Scahill’s ‘Dirty Wars’ Offers Lessons for Latin America

Though Jeremy Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, is firmly rooted in the Arab world, it is a valuable volume for those wishing to better understand how current and past events in Mexico and Central and South America connect to the so-called war on terror.

Scahill, Jeremy. Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield. Perseus Books, 2013. (Epub edition).

Though Jeremy Scahill’s latest book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, is firmly rooted in the Arab world, it is a valuable volume for those wishing to better understand how current and past events in Mexico and Central and South America connect to the so-called war on terror.

A must-read for anyone wanting to learn more about the US drone wars and targeted kill programs, Dirty Wars is a bit slow going off the top, but before long, Scahill introduces compelling characters and provides readers with access to entire families who have been adversely impacted by US war policies in Yemen and elsewhere.

Dirty Wars also contains a number of items of specific interest to folks whose interests lie south of the US border.

Using carefully gathered evidence, Dirty Wars makes it clear that American military campaigns do little more than exacerbate existing situations. Sadly, this is as true in the Western hemisphere as it is in the Middle East.

Scahill carefully documents how the militaristic approach taken by the US government towards perceived terror threats in Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere has served to drive up the influence of local armed groups.

“By 2004, the [CIA’s] outsourced Somalia campaign was laying the groundwork for a spectacular series of events that would lead to an almost unthinkable rise in the influence of al Qaeda in the Horn of Africa,” writes Scahill. He later describes how Ethiopian and US special forces intensified their attacks on members of Somalia’s Islamic Courts Union, in January 2007. This aggression created a welcoming climate for al Qaeda: “With the Somali ICU leaders on the run, al Qaeda saw Somalia as an ideal front line for jihad and began increasing its support for al Shabab.”

Reading from Mexico, one cannot help but be reminded of how the US campaigns against drug traffickers in one region inevitably result in a strengthening of the same groups in another part of the same region.

A more obvious tie with Latin America is the book’s name.

Though Scahill doesn’t make clear how he chose the phrase “dirty wars” to describe events in Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere over the past decade, he does make passing reference to the origins of the term “dirty war”, which is sometimes applied to describe state repression against political opponents, trade unionists and civilians in the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and Bolivia), dating from the 1970s. Scahill later wrongly applies the term “dirty war” to US-backed counterinsurgency campaigns in Central America in the 1980s.

In Argentina and Guatemala, tribunals have found that, far from being dirty wars, what happened in the 70s and 80s was genocide.

Also of particular interest to readers with an interest in US foreign policy in the western hemisphere is the portion of the book dedicated to describing the US Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC).

Scahill writes, “Well-placed special operations sources told me that among the countries where JSOC teams had been deployed under the Obama administration were: Iran, Georgia, Ukraine, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, Peru, Yemen, Pakistan (including in Baluchistan) and the Philippines… JSOC was also supporting US Drug Enforcement Agency [sic] operations in Colombia and Mexico.”

Some of these operations have been documented elsewhere in some detail. For example, JSOC’s role in the killing of Pablo Escobar in Colombia is explored in Mark Bowden’s 2001 book, Killing Pablo.

In the early 90s in Colombia, as Bowden points out, JSOC members were participating in raids without explicit permission, which was later sought and granted in the name of killing Escobar. He also points out how JSOC operatives turned a blind eye to the paramilitary activity of Los Pepes, a vigilante group out to get Pablo Escobar, in keeping with the history of JSOC’s then-head General William F.Garrison.

“General William F.Garrison, head of the Joint Special Operations Command and the direct authority over Delta Force and Centra Spike, had a long history in covert U.S. operations,” writes Bowden. “He had been involved with the Phoenix program in Vietnam and was known in the army as an officer who could navigate beneath the radar. Counterinsurgency had always flirted with extralegality, whether in the Congo, El Salvador, or Nicaragua. The death squads were horrible, but nothing equaled them for striking fear into the hearts and minds of would-be Marxists.”

Less is known about JSOC’s activities in the other Latin American countries named by Scahill.

The connections don’t end there. Scahill quotes an official from the Yemeni Interior Ministry who points out that “the use of ‘motorbikes in terrorist operations to assassinate intelligence officers and security personnel’ has ‘massively mounted over the past nine months in the province.'”

This appears to be a technique originating in Colombia, where, according to journalist Ioan Grillo, the murder business was revolutionized in the 1980s. “The architect of its killing machine was Isaac Guttman Esternberg, a Colombian of German descent who worked for Medellín traffickers,” writes Grillo in his 2011 book, El Narco. “Guttman invented the ‘school of motorcycle assassins,’ to which young men from the slums enrolled in the thousands… The assassins still used pistols, but they attacked on motorcycles, with one driver and one shooter.” Scahill points out that motorcycle attacks by Al Qaeda-linked gunmen “became so common that the government actually banned motorcycles in urban areas in Abyan.”

As in the drug war, CIA activities in the “dirty wars” chronicled by Scahill create a situation where facts are far stranger than fiction. Take the case of Raymond Davis, a man who claimed to be a worker at the US Embassy in Pakistan. Davis was arrested after murdering two men at an intersection. In his car, he had two semi-automatic weapons, a bunch of tracking equipment, and a satellite phone, among other things. “A check of the numbers on his multiple mobile phones revealed calls to twenty-seven militants from the terrorist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, according to Pakistani law enforcement sources quoted by the Express Tribune” writes Scahill. It’s an eerily familiar scenario for anyone informed about the history of how the CIA helped set up drug trafficking routes and drugs-for-arms deals in Mexico and Central America that would later come back to haunt the US government.

Reading Scahill from Mexico, it is possible to understand the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” as differing variations on a theme. “The efforts of the elite to eliminate any challenges to the status quo have found expression in various politicoeconomic models throughout history,” writes Canadian sociologist Jasmin Hristov. “The features common to all of them have been the highly unequal socio-economic structure consisting of armed force, repressive laws, and anti-subversive ideology, packaged under different names – the War on Communism, the War on Drugs, the War on Terror.” In Dirty Wars we are given even more tools through which to understand the US war on communities around the globe.

Dawn Paley is a freelance journalist and researcher based in Mexico. She would like to thank Stef Gude for her help with this review, as well as B. Manning, who today is paying dearly so that books like Dirty Wars can be written. See more of Dawn’s work online at