NACLA Roundtable on Drug War Capitalism
Few texts have more powerfully unraveled the political economy of the drug wars than Dawn Paley’s 2014 tour de force, Drug War Capitalism. With 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 arguments—which 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. What 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.
Part of the struggle for a better world is to make sense of the structures of violence and domination that are active all around us. My book, Drug War Capitalism, is meant as a contribution to that struggle. The argument of the book is, in a nutshell, that the war on drugs in Mexico, Central America, and South America is in fact a war on the people; that it is a U.S.backed, U.S.-funded war that supports Washington’s broader foreign policy objectives; and that this kind of war leads to the deployment of terror in ways that allow for the expansion of capital.
If there is one thing that is clear about the war on drugs in Mexico and elsewhere in Central and South America, it’s that confusion plays a key role. Confusion is a known outcome of terror; together with fear, it is a key part of what keeps people submissive. Pilar Calveiro, herself a survivor of an Argentine torture camp, writes in her book Violencias de Estado (State Violences) that an essential characteristic of terror is “that it is a diffuse and generalized threat, which doesn’t correspond to a comprehensible logic from the parameters in force at the moment of its application.” The discourse of the war on drugs is a spectacularly confusing facade that disguises what is in fact a war on the people. William I. Robinson, John Gibler, and Gladys Tzul Tzul, whose reflections on the book are included in this section, have all had a profound influence on my own ability to make sense of the world around me. It is a huge honor for me to have such committed colleagues read and reflect upon my work.
In building my own understanding of capitalism today, I lean on William I. Robinson’s books A Theory of Global Capitalism and Transnational Conflicts, which, though published in 2003, sets the scene for the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras. His work helped me to distinguish the transnational elite from national capitalists, the former being those positioned to benefit spectacularly from drug war violence. Robinson makes a persistent point of signaling how the “legal” economy requires the “illegal” underground economy in order to function, but he doesn’t stop there. He also insists that we consider just what it is that makes a “legal” economy legal—it may be state-sanctioned, but it certainly isn’t separate from processes of terror, dispossession, and violence that, although state-directed, are most certainly criminal. When it comes to the war on drugs, mainstream media and state discourse give weight to greedy drug barons and their stashes of dollars, leaving the legal economy out of the picture. The underground economy created by the enforcement of prohibition is not insignificant. But the UN Office on Drugs and Crime calculates that an estimated 85 percent of the proceeds of the cocaine market are made in the United States. Also, the underground economy is much smaller than the “legal” economy. According to a 2012 report by British think tank Chatham House, estimates for the proceeds from the sale of illegal narcotics from Mexico to the United States range from $6.2 billion USD to $29.5 billion USD per year, equivalent to less than one percent to just over three percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product.
U.S. journalist John Gibler’s work has been incredibly important, and his journalism continues to gain relevance, because he is not walking away from the difficult and dangerous work of documenting the devastation caused by the war on drugs in Mexico, and in Guerrero state in particular. His coverage (in Spanish and English) of the disappearance of the 43 Ayotzinapa students and the massacre in Iguala in September of 2014 has been among the best of any writer, and his book To Die in Mexico (2011) is a key resource on the war in Mexico. Gibler is a journalist through and through, but he doesn’t shy from theory: he asks that we consider that an immediate and devastating use of terror through “kidnapping, human trafficking, human smuggling and extortion” is in itself “a ‘new’ extractive industry of death,” which turns “human life and death into a commodity for extraction.”
The idea of the creation of an “extractive industry of death” complements the overall argument in Drug War Capitalism. It does, however, raise the question of how we can understand the many cases of disappearance where there is no extortion call and no ransom payout, and when nothing further is known about the disappeared person’s whereabouts.
Take the case of Ricardo Martínez, a 40-year-old father of three who was disappeared in Torreón, Coahuila, on May 10, 2010. “He said that in the afternoon he was going to buy a cake,” Martínez’s father, Ricardo Daniel Martínez, told me in an interview in January. “I don’t know if he did or not, because he also had to go to the bank and take out some money … I don’t know if it was when he left the bank or when he went to the supermarket to buy the cake,” the man’s father said. There was no ransom call, no eyewitness reports. “Nothing, nothing, nothing. That’s what really discourages me.” Like the case of Ricardo Martínez, there are thousands.
The second part of my reflection on Gibler’s notion of the “extractive industry of death” is the level of difficulty and danger involved in concretely researching and understanding this sphere of activity, which makes it near impossible to come to any solid understanding of its size and functioning. However, as with the drug trade, what we can investigate is how various parts of the Mexican state (and for that matter the U.S. state) organize themselves into and around these death markets. So for example, we can distinguish patterns of impunity: certain crimes, including disappearances, killings, and extortions against certain segments of the population in certain regions are permitted by state structures and often carried out with involvement by state security forces. For example, when Ricardo Daniel Martínez went to the local and state authorities to denounce the disappearance of his son, he was told that he was not allowed to make a complaint, and that he ought to be at home caring for his family. “There were many threats, everyone who was looking for their family members was threatened,” he said. “Anonymously, by phone, we were told not to go out looking for anyone.”
The “extractive industry of death” proposed by Gibler would not be possible without structural impunity, a guarantee provided by the Mexican government and reinforced by Washington. In some regions, the emergence of robust cash economies linked to extortion, disappearing, and killing may explain the intense growth of these phenomena, but I cannot help but see these economies as a smaller part of a much larger schema. Coming back to the arguments in Drug War Capitalism, in order to occur in a structural, massive manner, extortion, disappearance, and killing must be functional to the broader foreign policy interests of the United States. In this way, the policing of northward migration (of Mexicans, Central Americans, and others) has been partially outsourced to paramilitary groups like Los Zetas with deadly consequences. The conversion of local economies through extortion of small businesses has favored transnational retailers, while terror in maquila towns can serve as form of discipline aimed at workers and their families, favoring transnational corporations. And the forced displacement of people via extortion, disappearance, and killing can lead to increased control of land by outside capitalists, who put it to a wide array of uses, ranging from shipping and airports to mining and fracking.
It is also important to note that youth are disproportionately impacted by the violence of the war on drugs. What is taking place is an expanded counterinsurgency in which young men and women are being targeted for elimination—at the same time that austerity policies, associated with the government’s ongoing privatization programs, are deepened. The vital energies of entire families (and in some areas, whole neighborhoods) are invested in the search for disappeared family members, which generally involves elaborate interfacing with and dependence upon certain agencies of the state. The expanded counterinsurgency at work in Mexico today is a model for social control that serves the interests of transnational elites in Mexico and the U.S., at a huge cost to society.
Finally, the contribution of Maya-K’iche’ scholar Gladys Tzul Tzul provides an update on an increasingly violent reality in the capital city of Guatemala, and the ongoing use of states of emergency by the federal government to justify militarization in the resourcerich areas of Central America. Tzul Tzul points out that the war on drugs may appear as a new form of war, but it represents a continuation of the same violence wrought upon the people of Guatemala since the internal conflict. Her work has been essential to growing my understanding of how resistance takes shape, what communal structures look like, and how they are produced through collective work, enjoyment, and systems of governance. In parts of Guatemala, these structures and systems have been so powerful that they have elicited genocide as the only state response capable of gaining full control over members of these communal structures. This is where we can see the continuation of violence mentioned by Tzul Tzul, as the communities that today organize and refuse to give their territories over for dams, for mining, for industrial agriculture, and for cement plants are the same ones targeted for militarization, often under the pretext of stopping the flow of narcotics.
Confusion reigns in the war on drugs in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia, and that is just how the powerful would like it. As the media tracks Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, Mexico is being structurally transformed, politically and socially. People throughout Mexico and Central America are terrorized by state and paramilitary forces, whose activities are strengthened by the war on drugs. There is little space amid the ongoing crises of fear, grief, and terror to connect the violence to economic and political factors. These wars are promoted from above, and militarization and violence stem from state forces and flow outward. We cannot lose sight of the fact that it is those who live in the countries with closest relations to the United States who are most likely to become the targets of drug war terror.
In this way, the war on drugs in Mexico, Central America, and South America is a twenty-first century reboot of the wars that pitted national militaries and police against communists and so-called “internal enemies” in the second half of the twentieth century— from Argentina all the way to Central America. Today, the drug war provides an updated formula to usher in systemic economic and political change and ensure social control through terror, all to the benefit of transnational capital.