Skip to content Skip to footer

Dawn Paley: Drug War a Pretense to Expand Transnational Capitalism Southward

Author Dawn Paley offers a transformative view of the US war on drugs in the Western Hemisphere.

Dawn Paley (Photo: Caelie Frampton)

In a sweeping and thoroughly researched analysis, Canadian journalist Dawn Paley debunks the alleged war on drugs south of the US border. Paley exposes it is a pretext for extending US militarization to, and control of, nations to enhance transnational business opportunities and to prevent populist uprisings. It isn’t a war to improve civil society and prevent drug trafficking; it is a violence-centered policy to broaden the reach of global capitalism. Get the book “Drug War Capitalism” now from Truthout.

Dawn Paley, a Canadian journalist, offers a transformative view of the US war on drugs in the Western Hemisphere (with the exclusion of Canada as a targeted nation because it is a neoliberal partner of the United States in exploitation). Her just-released book, Drug War Capitalism, is a sweeping, exhaustively detailed analysis that reveals the insidious actual goals of the US-led and funded militarization south of the border in the name of destroying drug cartels. As Paley writes, “This war is about control over territory and society [and market share, cheap labor, mineral rights and profits], much more so than it is about cocaine or marijuana.”

The following is the Truthout interview with Dawn Paley about Drug War Capitalism:

Mark Karlin: You state the so-called war on drugs is really a war on people. This is a key point in your exhaustively documented and cogently threaded book. Can you expand on that – and of course you are talking about a certain class and background of person: the indigenous and the poor south of the US Border?

Dawn Paley: There is excellent work being done in the US examining and resisting the impacts of the drug war, specifically when it comes to the mass incarceration of young people from communities of color on that pretext. Drug War Capitalism looks at how the drug war is deployed south of the US border, where the key mechanism for social control is the use of terror against the people/el pueblo/los pueblos. Some activists and writers use words like social cleansing to describe the impacts of drug war militarization and paramilitarization, and how both primarily target poor young men in urban and rural environments. The case of Ayotzinapa, with the disappearance of 43 students and the murder of three others (one of the disappeared students is now confirmed to have been murdered) by municipal police in Iguala, Guerrero, is just the latest example of how often the victims of the drug war come from marginalized – and often well organized – communities and groups.

In the US, many people have been turned into frightened puppets who support any action in the name of the war on terrorism, even when such military and police action has to do with the goal of expanding transnational business opportunities. How is this analogous to the use of the war on drugs as a cover for US military intervention in Mexico, Central America, Colombia and the rest of most of the Western Hemisphere, with the exclusion of Canada? After all, doesn’t the US benefit by having a state of violence among the poor and socially marginal people keep them from considering populist political rebellion in these nations?

I’d like to approach this question a little differently, and ask instead why it is that the hundreds of thousands of people who mobilized throughout the United States against the unjust war in Iraq were able to make the connection between US invasions and oil extraction, and why it has been so difficult for folks to mobilize and make the same connections to resource extraction and capitalism in the case of the US-backed war on drugs in Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere.

Once we can start to make the connections between US-backed war agendas in the form of Plan Colombia or the Merida Initiative and the expansion of capitalism in Mexico and Colombia, a lot of things begin to make sense. In the immediate term, the militarization and the paramilitarization stemming from these plans to sow terror and strengthen the state repressive apparatus, which, as we are well aware, works to protect transnational capital, like mining companies or oil companies.

Over the longer term, the structural reforms that go hand in hand with Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative deepen neoliberalism. With the privatization of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex), Mexico’s state oil company, for example, 70 percent of Mexico’s federal budget is at stake, something I argue could lead to a previously unknown level of austerity in Mexico. Already financially starved sectors like health and public education could be impacted, as could existing subsidies for transportation, basic goods and otherwise.

As the privatization of Pemex kicks in and the effects begin to be felt over the next decade, should people rise up in protest, the fact that police and military forces as well as nominally non-state armed actors were strengthened through the Merida Initiative will certainly come in handy in order to control dissent.

You bring up how narcotrafficking money laundering has been profitable for banks and even that the cash liquidity of such funds helped some large US banks survive the 2008 implosion of the economy. In addition, drug cartels invest a lot of their money – 85 percent of which you note is generated in the US, in the cocaine market – in legitimate businesses. Aren’t narcotraffickers often the shady cousins of neoliberal capitalists, who collaborate for mutual benefit at times?

I suppose you could say that, yes. The book doesn’t focus on the role of banks, as this is one of the areas of the drug war that has been extensively covered in the mainstream media. However, There’s a tendency towards showing images of Mexican traffickers with stacks of US dollars, but their proceeds represent a fraction of the overall cash generated because of prohibition. I think it’s important to point out that when we talk about the wealth generated by the drug trade it is essential to remember that the vast majority of that cash is generated in the United States and helps prop up the US economy in various ways.

Perhaps the linchpin to your investigative reporting is that the war on drugs is a cover, in many ways, for the expropriation of land for excavation and fossil fuel companies – as well as the creation of secure manufacturing, assembly and marketing environments for other international corporations. I know that specific alliances of corruption are often difficult to ascertain when it comes to the so-called war on drugs, but how do paramilitary groups (sometimes drug cartels), the military and the police play a role in securing land and providing security for transnational corporations. As you point out, large corporations and their employees are rarely victims of violence in the nations that have been targeted for drug war capitalism.

Colombia provides us with the strongest examples of this: paramilitaries hired to kill union organizers, or companies like BP and Drummond using paramilitaries to ensure they had access to lands for mining and pipeline building. These cases are extensively documented by court cases which have led to settlements for victims.

In a place like Ciudad Juarez we see how, for example, it is workers and their families who are terrorized by the drug war, and especially by state forces, while police go to great extents to protect the US-based owners of manufacturing plants when they visit the city. In the book I document how communal landowners dedicated to protecting their land from resource extraction are threatened by Federal Police deployed in the name of fighting the war on drugs, or how they are murdered by so called cartel hitmen, who I consider to be more akin to paramilitaries. And this is just the beginning. Unfortunately these trends are likely to become more obvious in Mexico, as they did in Colombia, as time goes on.

What role did NAFTA and other trade agreements play in having laid the groundwork for killing, kidnapping and displacing people to seize land for excavation and fossil fuel development? As a further note, you are a Canadian, and Canadian mining companies appear to play a large role in land seizures, hiring of enforcers (in many cases assassins and torturers), and cooperation with corrupt governments, police and even drug cartels. Is it safe to assume that this is with the full support of the Harper government?

Well, in Colombia it was actually Plan Colombia that paved the way for the Canada-Colombia Free Trade Agreement and the US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement. They didn’t advertise it at the time, but following Plan Colombia it was made clear by officials from both the US and Colombia that though the flow of drugs wasn’t reduced, Plan Colombia was a success because it created the conditions for the implementation of these new free trade agreements.

In some ways NAFTA, which became active in January 1994, happened too soon. Let me explain: While NAFTA went a long way towards destroying local economies especially in rural areas and impoverishing small farmers, by 2008 when the Merida Initiative kicked off, it left much to be desired in terms of how open the Mexican economy actually was to transnational capital. At that time, the Mexican government continued to be the full owner of the Federal Electricity Commission and the national oil company, Pemex.

Communal landowners were refusing to enter into privatization schemes made possible when Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution was changed prior to the signing of NAFTA in 1992. Elite Mexican families took control over certain sectors of the economy that were privatized, as NAFTA era privatizations did not include regulations that meant that US bidders would be considered on equal footing with national bidders. All of these elements, among others, meant that Mexico was ripe for a new round of neoliberalism and austerity that would open new areas for investment. That’s part of what the Merida Initiative has provided a platform to do.

NAFTA was a key ingredient in opening up Mexico’s mining sector. Large scale, modern mining, especially gold mining, provides us with a bit of a preview of the kinds of conflicts that could erupt if widespread private sector oil and gas exploration and exploitation goes ahead in Mexico. Gold mining in Mexico is dominated by companies based in Canada, which gives them a litany of financial as well as diplomatic and legal supports for their activities. In the book, I document cases where these Canadian mining companies take advantage of the conditions created by the Merida Initiative in order to push their projects forward.

It appears ironic that the free trade treaties squeeze out small business people and entrepreneurs, benefitting almost exclusively the large multinational corporations. After all, the promoters of the treaties claim that they stimulate the business environment for everyone. You provide evidence, however, on why that is just a sales point for free trade agreements, but hardly the reality.

Free trade agreements decimate local economies and small businesses. They allowed the US and other nations to dump their subsidized agricultural products, like corn, into a diverse national market that included many small holders, as in Mexico, who operate with very few subsidies. There are social classes that benefit greatly from these kinds of agreements, but they are the minority, in the US as well as in target countries like Mexico. Rendering small farms and family businesses unprofitable is more than an economic issue: It is a root cause of forced migration, of displacement, and in the destruction of social and community fabric. This, in turn, is beneficial in terms of increasing state and corporate control over peoples’ lives and lands.

You provide a good deal of clarity on how Plan Colombia was the model for the Mérida Initiative in Mexico. What was the real priority of Plan Colombia in terms of creating a nation that is structured to provide an accommodating and secure environment for transnational businesses?

I believe the real priority of Plan Colombia was just that: improving the conditions for investment throughout the country. Officially this takes a couple of forms, including regulatory and judicial reforms and the extension of police forces and soldiers throughout the national territory. Off the books, it is known that paramilitary groups work closely with police and soldiers throughout the country, and that this tends towards benefiting the activities of transnational companies.

One of the implications of the US working to graft its legal model on nations south of the border is that it appears likely to increase prison populations. Given that the United States has the highest percentage of its population incarcerated, that is an ominous portent, isn’t it?

It is indeed. The Merida Initiative also included funds for building and expanding Mexico’s prison facilities and training Mexican prison guards in the ways of US jailers.

That brings us back to the first question. Who is responsible for the social cleansing that is a significant component of the violence associated with the alleged war on drugs? Who gains from killing “disposable people”?

There are cases where we can talk about individuals responsible for killings, but the approach I take in the book is to try and present what I argue are structural elements which allow this kind of killing and terror to take place. Certainly US-funded militarization is a key component. There’s the media and the government, which blame victims for their own deaths by linking them with drug trafficking. Then there is the impunity, the fact that those responsible for criminal acts not only get away with their crimes, but that various levels of government are actively involved and thus also cover their tracks. That impunity exists at a national level in Mexico and elsewhere, but it is allowed to thrive because it is backed by the US State Department, which boasts that it has had closer relations with the Mexican government since the beginning of the Merida Initiative than at any previous juncture.

One of your key points is that the US State Department basically concedes that the flow of drugs into the US will never really significantly diminish. However, as you point out, by constantly militarizing nations south of the border, the US is able to – through its Northern and Soutern Commands – gain large footholds in the militaries, police, paramilitaries (who not infrequently are at the service of global corporations) and even drug cartels that can cooperate to favor US financial interests. In that sense, we are really talking about drug war capitalism, aren’t we?

We are! I hope folks will be inspired to pick up Drug War Capitalism and explore these issues. In the conclusion, I write that I consider the book to be an early attempt to articulate and make visible connections between the war on drugs and the expansion of capital. Sadly, as recent events in Ayotzinapa, Guerrero and Tlatlaya, Mexico State, have shown, it is likely to become increasingly obvious that the drug war is in fact a war on the people, waged in large part by US-backed state forces.