have done irreparable damage to people in all the countries where they are being applied.

A: Towards the end of writing your book you talk about how you were in Colombia and began to encounter activists who were thinking in a similar way. Do you think it is the activist orientation of your work that brings you into contact with other people who understand that the drug war is a political issue, and not just a manifestation of say Mexico alone, or Colombia alone?

D: It took me a while to find people who had that critique, and it’s definitely something I started to come across a lot more in Colombia, because, as you might have heard, Plan Colombia just turned 15. So, the White House has been celebrating the 15 years of Plan Colombia, and there’s just been a lot more time there for people to really think about and analyze what the experience of it has been. Because, you know as we’ve seen here in Mexico, and during the time of Plan Colombia, it basically puts people into a kind of survival mode. As activists you’re constantly responding to tragedies, like here in Mexico the most famous example is the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School who were disappeared. So, society and activists as well are constantly forced to respond to these tragedies, day to day. It’s like you’re a fish in the ocean trying to get of a macro view of what’s going on and develop a critique of it. It’s not an easy task.

In Colombia and in here Mexico there are critiques of the war on drugs, they are marginalized and harder to find sometimes, but they’re there. Specifically, getting to the idea that the war on drugs is a war on people, and it’s becoming a little bit more mainstream in certain circles and so on. So yeah, I am hoping to have that conversation more in Mexico; the book has been translated, and we are finding a publisher, that’s the next step in kind of widening the circle of these discussions here in Mexico and in the south.

A: Ya, I think it is key to discuss the role that imperialism plays in a war on people, as opposed to saying a war on drugs. In thinking of the role imperialism plays, in the book you discuss an interview you had with Greg Grandin, where he brings up that the “work of national security forces on an international level [is] subordinated, either directly or indirectly, to Washington’s directive.” Can you elaborate on how important understanding U.S. imperialism is to understanding drug war capitalism, especially pertinent when you said the people in D.C. are celebrating 15 years of Plan Colombia?

D: Ya, the bad guys in D.C., cause we also have committed friends in D.C. who have been working for 15 solid years fighting Plan Colombia.

It makes a lot of sense to think about the war on drugs in Mexico, in Central America, in the Caribbean, and in South America within the context of US wars more broadly, and how US wars are conducted throughout the world. Obviously, we can’t talk about Mexico or Syria in the same breath because the situation is so different, or Afghanistan and Honduras, say. But I think that there are certain pieces of the mentality that really translate.

I was looking at the drone papers recently, the big series that The Intercept put out, the leaked documents about the US drone program in Yemen and Somalia and Afghanistan. One of the things they exposed with these leaked documents is the way that the US government is drugwarcapconsidering fatalities from drone strikes, where any man of combat age who is killed in a drone strike is automatically labeled an enemy combatant, or an enemy “killed in action.” And that’s very similar in some ways to what’s happening in Mexico, where you have young men being the principle targets of violence, a huge amount of homicides and massacres, and disappearances taking place across the country increasingly since 2006, and these massacres and terrible acts of violence are read, interpreted, and presented in the media that the people who are killed must’ve done something to deserve it.

They are essentially saying the same thing. You know, saying maybe they were drug traffickers or somehow involved in this illegal narcotics trade. It’s actually a remarkably similar kind of perspective. Instead of saying automatically that all the men killed are enemy combatants, here they are saying, well, they’re all drug traffickers or gang members. And just thinking about different US wars taking place in different places around the world and thinking about what’s happening in Mexico with the massive US funding for militarization through the Merida Initiative, it is actually a kind of shade or an echo of these boots on the ground wars that the US is carrying out in the Middle East for example.

And just another example of that total subversion, I totally agree with what Greg Grandin said, you know that recently what’s been happening is Mexico has been cracking down on Central American migrants. That’s a direct response to the US government saying too many child migrants showing up at the US-Mexico border, too many child migrants from Central America. So, Mexico has gone and done increasingly awful things officially with state forces to Central American migrants, the level of deportation and apprehension of Central Americans who are in Mexico, who are in transit, who are traveling through with only one goal, which is to get up to the United States. This is one very clear example of where Washington says Jump! and Mexico says How high?

A: So then, you say in the book we shouldn’t consider Mexico a failed state. Would you say then that we should consider Mexico a client states of the United States?

D: I mean, I would, as long as we are clear we are talking about the Mexican government. The people of Mexico have and continue to rebel in many beautiful and spectacular ways. Obviously not everyone, but many, many, many people are engaged in some form of resistance.

But, certainly the Mexican government, all the reforms we’ve seen, everything sort of coming down the pipe politically. There’s been a few examples with the PRI where there’s been a slight distancing from Washington, but in general it’s a regular refrain in Washington now, that since the war on organized crime started in 2006, Mexico and the US have been enjoying the closest relations they’ve had in over a century.

So, absolutely a client state, and I think you can say the same for all of the countries where you’ve really seen the drug war applied with the most severity. Certainly Colombia in South America, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador. You know these are all countries where there’s no resistance on a state-to-state level to US policies that are gutting local economies, for example. You have El Salvadoran troops joining the so-called Coalition of the Willing in Iraq. You have all these men, actually, presiding over these countries where there’s extremely high levels of violence, of homicides, of social violence, of economic violence being done against the people, and their leaders are not willing to do anything except follow exactly what the IMF and the World Bank are telling them to do economically. The Honduran coup of 2009 stands as a stern reminder to anyone who might try.

Now, Mexico is not a failed state. I think that’s a mistaken line of thinking, because I think when we start talking about failed state, there’s often this sort of implication that states can work for people. If you look at how Guatemala has “worked” for the people of Guatemala, what has it done? It has actually been a genocide state, where state forces carried out genocide against Indigenous people. Where these same war criminals are still free today, or sometimes still part of the state apparatus.

Using the term “failed state” is a very liberal conception, and I think that’s part of the challenge I want to introduce with Drug War Capitalism. It’s about thinking through some of this stuff. Mexico is actually an exemplary state in terms of economic management. We are in a period of intense devaluation of the Mexican Peso right now. The cost of living is rising sharply. Every time we go out, everything costs more, no joke. The privatizations that have been happening, the increasing austerity, you know all that stuff, the government is managing all of that just fine. And some elites here have the panache to say publicly that the people should be happy the peso is devalued, because it means more investment.

It’s certainly a state that has failed its people, but it’s not a failed state in terms of a state that is unable to govern.

I think the discussion of whether states are actually capable of serving all people, especially marginalized people, is a different political discussion. But, I think it is certainly something worth putting on the table.

A: So, it’s that the state’s normal action isn’t about the welfare of the people. Would this place this theory of the state much more in the anarchist vein, and it sees the state’s normal role as violence?

D: Yeah, I mean myself personally, that’s my perspective. You know, I’m Canadian and when in Canada you hear this refrain sometimes about the good ol’ days of the welfare state, that’s actually often a very racist, exclusive notion of what the good ol’ days were. When actually those good ol’ days were also the days of residential schools, for example. You know, the forced removal of Indigenous children from their parents, erasure, forced assimilation, land grabs, and so on. For me, recognizing the violence inherent in state formation and in the maintenance of the state is an important task for thinkers and writers to undertake.

Hopefully, increasingly, over the next decades we will be talking about this more and more. I think we are seeing the failure of the party system and the state system to maintain its hegemony as the best way of making decisions and “looking after people”. That’s my hope anyways.

A: Then with the recent capture of El Chapo and thinking of the state maintaining itself, would this just be a matter of theatrics to look as if it is actually doing something in the drug war, like fighting the drug cartels?

D: Right, you’ve nailed it there. So, El Chapo is a key figure in the official discourse, or the official narrative of the drug war. He didn’t escape from jail. He was released from jail both times. It’s a myth he escaped in a laundry cart, and I would wager it’s a myth that he escaped through a tunnel. In fact, no journalist was allowed all the way through the tunnel into the shower that he supposedly dug his way out of. And we know all of these prison officials were fired for complicity, etc. He was let go from jail. This is part of the show, the veracity of his capture and exactly the details of it.

In my opinion, it’s these kind of details that are what get us lost when we’re talking about the drug war. You know, how many soldiers were there when they captured El Chapo, who was he with. It’s like that actually really doesn’t matter. Of course, there were people killed this time and it’s important to acknowledge that there is violence even in the creation of this myth here in Mexico.

But the question is, if they can find El Chapo, why can’t they find the almost 30,000 people officially recorded as having disappeared in the last 10 years? Where are these people? Why can’t they find them? Why can’t they find the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School? For me, those are the questions that give push back against that narrative. You can find this guy who supposedly has billions of dollars, but why can’t you find these students. And it’s all about what the government wants.

Obviously they want to capture El Chapo, and here in Mexico that’s all you saw on TV. There was even an added level absurdity of having Sean Penn and Kate del Castillo involved in his capture. Like, where else does that happen?! This is what we are asking ourselves. Where else do you have this, sort of, celebrity capture narrative?

A lot of this just feels like a big distraction. If the government wanted to help the vast majority of poor and working poor people in Mexico it would withdraw from NAFTA, allow safe passage for all migrants, protect local food systems, provide accessible and quality education, and require people be paid living wages, for example. It would provide reparations for family members of victims of the drug war, have some kind of truth commission and proper admission of what’s been occurring in this country, and locate the many thousands of disappeared people. But for the Mexican state, or in fact any state, to do these kinds things in the current context is almost unimaginable, no matter who gets elected.

By comparison, Chapo doesn’t matter. It’s interesting actually. If you look at the short little interview he did, so not Sean Penn’s interpretation of what he said, but what El Chapo himself said in the interview, it’s actually super interesting. He said, and I’m paraphrasing, if you capture me it doesn’t matter, nothing is gonna change, and he’s right! He’s totally right!

A: The theatre being so far removed from people’s lives is also when Andrea Legaretta is on HOY saying to the Mexican people that inflation is a good thing and everything will be better for Mexico. And then, when she is called out for basically doing a government spot, she says don’t blame her, she is just reading off a teleprompter.

D: Yeah, one of the things to me that has been pretty wild is a lot of the elites from the banking sector, from the Finance Ministry, they’ve been saying this is actually a good thing for Mexico. While the peso a year ago was worth 13 pesos to one dollar, now it’s like 18. Things are not getting cheaper, everything is going up. But, it’s good for the maquiladoras, it’s good for the car manufacturers, it’s good for transnational capital. What just blows me away is how openly the elite is actually celebrating something that is terrible for almost everyone that lives in Mexico.

The media is another big part of the story in Mexico, one I didn’t go into as much in the book, like Televisa and TV Azteca, which are basically two versions of Fox News. It’s hard to tell which one is worse. Those are the main TV stations, and you have all this cross ownership. You do have a progressive newspaper, but still very party aligned. So, the media has such a huge role in maintaining this official discourse on the drug war. Not to blame journalists, because there are obviously a lot of really brave journalists in Mexico and talented journalists in Mexico. There have also been over 100 journalists since 2000 who’ve been murdered on the job.

For days after his capture on the TV media all we saw was El Chapo, a looping of El Chapo walking to the helicopter with his hands behind his head, with shots of Sean Penn and this soap star. And you’re going like, “there’s nothing else happening in this country, really?”

It’s pretty sad.

A: It doesn’t appear that the political institutions or a political party in Mexico would want to change that system. Would you say that if MORENA came into power in 2018 that that could reverse these trends? Or is it like Javier Sicilia has said, that the system at its core is rotten and it wouldn’t have any effect at all?

D: I agree with Sicilia, for reasons we have already talked about. I don’t think the state system and taking power over that system is going to be our exit ticket. Things might have been less bad if Andres Manuel López Obrador had actually taken power, as he was actually elected in 2006 and Calderón fraudulently took power. State Department cables leaked by Wikileaks show us that all presidential candidates in that election agreed that they would make fighting narcotrafficking a priority of their administration. So, it’s likely that under López Obrador, had he actually been able to govern in Mexico, would’ve been subjected to intense political pressure from the United States to implement the Merida Initiative, probably with similar results.

I can’t really comment on MORENA. It is so marginal in most parts of the country. Mexico is still a two party system, and in some places, a one party system. On a state level, the PRI still rules with an iron fist in many of the states, like Coahuila state where I’ve been working recently. In Tamaulipas state, in Veracruz state, where you have some of the worst violence in the country, there has been continuous governance by the PRI. So, bringing in this, sort of, very marginal fourth or fifth party or whatever you want to call it, just probability-wise it’s hard to think MORENA could take power. But, if it did I would wager we would then see just how intensely the US does actually govern Mexico.

A: There is a point in the documentary, El Poeta, where Sicilia talks about remembering a Mexico before the drug war violence. But, even then the PRI was very violent. So, what do we make of Mexico’s history when thinking about violence historically and contemporarily?

D: There are now over 50,000 people officially disappeared in Mexico. Over half of them have been disappeared in just the last 10 years. The other half date back when they started keeping track in the 1960s. That’s one way of understanding that yes, Mexico has been a state with paramilitary violence, with deep state violence, like the October 2nd massacre in Tlatelolco, which is actually what the Ayotzinapa students were gathering to protest when they were disappeared and massacred. So, you do have these examples of state repression. But in post WWII Mexico you don’t see genocide, like you had in Guatemala, for example, or anything approaching the war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or against the FLMN in El Salvador.

So, the drug war definitely represents an intensification. Before the drug war started in Mexico the homicide rate was dropping. It has doubled over the last ten years. Yes, there has definitely been a huge escalation in violence in many regions, and I think for a certain class of people there’s certainly a nostalgia for the good ol’ days. For many in Mexico, the past is linked with forced migration and different forms of violence, corruption and impunity. But, certainly in the years prior we have not seen violence with the alarming frequency, intensity, and geographical distribution as we’ve seen in Mexico over the past 10 years.

In Drug War Capitalism I attempt to link these events back to US policy. I think there is a clear line between increased US funds, increased US priority on fighting narco-trafficking, and increased homicide rates, increased disappearances, and increased displacement. I was just reading that the US, well Obama, just announced this thing called Peace Colombia, which looks like a continuation of Plan Colombia. Basically, they are saying that now that Colombia has peace we are gonna have this new plan called Peace Colombia, and we’re gonna give all this new money based on what they refer to as the success of Plan Colombia. Interestingly, one of the first pillars of Peace Colombia is expanding progress on security and counter-narcotics. Which is to say, more of the same.

So, it is just continuously the US funds going in and going in. In the press release that the White House put out on February 2nd, they said the homicide rate has fallen this much since 2002. Well, 2002 is the year the US government gave the most money for Plan Colombia, and the year with the highest homicide rate. And I saw the same correlation in Mexico. The year that the US government gives the most money for the Merida Initiative is the year with the most homicides. They allow the slaughter of people, they encourage it, and then it becomes a benchmark upon which they can look back and say it’s not as bad or it’s a lot better than it was then. I think there is a direct link between coercive, blatant violence and US policy. I think in other regions we have been able to draw those lines more directly, and it’s worth coming back to and thinking about that link when it comes to Mexico, Central America and South America.

I wish this was being debated with Bernie and Hillary. But if feels like they are getting caught up on these things like Hillary’s e-mails, or the one now, her speeches to Goldman Sachs. I mean, the issues, especially on foreign policy, are not being talked about in meaningful ways.

A: Wasn’t it Hillary’s State Department that was, if not directly, indirectly involved with the Honduran coup?

D: Yes, exactly. They allowed that coup to happen, and also the coup in Paraguay as well against Fernando Lugo, the former bishop who interrupted the two party system there. So, essentially a coup in Honduras in 2009 and another in Paraguay in 2012, the State Department didn’t denounce the coup plotters or sanction those responsible. Because in both cases, the new regimes that came in were neoliberal, militaristic, Washington friendly.

When it comes to the Democractic Party primaries in the US, it’s hard to get excited about any of that stuff really. The way the media covers it, it kind of reminds me of the way the narrative of the drug war works in Mexico, like the capture of El Chapo. Are we supposed to believe that there is nothing else happening in the United States for the next year, while these guys debate? And yet the primaries make up a good portion we hear on the news, including even progressive news like Democracy Now! That’s what we are all going to listen to, every day, to what these candidates are saying? Well, what else is happening in the United States? What else is happening around the world? So many important things are happening, and they’re being obscured by this ongoing discussion, supposedly about US democracy. That’s kind of how the drug war narrative functions, but with a lot more terror involved. Just creating this discourse so far removed from people’s actual lives, this discourse that is totally state-centric, and it is actually a shield from talking about the issues that matter, about peoples’ real lives.

A: So, should we expect any meaningful change on this side in terms of the Drug War?

D: So, I’d like to split my response to that. There might be some change in the US if Bernie was elected in terms of what the Drug War would look like inside the US. I have no problem with people voting, but I don’t think that’s going to be the basis for the massive, structural change the US and the world needs.

In my own kind of thinking about things, meaningful change comes from grassroots movements, it always has, and I think it will continue to come from grassroots movements, from people on the streets and the blockades and the front lines. That applies no matter where we are, whether in Canada, or Mexico or Honduras, or in the US.

A: To wrap up, and thinking in terms of optimism and grassroots, could you expand on resistance as a facet of daily life? Also, would you elaborate on how it is activism that will force the state system and capitalism to change, rather than those power systems ever doing it on their own?

D: That is a big question, and my response is bound to be more of a personal reflection, but I will try.

Part of what Drug War Capitalism is about is the militarization carried out under the pretext of the drug war, and how the drug war in Mexico and South America is about opening new spaces for capital, creating new guarantees for capitalist expansion, foreign direct investment, and so on. I don’t think the drug war in the south would be nearly as bloody if people were less organized, if people were more atomized. Drug war capitalism has been incredibly intense in Guatemala, in Mexico, in Colombia, with the terrible massacres, the public display of bodies and efforts to terrorize the population, the thousands of disappeared, the hundreds of thousands of displaced, or the millions displaced in the case of Colombia, the hundreds of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers fleeing to the US and Europe. These tragedies lead to the destruction of peoples’ social and family ties. And although they talk about stability, it is clear that the United States government, local political elites, and capitalists can better asset their interests when the communal or social basis that gives strength to peoples’ movements is destroyed.

I consider peoples’ movements as encompassing far more than people who are organized in an activist collective. The strength of people’s connection with each other comes from strength of the connections among people in their neighborhood, with their families, from women centered networks of love, of caring, of companionship. Not to over-idealize, but to varying degrees life in the south challenges the seeming inevitability of the individualism of capitalism that rules in much of the United States. In the south, day-to-day life for many people, sometimes for the majority, is organized in a different way.

For example, in certain regions you’re more likely to go to the corner store or to a small market, or even have your own food sources than you are to go to a Wal-Mart. So in this tiny example, the local economy would be distinct, and big capital would not enjoy the same market share it would elsewhere. And there’s change obviously happening all the time, but part of the reason you have the really intense repression is the social networks, the family networks, and the community ties create a kind of wiggle room where everything isn’t always dictated all the time by market capitalism. People have other choices and are willing to defend those choices together if need be.

As I’ve been reflecting more and more on what drug war capitalism means, the ferocity of this war is a ferocity against people whose lifeways are organized in ways that are slightly different to extremely different to the nuclear family style individualism promoted in the north.

In a way this reflection is about expanding the definition of what we think of as subversive activity, and understanding that the targets of counterinsurgency are the people who participate in these lifeways. Not just thinking of activists as the person with the microphone or the demonstrators in the streets, but thinking that in these countries, unfortunately from the perspective of US policy, entire villages and towns are considered as if they were insurgents because they live in ways that are contradictory and sometimes oppositional to capitalism. This is not new, but it is ongoing. I do think those different lifeways can open and create, and often do create, different ways of organizing, different ways of sharing power, different ways of controlling territory or urban space, and sometimes they do congeal and manage to contest the power of the state. In those moments, they become more overt and more obvious.

I certainly have had that experience in a small way living in Mexico. My neighbors, we’re super organized. We don’t share the same politics, but we are organized. In the building where I live now, we organized a rent strike because of water cuts, we also eat meals together and have a chat group where we check in with each other on a regular. And we are mostly all women, doing this connective work that gives us power not only when it comes to the landlord, but because we are organized we are also stronger and safer in general.

So, coming to the autonomies, I think a lot of the autonomies exist in Mexico and elsewhere in many ways that are not always visible, but that are potentially powerful at different junctures. There is just less isolation than there is in the United States or in Canada. And part of what gives me a lot of hope is how people who are organizing in Mexico have a very clear position on the state. They might depend on it, they might need it for certain things, they might get money from it once in a while, but at the same time there is often a strong critique of it, and certainly of the party system in terms of what the next steps forward are.

Obviously there are a lot of people involved with organizing for MORENA. But, it’s just one path, and what’s exciting here is there are so many other paths. The Zapatistas have become a reference worldwide as offering that different kind of alternative. There are so many vibrant movements, for land defense, for labor rights, for the autonomy of universities and for free education, against violence, and so on. It’s worth mentioning that the 43 students who were disappeared from the Ayotzinapa Normal School were organized into a federation of socialist students. They had been carrying out very strong, direct action against neoliberal education reforms for years. I certainly think that with Ayotzinapa you have an example of a direct hit against people who are organized using the discourse of the drug war to justify or normalize it.

To wind up, the other major force in Mexico is the parents, primarily the mothers, of the victims of violence, people like Javier Sicilia and tens of thousands of others like him, especially those whose children have disappeared. Many of them have extremely nuanced analysis of what’s taking place in the country. They are organized in their communities around the country, they are out there looking for their relatives, and they are denouncing publically and saying publically things that a lot of people in the country know or have a sensation about. These families have become a major force in Mexico in denouncing the rottenness of the system, the complete corruption of the political and legal system. So, I think part of the transformative force in Mexico right now are these dozens of collectives of parents who have disappeared children and who are organizing across the country.

Andrew Smolski is a writer and sociologist.