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How the Militarized War on Drugs in Latin America Benefits Transnational Corporations and Undermines Democracy

A fountain in Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, just before the international bridge that leads to the United States. (Photo: Mark Karlin)

Part of the Series

This is the tenth and final article in the Truthout on the Mexican Border series by Mark Karlin, editor of BuzzFlash at Truthout. Together, the ten Truthout installments form a paradigm-shifting insight into the unstated US policy goals in Mexico – and their untoward impact. Looking at the US relationship with Mexico provides insights into the government’s Latin American policies as a whole. You can find links to the previous coverage at the end of this article.

Is the So-Called War on Drugs in Mexico and Latin America Being Used to Advance US Military and Economic Interests?

In an article that explored myths about the war on illegal narcotics, “Drug War Capitalism,” Canadian journalist Dawn Paley dispels the notion that nearly a trillion dollars spent on eradicating illegal drug trafficking (since Richard Nixon’s administration) has shown any serious success.

Paley noted, “In the 11 years since Plan Colombia was launched [for example], the US government has spent over $3.6 billion on narcotics and law enforcement initiatives. Yet the US government reports that ‘Colombia remains one of the world’s largest producers and exporters of cocaine, as well as a source country for heroin and marijuana.'” Indeed, Paley cited a 2008 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report that found the “estimated flow of cocaine towards the United States from South America rising from 2000-2006.”

As Truthout pointed out in “The US War on Drug Cartels in Mexico Is a Deadly Failure,” the attempt to curtail trafficking in narcotics “in many of the southern nations of the Western Hemisphere is basically a bloody game of whack-a-mole…. There is no measurable indicator that the supply of illicit drugs into the United States is decreasing as a result. So, there is no end game here.”

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian, professor of international relations at the Universidad de Di Tella, Argentina, substantiated this failure in an article, “Beating the Drug-War Addiction“: “Indeed, USSOUTHCOM [United States Southern Command, headquartered in Miami, which oversees the US military in Latin America] has controlled 75% of the more than $12 billion that the US government has allocated to anti-drug activities in Latin America and the Caribbean since 2000. But, despite this expensive military campaign, all evidence shows that the ‘war on drugs’ has been a fiasco.”

The Truthout on the Mexican Border series has noted that more than 50,000 persons have been killed since the outgoing Mexican President, Felipe Calderón, launched the escalation of law enforcement and military attacks on drug cartels in 2006, at the behest of the United States. But most of those murdered and injured are widely considered civilian collateral damage, as are the minimum of 10,000 missing persons and the more than 180,000 (primarily indigenous) Mexicans displaced by the conflict.

As a result of this record of destruction left in the wake of the US-declared war on drugs, Paley speculated that there may be other unstated goals at work, particularly US military hegemony through surrogate armies (and paramilitary forces) in Latin America that help facilitate economic “free trade” expansion for transnational corporations.

As Paley concluded in her detailed article:

Precedents in Colombia and ongoing events elsewhere suggest possible areas for deepening the research in order to better ascertain to what extent Mexico and Central America are being subjected to a model whereby as David Maher and Andrew Thomson report, paramilitary terror ” … continues to be instrumental in the creation and maintenance of conditions, such as low labor costs and access to land, which are conducive to the expansion of the neo-liberal program …”

Increased study and research of the new economic policies encouraged through US anti-narcotics policy could help reveal the full extent of the economic transformation that has been initiated in Mexico and Central America….

Without a better understanding, discussions about the war in Mexico could remain contained within the rhetoric of drug prohibition versus liberalization. This kind of debate is wholly inaccurate as a means of denouncing and mobilizing resistance to a “war on drugs” that may be better understood as being about increased social and territorial control over lands and people, in the interest of capitalist expansion.

In short, are US taxpayers funding a losing war on drugs to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars as a means of expanding military influence and increasing political dominance over as many governments south of the border as possible – with the deliverable result of creating increased business opportunities for global companies based in the US?

Hemispheric Expansion of Transnational Corporations Is Dependent Upon Pro-“Free Trade” Governments in Latin America

With the election of more leftist governments in many South American nations since many of the military dictatorships and right-wing governments supported by the US have fallen, the State Department and Pentagon have become particularly concerned about using the military and intelligence services to increase US influence over Latin American armies as a counteracting measure. This had long been a key hemispheric goal, maintained to a certain degree by the training of key Latin American military officers at the infamous School of the Americas (now renamed the euphemistic Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation: WHINSEC).

As Walmart has expanded into the largest retailer in Mexico (in fact in Latin America) and the biggest private-sector employer in that nation, the US military and intelligence services have expanded their presence in training and on-the-ground “support” teams south of the border. Not only are we sending drones over Mexico, we have embedded our military as “advisers” there through the Mérida Initiative (not to mention the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)), which is based on Plan Colombia (the US militarization and economic initiative in that nation). Now, we are even considering sending military “cultural” officers (also known as “human terrain experts“) beyond the great border wall to our south.

Canada Joins the US in War on Drugs That Provides Cover for Transnational Expansion in Latin America

Ratcheting up military and intelligence agency involvement is not limited to the US in North America. Canada, which has a heavy contingent of mining companies extracting natural resources in Latin America, is also playing a role in shaping the military and law enforcement structures in Mexico and Latin America.

According to the Canadian Internet site The Dominion:

“The Royal Canadian Mounted Police[RCMP], along with trainers from the United States and other international partners, are providing basic training to Mexican Federal Police recruits,” said [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper during a stop in Guadalajara in 2009. In addition to training 1,500 low-level Federales, the RCMP trained 300 mid-level Mexican officers and 32 Mexican police commanders received training at the Canadian Police College….

By late 2011, US funding had been used to “train over 55,000 law enforcement and justice sector officials, including 7,200 Federal police officers,” according to the US State Department.

The New York Times reported that this training involved “conducting wiretaps, running informants and interrogating suspects.”

Indeed, an essay in Al Jazeera provided background on the growing surveillance aid that the US is providing to pro-US Latin American governments. In an article entitled, “How the US fuels Latin America’s surveillance technology: The US war on drugs often bolsters anti-democratic forces abroad,” the commentary stated that “in executing its wars on terror and drugs, the United States has been aiding the adoption of surveillance technologies in Latin America for decades.”

Increased surveillance capabilities in Mexico and Latin America make for the ability of central governments to better control their nations, thus offering a more secure political environment for transnational corporations.

Global Corporations Prosper in Mexico in the Midst of Drug War Bloodshed

Paley argued that in spite of the bloody upheaval the last six years of the war on drugs has caused, it actually has coincided with a more stable environment for global corporations in Mexico. She described how transnational corporations and their workers are given special security forces to protect them amid the macabre violence, but she made a more significant point concerning the “shock doctrine value” of the war on drugs in advancing large corporate interests:

Even more important is another kind of security transnational corporations need. As the director of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean underscored, “What is important for an investor in regards to security has to do with legal security and country risk.”

This notion of “security” calls up the Colombia model: paramilitarization in the service of capital. This model includes the formation of paramilitary death squads, the displacement of civilian populations and an increase in violence. In the commercial sector, it is workers, small businesses and a sector of the local elite who are hit hardest by drug war policies.

Though these non-official aspects of the war on drugs are sometimes presented as damaging or threatening foreign direct investment, in fact it is violence that controls workers and displaces land-based communities from territories of interest to transnational corporate expansion.

Paley contended that just as paramilitary forces have aided US interests in serving as an adjunct to US-affiliated Central American military forces – most notably during the Reagan and George Herbert Walker Bush administrations, but also before and after this period – they are now a permanent part of protecting the interests of corporations setting up shop in Latin America as a result of NAFTA, CAFTA, and other free-trade agreements.

This includes the contracted killing of union organizers and the clearing of indigenous populations on land coveted by companies or natural resource extraction businesses. Paley listed Chiquita Brands, Drummond (mining) Company and British Petroleum among those likely involved in such activities in Colombia, for example (Chiquita pled guilty to such a charge in 2007 in a DC court) – not to mention Coca-Cola.

Indeed, according to Strafor Global Intelligence, incoming Mexican President Peña Nieto, has “expressed a desire to create a new national gendarmerie, or paramilitary police force, to use in place of the Mexican army and Marine troops currently deployed to combat the heavily armed criminal cartels in Mexico’s most violent hot spots. According to Peña Nieto, the new gendarmerie force would comprise some 40,000 agents.”

Government law enforcement and the military, as well as paramilitary organizations play a role, according to David Bacon, in protecting the interests of the ruling elite, who benefit and promote foreign investment at the cost of violating labor and environmental rights, as well as exploiting indigenous populations:

For over two decades in many parts of Mexico, large corporations – mostly foreign owned but usually with wealthy Mexican partners – have developed huge projects in rural areas. Called mega-projects, the mines and resource extraction efforts take advantage of economic reforms and trade treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Emphasizing foreign investment, even at the cost of environmental destruction and the displacement of people, has been the development policy of Mexican administrations since the 1970s….

But while these projects enjoy official patronage at the top, they almost invariably incite local opposition over threatened or actual environmental disaster. Environmental destruction, along with accompanying economic changes, causes the displacement of people. Families in communities affected by the impacts are uprooted and often begin to migrate.

Upheaval caused by the war on drugs facilitates the seizing of lands owned by indigenous populations.

The South American Trading Block Mercosur and Leftist Alliance ALBA Cause Increased US Military and Intelligence Agency Concern Over the Southern Hemisphere

On July 31, 2012, according to The New York Times, the South American trading alliance Mercosur admitted Venezuela after a long contentious delay. Meanwhile, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) continues to build a coalition of leftist governments in South America and the Caribbean. In response to this climate, the US is building more bases in South America, using the drug war as an excuse according to an article reposted in Truthout.

Representative of what gives deep capitalist anxiety to Washington, DC, and Ottawa is the Bolivian government’s decision to nationalize mines owned by the transnational corporation Glencore: “On June 22, the Bolivian government seized the company’s Colquiri tin and zinc mine, south of the capital city of La Paz. Colquiri was the third Glencore operation to be nationalized by Bolivia in the last five years.”

That is an example of why the US was quick to accept the “soft coup” impeachment (accomplished within 24 hours) of the populist President of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo. According to journalist Ben Dangl, the new pro-US government is open for business to transnational corporations including the allegedly environmentally unfriendly and exploitative Montreal-based mining company, Rio Tinto Alcan, and Monsanto, in a nation heavily dependent on soy and cotton crops that Monsanto will now likely be able to monopolize. This is music to the ears of the free-trade proponents in the US and Canada, the war on drugs be damned.

That is also why Honduras is now back to functioning as a de facto military dictatorship – death squads, increased murders, journalists missing and land reform halted – after the United States sanctioned a coup of democratically elected President Mel Zelaya three years ago. All Washington and Canada need to know is that Honduras is now welcoming multinational companies – few questions asked – and that land reform has been stopped. The US DEA, in its lead agency role in the war on drugs, is also down there, recently shooting four civilians to death.

The Fine Line Between Drug Traffickers and Paramilitary Forces

That the CIA is on the ground bolstering nations south of the border (with pro-US economic policies) goes without question. They have a long history of working with drug kingpins and cartels in Latin America when it meets their needs, as was noted in a previous Truthout installment. The CIA also has a belief that the US national interest trumps democracy. An interesting passage in the Truthout on the Mexican Border installment cited above speaks volumes about US policy toward Mexico and Latin America:

In a 2007 documentary, “The War on Democracy,” by British, leftist, political commentator John Pilger, he explores the exploitative and deadly anti-democracy efforts to ensure that Latin America stays in the hands of the ruling classes and open to American business and the extraction of natural resources south of our border.

Toward the end of a recounting of the US backing of juntas and keeping tin horn dictators on a short leash, Pilger interviewed Duane Claridge, CIA chief for Latin America from 1981 to 1984 – during a high point of the Central American and Southern Cone nations’ reign of terror and death. In a remarkably pugnacious and blunt series of responses, Claridge vociferously asserted that he didn’t give a hoot about whether a country was a democracy. All that mattered was whether or not the Latin American nation was an obstacle to the “national security interest” of the US, although he didn’t define that term.

Here are some excerpts:

Pilger: Is it then okay to overthrow a democratically-elected government?

Claridge: It depends upon what your national security interests are.

Pilger: What right does the CIA and the US government have to do what you do in other countries?

Claridge: National security. We are going in to protect ourselves. We will intervene whenever we decide it is in our national interest to intervene and if you don’t like it, lump it. Get used to it world!

It is important to understand that our national interest is perhaps often perceived by the US government as preserving our economic status through the guarantee of open markets, cheap labor and natural resources.

In analyzing the war on drugs in Mexico, it is important to remember that drug traffickers without a political agenda are not nearly the perceived threat to the US that advocates for an uprising of the poor in Latin America are. In fact, as noted in an earlier installment in this series, drug cartel kingpins are generally illicit business men with which, when mutually beneficial, America’s intelligence agencies and companies (along with surrogates) can strike a deal. There are exceptions to this theory, however, including the stalled Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), which uses cocaine trafficking to fund its control of a large swath of Colombia’s territory. In addition, a drug lord such as Pablo Escobar or a drug trafficking capo such as former CIA favorite Manuel Noriega are targeted when they become too independent and threaten the US “national interest.”

The Zetas cartel, one of the warring factions in Mexico, was started by former members of an elite Mexican special forces military unit (which was created on the model of the infamous Guatemalen US backed and trained counter-insurgency troops, the Kaibiles). Paley argued that, in many ways, they are a paramilitary force that traffics in drugs. She also contended that they have likely proved useful to some large corporations in a number of ways when they function as a paramilitary force, based on the model that developed in Colombia.

Is the War on Drugs the New “Shock Doctrine” to Undermine Democracy and Promote Unfettered Capitalism in Latin America?

On March 24, 1980, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Óscar Romero, was assassinated while celebrating Mass. He was killed on the orders of right-wing paramilitary leader, killer and torturer Roberto D’Aubuisson. D’Aubuisson, who was responsible for death squads that killed thousands of people, most of them guilty of nothing more than being poor or indigenous, was lionized by members of the Reagan administration.

Romero began his short tenure as archbishop (appointed in 1977) as a conservative priest. After the murder of a fellow priest and friend by the death squads, he became a transformed advocate for the poor indigenous populations of El Salvador. Like other nuns and priests who were gunned down, he was guilty of nothing more than speaking out on behalf of those without power, land, education and sufficient food.

But to the right wing in the United States, the State Department and many in Congress, the man who ordered him killed was a hero.

This is an important incident to recall when evaluating the war on drugs. The vast majority of victims in this endless bloody show war are not those who traffic in drugs; they are the poor and the indigenous peoples. They are also any other individuals who might get in the way – knowingly or unknowingly – of corporations that benefit from free trade or persons who benefit from the trade in drugs. And in the case of Mexico — particulary over the last six years — the victims are also, to a great degree, those who obtruct, offend or inconvenience segments of the government, police, military and oligarchy who are corrupt and unscrupulous. (Mexico is undergoing, in many ways, a tumultuous transition from a predatory internal monopolistic capitalism to an economy more reliant on the outside financial predators of globalization.)

Is it an exaggeration to speculate that drug trafficking and exploitative globalized corporate practices formalized under free-trade agreements (grounded in a race to the bottom on labor costs and environmental degradation) are two sides of the same profiteering coin?

If you are not a member of the corporate, governmental (including soldiers and police), oligarichical or drug trafficking elite, you are generally expendable.

That’s the bottom line in the United States militarized war on drugs.

Previous installments in the Truthout on the Mexican Border Series Include:

“How the US Government, Banks, Prison-Industrial Complex, Corrupt Officials, Businesses, Law Enforcement, Racists and the CIA Profit From Illegal Drugs”

“The US War on Drug Cartels in Mexico Is a Deadly Failure”

“The Border Wall: The Last Stand at Making the US a White Gated Community”

“Murder Incorporated: Guns, the NRA and the Politics of Violence on the Mexican Border”

“A Poet’s Pain Launches a Peace Movement in Mexico”

“The School of the Americas, the CIA and the US-Condoned Cancer of Torture Continue to Spread in Latin America, Including Mexico”

“The 1% Connection: Mexico and the United States, Crony Capitalism and the Exploitation of Labor Through NAFTA”

“Who Is Killing the Journalists in Mexico?”

“Latina Leaders of Texas Colonias Help Remake Shantytowns Into Empowered Communities”

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