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Drug addiction: Is capitalism fuelling the war on drugs?

The way we talk about the ‘war on drugs’ seems to extend from endless debates around prohibition and decriminalisation in policy circles, all the way down to the lurid stories of narcos and cartel violence, which fill the shelves of airport bookshops. But Fernando Roa suggests that there is another, deeper dynamic at play here – what’s the story we are missing out?
Dawn Paley: My book Drug War Capitalism proposes a break with official discourse on the US-backed drug wars in Mexico, central America and Colombia. I interviewed Fernando Roa and others from his community in Arauca, Colombia, in early 2014. In the book, voices like theirs are brought to life and contrast with a narrative that some of us are more familiar with – the official version of the war on drugs. My aim was to try and formulate a people-centred critique of the US-backed war on drugs, which locates this war in the broader context of capitalism and US hegemony in the hemisphere.

So the book is really about opening up a new narrative to talk about the war on drugs in the Americas. When we talk about Plan Colombia or the Merida Initiative or the Central American Security Initiative, or now, the Alliance for Prosperity in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, it doesn’t make sense to talk about the success or failure of these programmes in terms of drug production and trafficking. Rather, it is worth considering the war on drugs as falling on a spectrum of US wars abroad. In war-making more generally, US interests are about ensuring control over segments of territory and over communities, the movement of people, and social relations that challenge US hegemony. And I think we can see similar dynamics at work in the war on drugs.

openDemocracy: So can you briefly explain the dynamics that drive ‘drug war capitalism’ – how has resource extraction intersected with anti-drug trafficking operations across Latin America, and how does it continue to do so to this day?

Dawn Paley: That’s exactly it. This is not necessarily about how drug cartels or drug traffickers or paramilitaries or whatever you would like to call them interact with the corporate sector. It is about how state policies lead to violence, terror and displacement, coming under the discourse of an anti-narcotics fight. I argue that these terrifying forms of violence can positively impact the business climate, in favour of transnational capital.

When I talk about the book with groups in the US, I usually talk about the three Ps of the war on drugs: policy, police and paramilitaries, and I think we could add a fourth, prisons.

Consider policy. One of the key innovations of Plan Colombia was to carry out a transformation of the legal system and a series of policy reforms to encourage foreign investment and to prepare Colombia for the signing of the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. These policy elements appear to have little to do with the war on drugs – the further neoliberalisation of host economies – but in fact they were explicitly part of Plan Colombia, though that was not admitted until much later. Mexico has also seen a legal system reform under the Merida Initiative and there have been far reaching reforms to the energy sector, the telecommunications sector, to labour, education, financial and tax laws, since 2006.

Policing is a key avenue of US influence and spending in these wars. In Mexico, the number of federal police climbed from around 4,000 before president Felipe Calderón launched the drug war in 2006, to over 40,000. These forces are highly militarised. A recent study showed that where they were deployed in combination with soldiers, the homicide rate rose. The official story is that this is a new, uncorrupt force that can fight drug trafficking. However, like elsewhere, the presence of federal police has meant more violence, and a shift in drug trafficking routes. 

The language of the Merida Initiative itself is interesting – the goal of Mexican authorities is supposedly to disrupt trafficking routes – which means, obviously, they move elsewhere.

And that’s where the third P comes in, for paramilitary. Violence in Mexico experienced a severe uptick in December 2006, when Calderón declared war against organised crime. The strategy was disruption, disruption of a decades-old (at least) business of moving cocaine and the much older businesses of producing and moving opium and marijuana north.

Attempts by certain parts of the state repressive apparatus, like the marines, the army and the rebranded federal police to disrupt the movement and production of narcotics provoked escalating violence in response.

Read more: Is capitalism fuelling the war on drugs? | openDemocracy

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