Dawn Paley

 A Growing Grassroots Movement in Mexico Is Resisting the US-Backed Drug War

Posted in Uncategorized by dawn on 07/10/2016

Dawn Paley, September 29, 2016, The Nation

The small copper horseshoe Mario Vergara Hernández keeps in the pocket of his jeans isn’t there for good luck. It has another purpose altogether. “Since I started looking for graves, I carry this horseshoe in my pocket, because if they find me in a common grave, the metal won’t disintegrate,” said Vergara Hernández, palming the charm as we sat beside a hole he was helping to dig. “I told my mother that if I disappear, she should tell the government to look for the metal. I just hope they bury me with my pants on.”

With that, he stood and declared that the hole he and two other men—both of them fathers whose sons had been disappeared—were digging didn’t contain any corpses. With pick and shovel, they had dug to a level of clay that was undisturbed; there could be nothing buried further beneath it. While the men dug, the women waited under a tree, a light breeze relieving the near 100-degree heat and extreme humidity. They had come to this spot after a tip by a local drug runner, who said his own family members had been secretly buried near a large tree in a field outside of the city of Iguala, in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero.

Every Sunday, Vergara Hernández leads a group organized under the name Los Otros Desaparecidos de Iguala (The Other Disappeared of Iguala) into the hills surrounding the city. They’re akin to a self-taught search team, comprising family members of people who have been disappeared from the region. The group works off hand-drawn maps, messages on WhatsApp and Facebook, and tips from folks who, somehow or another, have seen bodies being buried late into the night. When we arrive at the site the searchers fan out, expertly scanning the ground, looking for upturned soil or disturbed plants as they hunt for mass graves, with the hope of identifying a loved one. (more…)

NACLA Roundtable on Drug War Capitalism

Posted in Guatemala, Mexico by dawn on 22/07/2016

Dear readers,

This month, NACLA Report on the Americas has dedicated a chunk of the issue “Currency of Death” to my book Drug War Capitalism. Here’s a snippet from the editorial:

Few texts have more powerfully unraveled the political economy of the drug wars than Dawn Paley’s 2014 tour de force, Drug War CapitalismWith unrelenting clarity Paley reveals just how extensively the war on drugs permeates Latin American politics and society —from Mexico to the Andes—resulting in ever more intrusive and exploitative forms of capitalist accumulation and dispossession. Paley’s argumentswhich she elaborates in conversation with sociologist William I. Robinson, journalist John Gibler, and Maya-K’iche’ scholar Gladys Tzul Tzul in the Report—are the centerpiece of this issue.

I invite you to take a look at the entire roundtable, which you can do by clicking here. WhatScreen Shot 2016-07-20 at 5.19.28 PM follows is my response to the texts written by Dr. William Robinson, journalist John Gibler and Dr. Gladys Tzul.

Response: Fear and Terror as Tools of Capital

On March 24, 2016, thousands of Argentines gathered in the Plaza de Mayo to remember the 40th anniversary of the 1976 military coup that ushered in a dictatorship of terror and torture. At the gathering, a statement written by organizations of family members of some of the 30,000 people who were disappeared in that period was read. The Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Founding Group of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Family Members of People Detained and Disappeared for Political Reasons, and HIJOS-Buenos Aires wrote with unflinching political clarity about the true aims of the war in Argentina. “With systematic terror as its method, [the military] tried to impose an economic, political, social, and cultural plan of hunger and exclusion, using a recipe written by economic groups, the government of the United States, the upper echelon of the church, and the participation of the judiciary,” the statement reads.

The groups recalled their disappeared loved ones as parents, children, sisters, brothers, but also as activists working towards a country that was “great, just, and free.” Experiences of terror and disappearance in Argentina are understood to have been political, connected to the spread of authoritarian neoliberalism.

Less than two months later, on Mother’s Day, thousands of family members of the disappeared in Mexico marched for the fifth year in a row in the capital of Mexico City, displaying the names of some of the 27,000 people who have been officially recorded as disappeared since 2006. In Mexico, especially since the 2014 disappearance of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Normal School in Guerrero, slogans at marches implicate the state in disappearances and call for loved ones to be returned alive: ¡Fue el estado! ¡Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos! (It was the state! They were taken alive, we want them back alive!).

But unlike in Argentina, relatively few of the disappeared in Mexico were politically active or belonged to political organizations. Unlike in Argentina, there was no coup d’état, nor is there a military junta. Rather, in Mexico, there is a war on drugs. In the cities and rural areas that have been affected by this war, the impacts have been intense. But the political and economic interests behind the violence have largely been ignored, masked by drug war discourses, and because of the scale of the social emergency generated through state-directed terror. According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, in 2014 Mexico had the third highest number of fatalities in armed conflict in the world, after Syria and Iraq, and a recent study found life expectancy in Mexico has fallen due to rising homicide rates.


Violence is at the Heart of US Drug War Policy in the Americas

Posted in Colombia, Mexico by dawn on 24/04/2016

Here’s a piece I did for teleSUR on the eve of the UNGASS talks in New York last week. This piece is part of a longer piece I am working on that looks at the economics of narcotics prohibition and the funding of reactionary armed groups, which I hope to put out before the end of the year.

Violence is at the Heart of US Drug War Policy in the Americas, teleSUR, April 18, 2016

From April 19-21, the United Nations General Assembly will hold a special session on drugs in New York City. This meeting, called UNGASS for short, is a critical space from which the 193 member states of the U.N. could move toward adopting more humane drug policies worldwide. The special session on drugs was called for by three countries in which the militarized enforcement of prohibition has been at the root of violence and terror: Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala.

Prohibition is not a hands off way of dealing with social, health or economic issues, rather, it is “an extreme form of government intervention,” according to Mark Thornton, author of “Economies of Prohibition.” Narcotics prohibition got its start as laws making certain drugs illegal were passed in the early twentieth century, spearheaded by the United States and later upheld by the U.N. From the outset, narcotics prohibition was a political tool used as a way to criminalize and target communities and individuals based on race and ethnicity.

Prohibitionist logics got a boost in the 1960s and 1970s as they were deployed by countries across the Cold War political spectrum in order to criminalize youth and social movements worldwide. Within the United States, drug prohibition has been a key contributing factor to the realization of what Angela Davis calls the “prison industrial complex” and what Mumia Abu Jamal has deemed “mass incarceration and [the] racialized prison state.”

Over time, the institutions created to enforce narcotics prohibition have become established parts of the U.S. state repressive-judicial apparatus, thus threading a dependence on maintaining prohibition into the fabric of the state. Every year since 2003, United States federal funding for demand reduction (treatment and prevention) has been lower than for supply reduction (domestic policing, interdiction, international), with the vast majority of supply reduction going to police forces nationwide. That balance is slated to shift in 2017.

Today, funding to uphold prohibition is spread across nearly the entire U.S. federal government, with 13 of the 15 Executive Departments that make up the federal Cabinet slated to receive a segment of the $31.1 billion in funding to support the National Drug Control Strategy in fiscal year 2017. The only cabinet level departments in the US government that do not receive money for the fight against narcotics are the Department of Commerce and the Department of Energy. (more…)

Interviews & Update

Posted in Uncategorized by dawn on 31/03/2016

Hello all!

It has been far too long since I updated here. I’ve been working on a new project (details soon) in the north of Mexico, traveling here and there to talk with all different folks about Drug War Capitalism, and trying to get in some family and friend time.

A few months ago I published a piece on the Transgender Day of Remembrance, highlighting the experience of Latinx trans folks in the US. A huge amount of my time this fall went into co-organizing the first Congreso Internacional de Comunalidad in Puebla, Mexico.

I’ve done a few interviews of late, with Open Democracy (aquí en español) and Counterpunch. Finally, an Italian journal recently put out a longer piece that I co-wrote with my friend and mentor Dr. Raquel Gutiérrez called “La transformación sustancial de la guerra y la violencia contra las mujeres en México” which you can peep or download at academia.edu.

I am hoping to make it up to Historical Materialism in Toronto in May to talk about the book and some other work I’m doing around prohibition economies in the context of the “war on drugs.” Hope to see some of you there.


Ayotzinapa, Paradigm of the War on Drugs in Mexico

Posted in Uncategorized by dawn on 02/10/2015

Dear friends,

I share with you today a new afterword to the forthcoming Spanish edition of Drug War Capitalism, as well as a six-minute Q&A (and a more extended online only interview) I did earlier this week with the fine folks at Free Speech Radio News. At the first link, find also a printable PDF of the afterword, in case you’d like to share it with folks offline.

In struggle,


New Afterword to Drug War Capitalism

Ayotzinapa, Paradigm of the War on Drugs in Mexico

Completed August, 2015, published September 26, 2015 by AK Press.

Mexico one year after Ayotzinapa

“It is necessary that we take action now, because they are annihilating us. It is necessary that we do something.” Nadia Vera, social anthropologist, tortured and assassinated alongside journalist Rubén Espinosa, Alejandra Negrete, Yesenia Quiróz and Mile Virginia Martín on July 31, 2015, in Mexico City.[1]

In the year since we put the final touches on the manuscript for the English edition of Drug War Capitalism, the campaign of terror directed against the people of Mexico in the name of fighting drugs has continued. This essay will serve as the epilogue for the forthcoming Spanish edition of the book, and looks back over the 10 months since it was published.

As the first edition of Drug War Capitalism was in its last stages before printing, there were rumblings that the army had massacred 22 people in Tlatlaya, in Mexico State, in June, 2014. Initial media reports presented the killings as having taken place during a firefight, and the governor of Mexico State initially claimed the army had, in “legitimate self-defense, taken down the criminals.”[2] One witness, whose daughter was among the dead, later claimed that soldiers had in fact lined up 22 before executing them one by one. The eyewitness said she told the soldiers not to do it, not to kill those being interrogated. Their response, she said, was that “these dogs don’t deserve to live.”[3] The cover-up that ensued involved bureaucrats from various levels of government. It was only because of reporting by Esquire magazine and the work of local journalists in Mexico that the truth came out. Eight soldiers are believed to have been directly involved with the killings in Tlatlaya. Seven soldiers have been charged, three of them for murder.

After the emergence of the army’s role in slaughtering civilians in Tlatlaya came the disappearance of 43 students and the murder of three others in Iguala, Guerrero. On the night of September 26, 2014, six people were killed, three of them students at a nearby teacher-training college. One young man who was killed had his face pulled off and yanked down around his neck. Others were wounded and denied medical treatment. By the next day, 43 more students from the Raúl Isidro Burgos Rural Teachers’ College of Ayotzinapa were missing. The students were last seen as they were arrested by municipal police, allegedly for participating in taking over buses to use for transportation to a march in Mexico City. The police handed off the students to a local paramilitary group that the media dubbed Guerreros Unidos (United Warriors).

The remains of one of the missing 43 have been discovered and confirmed, but the other 42 students remain disappeared. In the search for the missing 43, groups of community police and other non-state organizations initiated one of the country’s first searches for clandestine graves. In the weeks and months following the massacre and the mass disappearance of the students, search parties made up of community police and families of the disappeared discovered mass graves containing dozens of recently buried bodies.

The impact of the forced disappearance of the 43 students from the Ayotzinapa normal school cannot be underestimated. It sparked the largest crisis of legitimacy the Mexican government has faced since the war on drugs began in December 2006. (more…)

Searching for the Disappeared in Coahuila

Posted in Mexico by dawn on 14/08/2015

A new piece I wrote for Warscapes.

August 8, 2015

This Mother’s Day, Hortensia Rívas Rodriguez wasn’t at home enjoying brunch with her family. Instead, she traveled from her home in Piedras Negras to join thousands of other mothers searching for their disappeared children in Mexico. Rivas Rodriguez, a retired police officer, founded a group called the Association of Families United in Searching and Finding Disappeared People in August, 2013, just over a month after her son Víctor Manuel Guajardo disappeared.

Since its founding, the group has gone from representing eleven families to including over 160 cases of forced disappearances in a region directly across the border from Eagle Pass, Texas, that includes the city of Piedras Negras, and the towns of Allende, Morelos, Nava, Villa Unión, and Zaragoza. Rivas claims that in less than two years, her group has managed to find around eighty of those disappeared. Some were found dead. Others were tracked down to police stations, army bases, and prisons where they were found alive, but tortured and beaten by government officials.

Rivas Rodriguez’ son Víctor was taken from his house while his wife and children watched. The kidnappers were members of Coahuila’s elite SWAT team (Special Weapons and Tactics Group-GATE), which was formed in 2009. When Rivas went to the GATE’s headquarters in Piedras Negras, she was received by one of the men who participated in the disappearance of her son. She managed to catch a glimpse of Víctor in one of their vehicles, but has never heard anything since.

“I know, we all know, it’s an open secret what is happening in Coahuila,” said Rivas in an interview in Mexico City, and it has to do with the SWAT team operating in the state. The GATEs “are a group that the governor allowed to operate in Coahuila, to increase security, he said. But in reality, what they’re doing is disappearing. They are the criminals, because it is them who took my son, all of our disappeared, the majority, were taken by [the GATEs]. It is the authorities, that’s what is happening in Coahuila.” (more…)

Texas Denies US Born Babies Birth Certificates

Posted in Uncategorized by dawn on 28/07/2015

Here’s a piece I did for teleSUR English on recent events regarding the legal status of babies born to undocumented parents in Texas.

Texas Denies US Born Babies Birth Certificates

July 25, 2015

Ever Duarte’s youngest daughter was born in McAllen, Texas, on December 11, 2014, the last of three children in the Duarte family. Duarte, who is from Reynosa, Mexico, just across the border from the city of McAllen, has lived on the U.S. side of the border for over 10 years. He and his partner are both undocumented, but until the birth of their third child, they had sought – and received – Texas birth certificates for their children, who are also U.S. citizens.

“It has been seven months since she was born, in December, and they continue to deny us the birth certificate,” said Duarte in a phone interview from McAllen. His other two children were issued birth certificates when both parents presented their Mexican passports and what is called a Matricula Consular, an identity document issued by Mexican consulates. “We feel that we’re being discriminated against, we need her birth certificate, we want to baptize her and in the parish they require the birth certificate, and she’ll need it in the future, for her vaccines and to go to school,” said Duarte.

Duarte said they have gone four times to request their baby daughter’s birth certificate, and that the city and county officials issuing the documents told them the order not to accept matriculas came from Austin, the Texas state capital. Like others, the family was told the child could return when she is 18 years old to collect her birth certificate. It was media reports that first alerted Duarte to the fact that his family wasn’t the only one facing this situation.

The Duartes are among a dozen of families joining a lawsuit with over 40 plaintiffs, which was filedJune 11 in a Federal District Court in West Texas.

“We had reports of people being denied birth certificates in 2013, but then it really started picking up in late 2014, and then early this year,” said Efrén Olivares, an attorney with the South Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing the parents. “I don’t know what caused that, but the timing coincides with the flood of Central American immigrants and refugees last summer, and then with the the President’s announcement of executive action, and specifically DAPA [Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents], in November of last year.”

DAPA would prevent Homeland Security from deporting parents of Americans, though it’s implementation is being blocked by a separate Texas court order.

Before the reports of undocumented families being denied birth certificates were sporadic and people were having problems but they were not being turned away for good, according to Olivares. But now city and county officials are turning parents away for good, affecting dozens if not hundreds of youth and children. (more…)

Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, Apatzingán: State Terror in Mexico

Posted in Mexico by dawn on 15/05/2015

Dear friends,

Here’s a recent piece I did about events in Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, Apatzingán and what they might mean in the context of the War on Drugs in Mexico.

Tlatlaya, Ayotzinapa, Apatzingán: State Terror in Mexico
Dawn Paley, Warscapes
May 13, 2015

The first attack came at 2:30am on January 6, 2015. Federal Police opened fire on members of the Fuerzas Rurales, who were protesting in the central square of Apatzingán, in Michoacán. The Fuerzas Rurales were born of the co-optation of part of the autodefensa movement, the armed uprising in rural Michoacan that caught the world’s attention last January. The men were protesting the fact that they hadn’t been paid.

According to a report by journalist Laura Castellanos, eyewitnesses heard a shout from the Federal Police before they opened fire: “Kill them like dogs.” An unknown number of people were killed, some with their hands up, down on their knees.

Six hours later Federal Police attacked again just down the street from City Hall, this time opening fire on trucks carrying members of the Fuerzas Rurales and their families.

An anonymously posted YouTube video shows the carnage. One man in a red-striped shirt lays face-up on the road. A pool of blood connects him with two other men. He moves his left arm as if scratching his head. The other two lay completely still. All three are on the driver’s side of a bullet-ridden white pick-up. Behind the truck lay two other men, one on his stomach, the other on his back.

Between the two attacks that day, at least sixteen people were murdered by Federal Police in Apatzingán. Dozens more were injured. In a macabre twist, two of the wounded men were dumped on the sidewalk in front of a hospital by bystanders who rescued them. Neither has been seen since.

The official version of events claimed that there were nine deaths in total, and that the killings resulted from “friendly fire” or “crossfire” between Fuerzas Rurales and police. That version held nationally for over three months, until Castellanos released her investigative piece in late April which blew through the government’s line.

Events in Apatzingán mark the third time since last June that federal forces in Mexico are known to have participated in massacres and mass disappearances. (more…)

Obama’s Central American Rescue Plan Will Only Make Life There Worse

Posted in Guatemala, Honduras by dawn on 06/02/2015

This piece is a short explainer and critique on the recently announced Alliance for Prosperity in Central America, published yesterday with The New Republic.

February 5, 2015

When Americans began noticing a deluge of unaccompanied migrant children flooding to the U.S.-Mexico border, the immediate U.S. response was a stopgap. Youth were placed in shelters by the thousands, sometimes set up on military bases, which critics likened to detention centers and emergency hurricane shelters. Later, kids were placed with sponsors while their cases were processed.

Now, a longer-term response is taking shape. The Obama administration has recently jumped on board with the Alliance for Prosperity, a plan that touts development and peace for Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. It promises to address the violence that’s forcing children to flee in such Biblical numbers. Vice President Joe Biden’s op-ed in the New York Times last week confirmed that President Obama would ask Congress for $1 billion to fund the Alliance For Prosperity, a name that recalls JFK’s controversial Alliance for Progress. “Confronting these challenges,” Biden wrote, “requires nothing less than systemic change …”

But the essence of what the Alliance for Prosperity promises is that more of the samemore local spending on infrastructure to facilitate foreign investment, more corporate tax breaks and free trade zones and more regulatory harmonizationwill allow Central America to pull itself up by its bootstraps. And, yes, that outcome is as unlikely as it sounds. (more…)

A War against the “Last”

Posted in Uncategorized by dawn on 30/01/2015

Dear readers,

Happy new year! I share with you a new review of Drug War Capitalism, published on Counterpunch. I also just updated the site with some information on upcoming speaking events in Sacramento, McAllen, Texas, and Puerto Rico.

Hope to see you around!


A War Against the “Last” by ANDREW SMOLSKI, January 30, 2015

The false narrative read regularly by a “reporter” follows a popularized representation; the poor, typically minorities, are users and dealers who create the necessity for government intervention in their lives. It is a narrative well within the boundaries of the dominant ideology, which upholds capitalists as representatives par excellence of morality, therefor negating police presence in their neighborhoods, except as property’s protectors. The pernicious false narrative is international, as is the drug war it cruelly justifies.

In Drug War Capitalism, Dawn Paley does not subscribe to such ideological fodder. Instead, she creates “a more useful framework through which we can make sense of the drug war south of the US-Mexico border”. She begins with the jugular, spilling reality all over us and tarnishing the capitalists’ white linens with the blood of every innocent brutally murdered for profit. Paley demonstrates that whether in Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras or the United States this drug war ideology and its real effects are only meant to instill fear in the naïve middle class and militarize life for neoliberal capital and extractivism. That is all it does. That is all it has ever done.

It is an assemblage for war against the oppressed in service to transnational capitalism and United States imperialism, and continue the accumulation through dispossession. It is then, as put succinctly by Dawn Paley, “a long-term fix to capitalism’s woes, combining terror with policymaking in a seasoned neoliberal mix, cracking open social worlds and territories once unavailable to globalized capitalism.” It is a premise already well understood by the “last” themselves.dwc-cvr-small_72web-e1419040310862

For instance, the first chapter opens with a story about a small town in Colombia, Santa Domingo, where the Colombian military has been bombing “cartel members”. The “cartel members” are really the indigenous campesinos who live around Santa Domingo. The residents of Santa Domingo perceive the bombings as part of a plot to get them off their land and let the oil companies come in. They know drilling is going on around them and that their land is valuable. Of course, the campesinos are right and the government nothing more than a puppet, or as Marx said, “nothing more than the form of organization which the bourgeois necessarily adopt…for the mutual guarantee of their property and interests.”

What Paley gives the reader then is something beyond the “objectivity” of the New York Times; she presents an analysis of interests, of what people will do when they follow the maxim “forget all but self” and have the institutional backing to do so. By understanding such a cruel, egotistical maxim as present within liberal capitalist institutions, no longer must we play the morality game capitalists would want us to play. For Paley the game is how capitalism overcomes its crisis by being brutal, by taking, by negating the very freedom it ideologically claims.

Current events represent this “necessary” violence for capitalist expansion in Mexico; Ayotzinapa (the book is dedicated to the 43 students) and Tlatlaya. These events only prove Human Rights Watch’s point (quoted in Paley’s book) that the drug war “had led to a dramatic increase in grave human rights violations committed by the security forces sent to confront them”. The human rights violations are part and parcel of a war against the “last” for the benefit of those who already possess too much.

Under Plan Merida, security forces are further militarized with weapons bought by the US. These weapons are purchased to support the US military-industrial complex and then given to the Mexican military. Paley points out that a counterpart to the increased militarization of the conflict is that the narcos become paramilitary organizations. Ayotzinapa demonstrates quite readily how the narcos are put at the service of government, sicarios paid to kill whomever is deemed a “threat” by those who have formal institutional power.

Echoing Paley, Proceso and La Jornada have long put forward the hypothesis that the government picks cartels to support, and even further utilizes them to their advantage. For example, Los Zetas were stopped because they were too savage and unwilling to be act in service to the real centers of power. All the while, the Sinaloa Cartel was consolidating territory further, even if there was the spectacle of El Chapo’s arrest. Furthermore, Anabel Hernandez, author of Los Señores del Narco and referenced in Paley’s book, points out that high level government officials participated actively in the drug trade. Of course, they are not prosecuted for such connections. The law, as Marx wrote long ago, is there to allow the “ruling class assert their common interest”, and thus protects even the most vicious of them.

Going beyond those protections for the ruling class, Paley shows how alterations to legal frameworks in Central and South America have further enabled both the drug war and capital’s expansion. These frameworks have been altered following trade agreements, such as NAFTA, which destroyed traditional economic activity, thus making drug cultivation a viable activity and creating a necessary labor pool for drug traffickers. Marx’s reserve army is thus diverted to illegal economic activity, which doesn’t affect wages in the social whole, and therefor acts as a self-flagellating release valve for worker anomie.

The only thing unaccounted for by Paley is something recognized in The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende. For Paley the elites, and all the players, they seem all too perfect and too able to control the situation. Rather, many of them are like Esteban Trueba, a conservative who unleashes fascism and then loses his power as well. Many Mexican politicians are of this sort, unleashing black magic they can’t control and eventually consumes them. Paco Ignacio Taibo II said it best (paraphrasing) that Calderon was a special kind of dumbass for taking corrupt police to a corrupt fight for a corrupt system.

Even accounting for that, what Paley gives us, without ideological fantasy, are the mechanisms by which “the drug war advances the interests of neoliberal capitalism: through the imposition of rule of law and policy changes, through formal militarization, and through the paramilitarization that results.” Thus, the brilliance of Dawn Paley’s book is in revealing the concoction, the poisonous potion said to make us safe, but always instead increasing our insecurity. By doing so, she disabuses us of the narratives meant to justify the unjustifiable. The drug war can’t bring safety, because the drug war is not a war against narcos, cartels or drug dealers. The drug war unleashes violence as a way to crush dissent and increase economic opportunity for certain powerful actors.

Simply put, we all die, so that capital can survive.

Andrew Smolski is a writer.