Crime of victimless crime
The harsh treatment meted out to Brittney Griner gives us a glimpse of the human cost of the so-called war on drugs. Daniel Lazare looks at five decades of horror
Hypocrisy and imperialism go hand in hand, especially when the latter is of the “democratic” variety. Take Brittney Griner and Viktor Bout, one a victim of “needless trauma” imposed by a heartless Kremlin, according to Joe Biden, and the other an example of “intelligence operatives engaged in nefarious activity” on behalf of the same rogue state, according to CNN.1
One is a non-white, non-hetero basketball star and the other a renegade arms dealer, a contrast that supposedly speaks volumes about America’s life-affirming values versus Russia’s embrace of war and oppression. What’s more, Biden was not completely incorrect in blasting Putin for treating Griner so harshly. After all, the hash oil that Russian customs officials found in her luggage last February is no worse than vodka or cigarettes - and probably a whole lot better, given the latter’s well-known health hazards. So why throw her in prison for a substance that does no harm to others and therefore should rightfully be regarded as her affair alone?
But American outrage is itself outrageous, since no country is worse when it comes to the needless prosecution of victimless crimes. Over the last half-century, the war on drugs that Richard Nixon declared in June 1971 has unleashed a tidal wave of global destruction in which millions have died, millions more have wound up behind bars, and violence has been sent rocketing to levels that make prohibition-era Chicago seem like a minor disturbance.
Entire countries have disappeared beneath the waves as a consequence. In Haiti, a major trans-shipment centre for cocaine on its way to the United States, the Biden administration is appealing for international military intervention to hold back a mass exodus of refugees fleeing “armed violence [that] has reached unimaginable and intolerable levels” according to Michelle Bachelet, the ex-president of Chile who now serves as the UN high commissioner of human rights. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has arrested more than 57,000 people - 1.2% of the population aged 15 and above - in a desperate bid to rein in ferocious narco-gangs such as MS-13.
In Colombia, cocaine exports are surging as urban violence reaches new heights and growing portions of the countryside fall under the control of the narcotraficantes.2 In Mexico, the homicide rate has more than tripled since president Filipe Calderón launched a military crackdown under intense US pressure in late 2006.3 Chile has seen a two-and-a-half-fold increase since Mexican, Colombian and Venezuelan drug cartels decided it would be a good place to set up shop beginning around 2014, while drug-related surges have occurred in Paraguay, Uruguay, Ecuador and Peru as well.4
The same goes for a growing swathe of west Africa, where the drug trade has exploded in the wake of a “cocaine coup” that traffickers launched in the ex-Portuguese colony of Guinea-Bissau in 2009.5 Far to the north, Rotterdam and Genoa have emerged as major hubs, as has Sweden, where drug gangs use high-speed motor boats to ferry illegal substances across the Öresund from Denmark or retrieve them from passing cargo ships. Although minuscule by international standards, the resultant surge in violent crime has rattled Swedish voters and helped pave the way for September’s stunning electoral breakthrough by the neo-Nazi Sweden Democrats.6
The upshot is a raft of get-tough measures by Sweden’s new rightwing government that include stop-and-frisk zones in hard-hit cities, criminalization of gang membership, and even proposals to expel immigrants on the grounds of “dubious morals” or association with individuals who “threaten Swedish values.”7
“These are organizations that work like holdings,” a prosecutor in Santiago said of the new generation of Chilean drug gangs, “with a diversity of illicit activities: murder for hire, illicit firearms trafficking, extortion, human trafficking, sexual exploitation and more.” The more the heavily-armed local police try to suppress such activities, the more they seem to grow.
From Scandinavia to Tierra del Fuego, drugs have emerged as a sure-fire means of capsizing third-world countries and shifting richer societies sharply to the right. But it is not drugs per se that cause the damage, but drug prohibition, by fostering the growth of a vast international black market and all that goes with it - ie, guns, corruption, and so forth. Since black marketeers cannot turn to the courts, the only way they have of resolving business disputes is with bullets, which is why bodycounts continue to soar. Traffickers looking for a place to set up base typically turn to poor countries, in which the cops are happy to enlist as foot soldiers in return for a small share of the profits - which, in a nutshell, is why countries like Haiti and El Salvador are so vulnerable. In the wealthy north, they rely on racial or ethnic minorities and refugees to serve as runners and dealers. Such people are poor, hungry and wary of the police to begin with, so why not make maximum use of such untapped talent? The upshot is racial conflict along with xenophobia and fascism.
Indeed, this is why Nixon launched the drug war in the first place. As a former top aide named John Ehrlichman explained in an interview in 2016:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black people, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.8
It worked like a charm. In America, the prison population rose tenfold with nonviolent drug offences accounting for roughly half the increase. Even though blacks by the late 1990s were only 21% more likely than whites to use illegal substances, they were more than twice as likely to be arrested and 4.8 times as likely to wind up behind bars for criminal activity in general.9 Biden is personally responsible for much of the discrepancy: as a young senator in 1986 he authored a bill that set penalties for crack cocaine at a rate 100 times greater than the powdered variety favoured by the Wall Street and Hollywood elite. It was the equivalent of criminalizing beer while letting champagne drinkers off nearly scot-free.
Two percent of the population is unable to vote due to felony-disenfranchisement laws, a rate that rises to better than 20% for blacks. Nixon indeed succeeded in crimping the power of some of his greatest opponents, just as John Ehrlichman said.
If conditions elsewhere are even more horrendous, it is because the US has succeeded in shifting the worst effects abroad. In El Salvador, Bukele’s draconian crackdown has resulted in the arrest of thousands of dirt-poor slumdwellers whose only offence is to look like members of MS-13. In Argentina, drug prohibition has turned prisons into pressure-cookers of violence, as fans of the sensational TV crime series El Marginal will know. In Brazil, warfare between rival drug gangs known as Primeiro Comando da Capital and Comando Vermelho have engulfed entire prisons since 2016, leading to dozens of deaths.
Given America’s outsized role in such crimes, every last victim should be stamped ‘Made in USA’. Each is another Brittney Griner, even if they don’t rate a mention in the international media. This is why Biden heaps abuse on the Kremlin: because he knows that America’s lapdog press will cheer and applaud, while remaining silent about the country’s own contribution to the debacle.
The Viktor Bout story is a similar tale of imperial arrogance and hypocrisy. According to The Guardian, the Tajik-born Russian is a “merchant of death” because he made millions supplying “rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia, and South America” with advanced weaponry.
“[D]espite Vladimir Putin’s efforts to portray Bout as [a] painter and classical music lover with a sensitive soul,” it goes on, he “has blood on his hands” because he “armed militias in Sierra Leone, the Liberian war criminal Charles Taylor, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.”10
Does not sound good, does it? But what about US arms sales during the same period? Between 1980 and 1993, America supplied the Salvadoran military with almost 37,500 guns, most of them high-powered M-16s, plus nearly 270,000 grenades, making the country the western hemisphere’s number one recipient of US military hardware. These are weapons that the military used to massacre tens of thousands of peasants during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, and to render a million more homeless - all this in a country of just 5.3 million people. More recently, US arms manufacturers have flooded El Salvador with handguns that drug gangs use to sow the chaos that enables demagogues like Bukele to thrive.11 A study by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms found that 43.7% of guns recovered at Salvadoran crime scenes in 2019 originated in the US, as did 34.8% in Guatemala and 42.8% in Honduras.12
America encourages the proliferation of drug gangs with its prohibitionist policies, and then it arms them to the teeth with its unrestricted gun exports.
US arms sales to Saudi Arabia have meanwhile averaged $10.7 billion per year since 2015, weapons that the House of Saud has used to arm pro-al Qaeda forces in Syria and bomb Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East.13 The US has supplied the Philippines with $1.14 billion worth of planes, armoured vehicles, small arms, and other military equipment and training over the same period, making it the largest recipient of US military aid in the entire Indo-Pacific region.14 This is the same Philippines whose president, Rodrigo Duterte, vowed in 2016 to kill millions of drug users just as Hitler killed millions of Jews.
“I’d be happy to slaughter them,” he said. “At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know my victims, I would like [them] to be all criminals, to finish the problem of my country and save the next generation from perdition.”15
Needless to say, the US has also supplied the Ukraine with $21.8 billion worth of security assistance since the neo-Nazi-spearheaded coup d’état of February 2014, an immense military infusion that made war with Russia all but inevitable.16 Of the world’s top military arms producers, the US has exported more weaponry since 2017 than the other three - Russia, France and China - combined.17
So what is Viktor Bout compared to the United States? Answer: a two-bit piker. While convicted of conspiracy to kill US citizens and provide aid to terrorist organizations, his real crime was attempting to muscle in on a US monopoly.
This is reminiscent of a famous exchange between a pirate and Alexander the Great. “What is your idea in infesting the sea,” Alexander demanded. “The same as yours in infesting the world,” the pirate replied. “But because I do it with a tiny craft, I’m called a pirate. Because you have a mighty navy, you’re called an emperor.”18
This is the truth that imperialism cannot bring itself to admit: that its crimes are infinitely greater than those of the criminals it seeks to repress. It’s nice that Brittney Griner is back home. But it is no small measure of justice that Viktor Bout is free as well.
www.sentencingproject.org; www.opensocietyfoundations.org/voices/we-can-t-arrest-our-way-out-drug-problem; www.hrw.org/reports/2000/usa/Table1718.pdf.↩︎
St Augustine, The City of God London, Penguin Books 1984, p139.↩︎