Review of Dawn Paley’s Drug War Capitalism

Drug War Capitalism
By Dawn Paley
AK Press 2014
Review by Al Gedicks

By any objective measure, the so-called war on drugs has been an abysmal failure. It has not stopped the flow of drugs or broken up the nefarious drug cartels south of the U.S. border. But this is not necessarily evidence for the failure of the drug war, according to Canadian journalist Dawn Paley in her book Drug War Capitalism. Based on extensive travels, interviews, and research in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, Paley invites the reader to consider other factors and motivations for the war on drugs, “specifically the expansion of the capitalist system into new or previously inaccessible territories and social spaces.”

Paley makes the case that the war on drugs “isn’t about prohibition or drug policy,” but instead is a war “in which terror is used against the population at large in cities and rural areas” while “parallel to this terror and the panic it generates, policy changes are implemented which facilitate foreign direct investment and economic growth.” This is drug war capitalism.

It is no accident that the primary victims of the drug war in Mexico, Central and South America are poor people, indigenous peoples, and peasant farmers. These are the people who provide cheap labor for the manufacturing and assembly operations along the U.S.-Mexico border or who occupy lands rich in fossil fuels or minerals. The drug war is inseparable from the expansion of the extractive industries into new territory and the use of terror by armed groups to prevent or suppress popular opposition movements.

Paley discusses three models for the advancement of drug war capitalism south of the U.S. border. Plan Colombia was the first and became the model for the Merida Initiative in Mexico and the Central America Regional Security Initiative. These drug war initiatives differ from previous efforts because of the profound changes in law and policy that guarantee the protection of foreign direct investment while justifying violence against broad sectors of the population in Central and South America including teachers, labor leaders, journalists, church workers and human rights advocates. “The drug war creates a context where members of resistance movements and journalists can be assassinated or disappeared under the pretext that they were involved in the drug trade.”

Under Plan Colombia the U.S. provided $4.9 billion between 2000 and 2008 to assist Colombia’s corrupt military in destroying the cocaine trade and waging counterinsurgency warfare against the guerrilla armies of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).  Much of the military aid has provided for training, weapons and attack helicopters for the Army’s antidrug battalions operating in areas of intense social conflict over mining and energy projects. The growth of the oil industry and the guerrilla armies has gone hand in hand. “Significantly,” says Paley, “special battalions of the Colombian army were trained to protect oil pipelines belonging to U.S. companies.”

From the perspective of Colombia’s indigenous peoples, the massacres and forced displacement are not accidental byproducts of the drug war. It is precisely the separation of indigenous peoples from their land, which is at the center of drug war capitalism. Indigenous land rights and decision-making authority regarding natural resources are seen as obstacles to massive U.S. and international investments in mega-projects, including mines, dams, roads and canals that will allow the efficient exploitation of Colombia’s rich natural resources.

It is estimated that nearly 80 percent of the mineral and energy resources of the country (water, minerals, oil, biodiversity) are found in the 27 percent of the national territory that is collectively and inalienably owned by Colombian indigenous communities. These indigenous territories overlap with the areas where armed groups have terrorized entire communities. According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia (ONIC), 66 of Colombia’s 102 indigenous groups are at risk of extinction from forces such as large-scale mining development and Colombia’s ongoing armed conflict.

Colombia is the testing ground for the important role of paramilitaries, or non-state armed actors in drug war capitalism. Since 1991, according to Human Rights Watch, the Colombian military has worked with a U.S. Defense Department and CIA team to create “killer networks that identified and killed civilians suspected of supporting guerrillas” (“Colombia’s Killer Networks: The Military-Paramilitary Partnership and the United States,” 1996).

These killer networks laid the foundation for the emergence of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s largest paramilitary group. Carlos Castano, the leader of the AUC, told a national Colombian television audience that the drug trade provided 70 percent of his group’s funding.

The attempt of the Colombian state to equate social protest mobilization with subversion and support for guerrilla forces has led to the growth of paramilitary units acting alongside the Colombian military. Paley cites evidence that anti-narcotics and military assistance given to Colombia was regularly diverted to paramilitary organizations. The influence of the paramilitary groups extends into the Colombian Congress and the state security agency. In short, paramilitaries are a strategy of the Colombian state and drug war capitalism.

Colombia’s Victims Unit recently reported that the number of victims of Colombia’s civil war has now surpassed 7 million in a country of under 50 million. This number includes those who have been killed, disappeared or displaced since 1956. With the escalation of military assistance under Plan Colombia after 2000, the numbers of civilian casualties increased dramatically, peaking in 2002 at 744,799 victims.

In addition to counterinsurgency warfare, Plan Colombia is responsible for the destruction of illegal coca crops through aerial spraying of massive amounts of chemicals that constitutes chemical warfare against peasants and indigenous farmers who were growing coca as well as food crops. The herbicide used was a glyphosate mixture of the weed killer known by the trade name Roundup, manufactured by Monsanto. However, concentrations of glyphosate used in Colombia were accompanied by the highest U.S. Environmental Protection Agency toxicity rating.

Human rights and environmental groups in Colombia registered hundreds of complaints from farmers throughout Colombia that aerial spraying caused eye, skin and digestive ailments, destroyed subsistence crops, sickened domesticated animals, and contaminated water supplies. “The supposed war on drugs generated a food crisis throughout the country,” said a Colombian human rights activist. “Many people had to leave, because what they had was a little piece of land where they had plantains, and it was fumigated, and it ended up desolate.” Whether the small famers are displaced by the counterinsurgency or the fumigations the result is the same.

The success of Plan Colombia can be seen in the growth of foreign investment in the extractive industries and the negotiation of both the U.S.-Colombia and the Canada-Colombia free trade agreements. During the height of Plan Colombia, from 2000 to 2006, coca cultivation increased along with the rising flow of cocaine from South America to the United States.

The success of Plan Colombia was applied to Mexico and Central America after 2007. The Merida Initiative, or Plan Mexico was similar to Plan Colombia in its stated objective of disrupting narcotics trafficking while increasing the militarization of the Mexican police and military and “as a byproduct of the latter, encouraging the formation and multiplication of paramilitary groups.” As drug trafficking is militarized, paramilitary groups emerge to prevent community mobilization against destructive mega projects. This has little to do with fighting drugs and everything to do with creating a secure investment climate for foreign capital, especially mining investment.

Since 2000, Mexico has assumed fourth place in worldwide mining investment after Canada, Australia and the United States. After revising its mining laws to encourage investment, the mining sector is 70 percent foreign owned. “Mining projects have been among the most conflictive sites of recent capitalist expansion in Mexico,” says Paley, “and the majority of gold and silver production in the country takes place in states with the highest rates of violence (Sonora, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Guerrero and Durango).”

The dramatic increase in the deployment of soldiers and federal police to combat drug trafficking has done little to disrupt narcotrafficking but has resulted in an increase in violence throughout Mexico. The number of complaints of human rights abuses committed by soldiers against civilians increased from 691 from 2003-2006 to 4,803 complaints in the 2007-2010 period, precisely the same period as the Merida Initiative.

At the same time the heads of policing organizations, government officials and anti-narcotics groups are routinely suspected of collaborating with organized crime. Many drug traffickers identified by Mexico and the United States are retired soldiers or police officers.

Remilitarizing Guatemala

In 1996 the peace accords in Guatemala ended a 36-year armed conflict in which the U.S.-supported Guatemalan army carried out a genocide of tens of thousands of Guatemalans—mainly indigenous Mayans who comprised a majority of approximately 200,000 killed in the 1980s. A 1999 UN Truth Commission blamed Guatemalan state forces for 93 percent of the atrocities. The peace accords were supposed to cut the military budget and minimize the influence of the military in civil society.

Instead, the army redefined its role in fighting organized crime and drug trafficking. As in Colombia and Mexico, the military presence is concentrated in areas of social conflict over mining and energy extraction projects. Guatemalan human rights activists point out that “the construction of new military bases is taking place in areas already steeped in social conflict.”

While drug trafficking occurs in certain areas, these are not where the military bases are located. Instead, one military base is near a nickel mining community where the company (Hudbay Minerals of Canada) has a serious record of human rights violations. For indigenous communities who were victims during the civil war of the 1980s, the drug war is a nightmare revisited. The same Guatemalan elite special forces (the Kaibiles) that were responsible for genocide in the 1980s are now active in suppressing indigenous resistance and participating in criminal groups.

Communities that resist displacement by extractive industries risk being accused of involvement with organized crime. “In some cases,” says Paley, “entire peasant villages have been labeled narco-communities.”

Dawn Paley is not the first analyst to suggest that the war on drugs is really a war on people. Peter Dale Scott, among others, has argued in Drugs, Oil and War: The United States in Afghanistan, Colombia, and Indochina (2003) that the U.S. has developed a strategy of fighting wars in areas of petroleum reserves with the aid of drug-trafficking allies. However, Paley has updated and expanded this analysis with extensive accounts from people on the front lines of drug war capitalism. Her analysis reveals how drug war violence is not incidental, but essential to the expansion of capitalism into new resource extraction frontiers. The result is the most comprehensive, well-documented account of U.S. funded militarization in Central and South America and how this policy creates a permanent state of violence against poor and socially marginalized people.



Al Gedicks is the author of Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations.