Time to Declare War on the US ‘War on Drugs’ in Latin America


Relatives of the 43 disappeared Ayotzinapa students attend an outdoor mass in Iguala, Guerrero, Mexico, October 27, 2014. Source: EPA/Corbis

At a meeting with U.S. law enforcement officials earlier this year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions expressed his dismay at perceived inertia on the domestic drug war front: “Our nation needs to say clearly once again that using drugs is bad … It will destroy your life.”

Plenty of folks would no doubt agree with the latter point—including the victims in the following trivia from American historian Howard Zinn: “[B]ack in the 1950s, [the US Central Intelligence Agency] had administered the drug LSD to unsuspecting Americans to test its effects: one American scientist, given such a dose by a CIA agent, leaped from a New York hotel window to his death.”

When President Richard Nixon launched the War on Drugs in 1971, he denounced drug abuse as “America’s public enemy number one,” but various sectors of the American public have long faced a more formidable enemy in the government itself. Consider, for example, the diary entry from Nixon’s former chief of staff noting that the president had “emphasized that you have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the Blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to.”

The drug war, it seems, was one way to do it — at least judging from the institutionalized discrepancies in drug-related sentencing and the general enthusiasm for throwing Black people in jail.

Of course, the U.S. War on Drugs has also been great fun for the rest of the world, particularly the countries lucky enough to be located in the United States’ “backyard,” where the drug menace has justified all manner of militarization, arms sales, and support for right-wing governments and movements.

The United States’ own complicity in the international drug trade is a rather well-kept secret, thanks in large part to a useless mainstream media.

It’s no coincidence that Venezuela, Bolivia, and other contemporary obstacles to the desired hemispheric order are consistently lambasted with narco-charges, while ultra-right-wing characters like former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe are hailed as exemplary political specimens — despite, you know, appearing on a 1991 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency list of “the more important Colombian narco-traffickers contracted by the Colombian narcotic cartels.”

The United States’ own complicity in the international drug trade is a rather well-kept secret, thanks in large part to a useless mainstream media, in which deviation from the establishment line can result in ridicule, ostracization, and — as in the case of former San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb — ruin. In a series of reports in 1996, Webb suggested that there had been a connection between the crack cocaine epidemic that had devastated black communities in South Central Los Angeles in the early 1980s and the fact that CIA-backed Contras had at that time been engaged in drug running to the US. Thoroughly maligned and discredited, Webb went on to kill himself in 2004.

A glance at uncensored U.S. history, though, reveals that the country has long been tied up with politically expedient flows of drug money. In their book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair document many of the highlights, including how a certain Klaus Barbie was put on the anti-communist payroll of U.S. intelligence in Europe after World War II and then shipped to South America, where he participated in the lethal right-wing program known as Operation Condor and “helped orchestrate the so-called ‘cocaine coup’ of 1980, when a junta of Bolivian generals seized power, slaughtering their leftist opponents and reaping billions in the cocaine boom.”

This was the same Klaus Barbie, incidentally, who had served as a wartime Gestapo chief in Lyons and, according to the New York Times, “was ultimately held responsible for the arrest and torture or death of 11,000 or 25,000 people, perhaps more,” in his capacity as a Nazi. But hey, he was a hell of an anti-communist.

In Panama, meanwhile, the U.S. was a longtime pal of former leader and known drug trafficker Manuel Noriega, who, Cockburn and St. Clair note, had enjoyed “nearly three decades of U.S. military and intelligence agencies shielding [him] from criminal investigation.” When Noriega’s services were no longer deemed necessary for the U.S.-Contra project of terrorizing Nicaragua, the man was transformed into a narco-monster for the benefit of the U.S. public, who might otherwise have objected to the ensuing devastating assault on Panama by the U.S. military.

Writing in 1992, two years after Noriega’s surrender, Noam Chomsky observed with regard to the Panamanian landscape: “The U.S. put the bankers back in power after the invasion. Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking had been trivial compared to theirs.”

Detecting some regional patterns, Chomsky went on to specify that Grenada had also “become a major center of drug money laundering since the U.S. invasion” in 1983, while “Nicaragua, too, has become a significant conduit for drugs to the US market, after Washington’s victory in the 1990 election.”

In short, the U.S. is in no position to claim that it’s fighting a war on drugs — especially when said war hasn’t managed to curb drug production or use but has now cost taxpayers more than a trillion dollars, helped convert the country into a veritable prison-state, and destroyed countless lives both at home and abroad. Mexico and Colombia have been particularly hard hit thanks in part to the deadly combination of U.S. demand for and criminalization of drugs plus globalization of the U.S. drug war; in May, Newsweek reported that “[i]n Mexico, 23,000 people died in the fight against drug cartels in 2016.”

And things aren’t exactly looking up with Donald Trump and his “tough-on-crime” entourage running the show — although Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has apparently found a friend in the new U.S. leader, who highly praised Duterte’s lethal drug war crackdown.

It’s time for a war on the war on drugs — if for no other reason than that we could all probably use some.

Belén Fernández is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work and Martyrs Never Die: Travels through South Lebanon. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

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