In institutions, states and nations there is often a mechanical need for a villain. Like almost nothing else, the scapegoated villain or alleged threat can be used to mobilize people around a common cause. Over time, the denigration of such apparitions – who are usually too distant, foreign or alienated to defend themselves – becomes the repetitive waltz of an empire on the edge. This repeatedly staged fiasco has played out in an array of policy debacles both foreign and domestic. The “war on terror” and the “war on drugs” are two examples of this phenomenon. Most recently, the arrest of Sinaloa cartel boss Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as “El Chapo,” illustrated how the early stages of this cycle unfold and foreshadow what will happen next.
From the time President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971 up to now, the effects of drug-related laws, policies and law enforcement practices across the United States have been utterly devastating. This regressive era elevated punishment as the primary solution to an ongoing problem. By the time Ronald Reagan took office through the 1980s and into the 1990s prison populations soared. Thanks to nonviolent drug offenses and racially coded conservative crackdowns, the communities most affected by drugs were also the most devastated by the so-called efforts to alleviate the problem.
The parallels here to the war on terror are almost uncanny. President George W. Bush would declare the war on terror shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. Like the war on drugs, this war continues. It’s newer, fresher and yet somehow just as stale. Since the declaration of this campaign, the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and other areas of the world have been catastrophic. Again, the people who were supposed to be liberated have quite regularly been the most devastated by this war. Physicians for Social Responsibility’s 2015 report, “Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of the ‘War on Terror,'” concluded that at least 1.3 million lives were lost in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan alone since September 11, 2001. It went even further to call this a “conservative estimate,” stating that “a figure below 1 million is extremely unlikely.”
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Slippery villains are entertaining and alluring, not to mention politically useful.
Bodies don’t pile up on their own. Public sentiments, funding and the desire to increase capital all drive the ventures of oligarchs and the politicians they carry in their pockets like pens. Here they write new histories and sign off on new futures with the help of a more than willing mainstream media. And for much of the public, there’s often something thrilling about the chase. Slippery villains are entertaining and alluring, not to mention politically useful. US military and political leaders used Saddam Hussein to justify the war in Iraq and Osama bin Laden to justify the war in Afghanistan, just as they are now seeking to use the recent capture of El Chapo and the similar hunt for his villainous predecessor, Medellín cartel boss Pablo Escobar, to justify their regressive foreign policy in South and Central America. The world these villains benefit from is one that the regularity of dangerous Western state policies creates, consumes and yearns for.
Actor Sean Penn’s interview with El Chapo, which some officials have said helped lead to his capture, took the nation by storm recently when it was published by Rolling Stone. Yet again, people were fascinated with this mysterious cartel icon who had escaped from prison for a second time only months earlier. Ironically, this is also the second time El Chapo has been detained when he has come into close proximity or contact with journalists. A documentary was released in 2014 showing how two filmmakers set out to interview him and he was detained before they could fully secure their interview. But the show goes on. Charlie Rose wants an interview with Sean Penn and the shirt El Chapo was wearing in the images from his interview is now in high demand.
It should be distressing to the enthralled populations watching this worldwide that the US Drug Enforcement Administration had knowledge of El Chapo’s escape plots prior to his escape. But such stories like that are not as entertaining. El Chapo is a product of US necessity in many ways. The US – the country that consumes the majority of the toxic products he peddles – is addicted to blaming the victims who are fleeing the effects of its own population’s habits.
In the midst of the raging war on drugs that has taken place across the nation, many people have fled South and Central America. Upon their arrival here they have been met with vitriolic rejection and chastisement, regularly for seeking asylum from this very drug war. The hateful trend is rooted in the language of illegality and resurfaces in the mouths of politicians like Donald Trump who infamously said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
Trump’s approval in the polls rose significantly after his racist comment. After all, if Washington had any problem with his words, it was only the bluntness they carry, not with the underlying sentiment behind them. This Democratic administration’s record number of deportations and the raids that are currently taking place have been laced with a rhetoric about combating crime. President Obama had previously stated that his administration would reduce its deportation of nonviolent offenders and go after “criminals, gang bangers, people who are hurting the community, not after students, not after folks who are here just because they’re trying to figure out how to feed their families.” Now, here we are in early 2016 hearing that immigration authorities are raiding refugee families. The inconsistency is harrowing and blatant.
The very people fleeing the violence created by US foreign policy throughout South and Central America and the Caribbean are the same people who are labeled as unworthy of asylum. We can see an almost identical hypocrisy in the way that the very people who are fleeing terror around the world are blatantly rejected by most Western countries as potential terrorists themselves. The war on drugs and the war on terror share a similar line of thinking, which holds that the problems that the Western world creates throughout the global South are not the West’s problem, and the people fleeing those problems will receive no solace from them.
The West has destroyed the economies and vibrant communities of many countries and regions throughout the world with its foreign policy. In the midst of this destruction, thousands have lost their lives. Mexico is a prime example of this phenomenon. According to PBS’s “Frontline,” “Between 2007 and 2014 – a period that accounts for some of the bloodiest years of [Mexico’s] war against the drug cartels – more than 164,000 people were victims of homicide.” These deaths are directly linked to the ever-growing market for drugs in the United States, but there is no accountability. There is only punishment and blame.
It should be apparent that any trial of El Chapo will be nothing more than a spectacle. It will be a circus just like the trial of Saddam Hussein. It will be filled with mythology and rumor just like the murders of Osama bin Laden and Pablo Escobar. There will be no real introspection on behalf of the state. The war on terror and the war on drugs are intricately conjoined by the impetuousness and carelessness of those who orchestrate them, and by the disaster they leave in their wake. The villains who have risen to the forefront of our imaginations are only fractions of a problem much larger than the shadows cast by these bit players. As a result, the Western world’s use of high-profile scapegoats – whether they are drug lords like El Chapo or terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden – is almost always a detour on the road to the truth.