In her newly released book Drug War Capitalism, journalist Dawn Paley demonstrates how the so-called war on drugs is really a war on people. To understand this ongoing war against people, Paley argues that we must recognize how capitalist expansion of new markets is linked to the reorganization (or destabilization) of a country’s security state and political economy.
Book Reviewed: Drug War Capitalism by Dawn Paley, (Oakland: AK Press, 2014).
In her newly released book Drug War Capitalism, journalist Dawn Paley demonstrates how the so-called war on drugs is really a war on people. To understand this ongoing war against people, Paley argues that we must recognize how capitalist expansion of new markets is linked to the reorganization (or destabilization) of a country’s security state and political economy. Militarization and paramilitarization have been central to allowing multinational corporations to extract resources and expand territorial control in Colombia and most recently throughout Mexico. Her book traces the reforms that have had the most impact on facilitating foreign investment and increasing military presence. These policies have been extremely destructive for local communities and caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, displacements, insecurity and terror.
The conditions that help spur such reforms are manufactured. The author draws from Naomi Klein’s theory of the “shock doctrine” which is often described as a process of implementing exploitative neoliberal policies quickly following a natural, political or economic disaster while the population is too distracted to organize resistance. In conversation with Mexican sociologist Raquel Gutierrez, Paley agrees that this type of “shock treatment” was not enough to destabilize and open the markets to foreign investment in Mexico. It was much more difficult to destabilize community because of Mexico’s long history of grassroots landholder organizations such as ejidos and indigenous communities, in addition to movements such as the Zapatistas.
Paley demonstrates how Plan Colombia, a military and diplomatic program to fight drug cartels and insurgent groups implemented by the United States in Colombia, has been the model from which the US has learned how influence reforms of legal institutions and foreign policy in Colombia. Specifically, the US has used Plan Colombia as reference point for the Merida Initiative, often referred to as Plan Mexico. A similar program is designed to combat transnational drug trafficking and money laundering in Mexico and Central America. Paley exposes some of the contradictions of these programs by tying in the corporate interests that have a stake in the destabilized conditions of the region. She argues that banks, specifically US based banking institutions, are “possibly the highest profile beneficiaries.” (106)
The drug war is part of a larger strategy which is tied to the new epoch of global capitalism. According to William I. Robinson, author of Theory of Global Capitalism, this epoch consists of “transnational circuits of production across nations, instead of between nations.” (24) This allows for a “transnational elite” to heavily influence political actors and foreign policy. Paley exposes how the most resource-rich communities and states, as well sites where corporate manufacturing is operating, are the most heavily militarized areas, resulting in higher levels of violence and civilian casualties. She grounds this argument with stories from people who have lived through daily bombings, kidnappings and killings that are consequences of the heavy police and paramilitary presence that are a result of Plan Mexico and Plan Colombia. Paley notes that while the violence in Mexico is under-reported by the international community, any other country with less economic interests at stake would be worthy of international attention.
Tactics to eliminate the actions of guerrillas, activists and revolutionaries have often been used in the midst of political upheaval or moments of uprising. In the context of Drug War Capitalism, counterinsurgency tactics are integral to the economic reforms being implemented through the Merida Initiative, similar to Plan Colombia. Counterinsurgency, Paley writes, “can be understood not only as a form of warfare, but also as a kind of war.” This war has very different outcomes than traditional combat. Success is not measured by the “number of enemies vanquished” but by “the increase in trust and sympathy” of local communities.” (85) For example, the efforts of foreign policy and the Merida Initiative focus on strengthening “rule of law” and building “stronger communities.” While these statements seem well intentioned, Paley argues that the real goal is to reorganize trade policy, and reform the legal system in a way that replicates the US. This allows transnational corporations to set up shop, and be able to use their own lawyers to navigate and influence the legal and justice system throughout the country they’re operating within.
Though Drug War Capitalism invites us to think of political and corporate maneuvering in a radically different way, some scholar-activists might be left wanting further analysis and understanding of the current resistance movements organizing around drug war-related issues. Some readers might wonder why there was not a deeper elaboration of both the autonomous and spontaneous mobilizations that have emerged throughout Mexico explicitly against the drug war strategy. There are a number of groups that have emerged in recent years with efforts to rebuild community cohesion and sovereignty. Some were mentioned briefly, such as the self-defense groups in Michoacán and the community police in Guerrero, but overall, they are not well known by people outside of Mexico. The Zapatistas, for example, have presented a highly sophisticated strategy of mobilization by constructing alternative forms of governance and justice. Readers would benefit from understanding that the people of Mexico are not only victims, but are actively seeking and constructing alternative strategies that do not solely depend on the state.
Furthermore, an analysis of how low intensity warfare extends north of the US-Mexico border is necessary to further understand how militarization and racist state violence is interconnected. Latinos in the US have faced systemic discrimination, and criminalization made most visible by the millions that have been deported, the racist militias targeting migrants crossing the border, and by killings carried on by US border patrol agents.
Overall, these are merely proposals for further investigation that should not overshadow the success of an undertaking such as Drug War Capitalism. With this book, Dawn Paley invites us to understand the war on drugs in a broader context of expanding capitalist markets and increased militarization. Paley’s investigations should make those concerned with human rights critical of the US government’s role in continuing to support programs such as Plan Mexico and its counterparts across the Americas.
Contact Armando Carmona at firstname.lastname@example.org