Colombia: the spraying fields

Drugs war bad

With ever increasing numbers of desperate Latin American people fleeing for their lives, Daniel Lazare looks at those on the left who refuse to address the central problem

Why are half a million people fleeing Central America, while another 250,000 are internally displaced? If you are looking for an answer, Carol Reed’s glorious 1949 movie, The third man, is a good place to start.

It opens with a voice-over by Reed himself. Everyone knows how it goes:

I never knew the old Vienna before the war, with its Strauss music, its glamour and easy charm. Constantinople suited me better. I really got to know it in the classic period of the black market. We’d run anything if people wanted it enough, hmm, and had the money to pay. Of course, a situation like that does tempt amateurs, but, well, you know, they can’t stay the course like a professional.

Images of shady gangster types hawking boots, silk stockings and tins of coffee follow, along with a shot of a body floating face down in the Danube.

While coffee and stockings hardly seem worth killing someone over, the point was clear: black markets and violence are inextricably linked. The reason is obvious: there is no other way to resolve a business dispute in such a setting. When law courts are absent, only a knife or gun will do.

But now imagine that those same Viennese smugglers have come up with a magic device capable of shrinking boots and coffee cans to near-microscopic dimensions, so they can sneak thousands at a time past the cops. The result? Smuggling would explode. The more the cops tried to stop it, the wider it would spread, with all its attendant violence and gore.

If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine the nightmare that is now descending on Central America. Boots and coffee are inelastic, obviously, and cannot be compressed to a pinpoint. But drugs can, since they come in a number of varieties and can be rendered almost infinitely powerful. The result of all those super-concentrated, ultra-potent substances is thus The third man on steroids: a vast underground market, in which violence and profits have been raised to the nth degree - not in specific cities or neighbourhoods, but across the entire continent.

Hence all those thousands of desperate refugees from places like Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador - weak and impoverished states that have been turned topsy-turvy by the growth of the drug trade. Each one comes bearing horror tales of hyper-violent drug gangs pressing children as young as 10 into service as runners, informants or prostitutes. All this not despite the war on drugs, but because of it.

“Many people from northern Central America are literally running for their lives, as gangs target entire families, including children, forcing them to flee,” a Unicef official named Jean Gough said in December.1 Since then, US border ‘apprehensions’ have more than quadrupled to 172,000 a month - a 30% increase over the previous peak set in May 2019. The figure includes nearly 50,000 unaccompanied minors so far this year, many of whose parents walk them up to the border and then send them across on their own. Since the Americans cannot simply shove children back into crime-infested Mexican border towns, all they can do is hold them until a relative can be found in the US to take them in.

Where ordinary policing reduces crime like thievery and murder, drug policing excites it to new heights. Like someone scratching away at a rash, the effect is to turn a minor infection into a bloody wound.

Yet, while the perverse Alice-in-Wonderland economics of drug prohibition should be Topic A, as far as critics are concerned, they are actually something that a certain kind of left liberal finds difficult to discuss. Aviva Chomsky - the daughter of the famous linguist and a Latin American specialist at Salem State University in Massachusetts - recently managed the neat trick of skirting the subject almost entirely in an article in The Nation about the Biden administration’s emerging new Central American policy. Instead of drugs, Chomsky preferred to talk about how “the United States has been bullying (and funding) military and police forces to its south to enforce its immigration priorities”, by forcing them to stop refugees before they can even get close to the US.2 It is as if migration and militarisation have nothing to do with drug prohibition, when in fact they are closely entwined.

In an article about runaway violence in Guatemala, similarly the Monthly Review - the hoary old journal founded by left libs Paul Sweezy and Leo Huberman - managed to discuss racism, sexism, land tenure and the legacy of dictator José Efrain Rios Montt - everything and anything, that is, except drugs themselves.3 Naomi Klein also avoids the topic in The shock doctrine (2008), while in Drug war capitalism (2014) - an otherwise hard-hitting account of the war’s impact on Latin America - author Dawn Paley offers the curious argument that talk of decriminalisation “tends to obscure the militaristic nature of the war on drugs, keeping the drug war firmly within the realm of ideas, and avoiding a discussion of the war’s legitimacy”.4 This is like arguing that germ theory tends to obscure the real-life ravages of tuberculosis.


What are we to make of such blind spots? In Klein’s case, the problem seems clear enough: the drug war does not fit her model of a one-time shock that clears the way for free-market ‘reforms’, since it is a non-stop barrage that is designed to go on forever. There are no free markets at the conclusion of the process, because it is never-ending. As for the Monthly Review, drugs are apparently too risqué for such a staid publication, while, in Paley’s case, the idea that theory represents an escape from reality - the paralysis of analysis, as they say - reflects a long tradition of American anti-intellectualism. It also reflects the hope, however forlorn, that, if muckrakers lay out the horrors of the drug war in sufficient detail, then a light bulb will go on over society’s collective head and more logical policies will fall into place on their own.

But it never works, simply because the ruling class is impervious, as a quick glance at the US drug war will show.

Although its roots go back at least to the late 19th century, the drug war in its modern form can be precisely dated to September 21 1969. This was the day that Richard Nixon sent thousands of customs agents and border police to stop and search every vehicle crossing the 2,000-mile US-Mexican border. Despite monstrous traffic jams, Operation Intercept, as it was known, turned up little in terms of actual pot. But it had a major unintended consequence: it sent a clear and unmistakable message to traffickers that Mexican day labourers carrying paper bags filled with great handfuls of the stuff would no longer do. Instead, smugglers would have to switch to more sophisticated means of transport, such as high-speed boats and light planes.

Every action on the part of the anti-drug warriors thus bred an equal and opposite reaction on the part of a growing corps of narcotraficantes. When the US forced Mexico to spray marijuana fields in the 1970s with the defoliant known as paraquat, the effect was to shift production to Colombia’s La Guajira peninsula some 2,000 miles to the south - a transition brilliantly depicted in the 2018 Colombian movie Birds of passage. After the Americans ratcheted up interdiction even more, dealers then switched to cocaine - available in abundance in the nearby Andes - which had the advantage of being odourless, non-biodegradable and pricier to boot. Since traffickers could make more from a suitcase filled with coke than from an entire planeload of pot, they had no trouble figuring out which one was preferable.

Similar pressures led dealers to switch to heroin, methamphetamine and, finally, artificial opiates like fentanyl and its derivatives - which are not only cheaper than natural opiates, but, gram for gram, pack as much as 10,000 times the wallop.

The drug war thus ‘incentivised’ substances that were increasingly powerful and dangerous. It also incentivised violence. In Easy rider (1969), characters played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper finance a cross-country motorcycle trip by selling a few ounces of coke to a rich Hollywood type, played by the rock producer Phil Spector. The transaction is quick and trouble-free. But by the time Brian De Palma got around to directing Scarface (1983), the coke trade had become associated with crazed violence that made Al Capone of 1920s Chicago seem like a small-time hood. After a new breed of super-gangsters began to emerge like Colombia’s Pablo Escobar, a Mexican cartel known as Los Zetas upped the ante even more by pioneering a new type of hyper-violence. In August 2010, Los Zetas massacred 72 migrant workers in a town 85 miles south of the Texas border, because they refused to do the cartel’s work. A year later, they killed 52 people by setting fire to a casino in Monterrey, about a hundred miles to the northwest. In 2012, they decapitated 18 people in Guadalajara and then hung nine victims from a bridge in Nuevo Laredo, just across the border from Laredo, Texas.

As a result, the Mexican murder rate has nearly quadrupled since a comprehensive US-financed anti-drug programme known as the Mérida Initiative was announced in 2007. The murder rate in Honduras doubled four years after a similar programme, known as the Central American Regional Security Initiative, came into effect around the same time, while the murder rate in El Salvador doubled after eight years as well. Cities like Tijuana, Acapulco and Guatemala City are now among the most dangerous in the world, while more than 200,000 children have stopped going to school in Honduras, because it is far safer to stay at home.5


Yet the ruling class has responded with barely a shrug. Occasionally, corporate media might offer a flutter or two after some free-market economist issues a brief in favour of legalisation, as Milton Friedman regularly did in the 1980s and 90s. But then reporters would go back to sleep. Politicians like Joe Biden meanwhile took no notice at all. Deeply involved in the drug war from its inception, he recently fired five White House staffers who had confessed to past marijuana use, even though the drug is legal in a growing number of states.6

Critics who argue that drug prohibition serves capitalism by clearing a path for free-marketisation give the system too much credit. They assume that it is rational in its search for markets and growth, when the opposite is in fact the case, as it enters its final stage of decadence. Instead of creative destruction à la Schumpeter, capitalism increasingly engages in destruction for its own sake, as it levels entire societies out of devotion to abstract principles involving anti-terrorism and the war on drugs.

Such ‘principles’ make little sense, which is why any semi-informed high-school student can discourse for hours on why one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter. But it does not matter, because they are their own reward. ‘Drugs bad; drug war good’ - that is all you have to know. Policies like these are immune to criticism, because they arise out of capitalism’s deepest and most destructive dynamics.

Capitalist decadence is an under-explored topic, yet one that increasingly defines modern existence. The more neoliberalism robs society of every last ounce of value, the more the war on drugs, the war on terror or an incipient war drive against Russia and China provide the impetus for still more waves of destruction. Since class conflict has so far stopped short of “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large”, to quote the Communist manifesto, it is leading towards the opposite: ie, “the common ruin of the contending classes”.

That is why vast portions of Central and South America are uninhabitable - because capitalism’s “existence is no longer compatible with society”.

  1. unhcr.org/en-us/news/press/2020/12/5fdb14ff4/death-threats-gang-violence-forcing-families-flee-northern-central-america.html.↩︎

  2. thenation.com/article/world/biden-central-america-immigration.↩︎

  3. monthlyreview.org/2020/09/01/a-violent-guatemala.↩︎

  4. D Paley Drug war capitalism Oakland 2014, p33.↩︎

  5. nbcnews.com/news/latino/absent-students-murdered-teachers-gang-violence-permeates-honduras-schools-n1144951.↩︎

  6. nytimes.com/2021/03/19/us/politics/biden-white-house-marijuana.html.↩︎