Widening Destruction: Drug War in the Americas

September 25, 2007

Why, we ask in this Report, is the United States intervening in Colombia’s civil conflict? And why is the United States fighting a seemingly counterproductive war against a group of mood-altering substances? And what is the connection between these two questions: Is it really a war on drugs that motivates the U.S. role in the Andes? Or is something else going on?

For some observers, the goals of the U.S. Colombia intervention are not terribly different from the goals of similar U.S. interventions over the past half century: control, advantage and security for its interests in the Americas. William O. Walker says it’s all about “nation building,” an attempt to reconstruct Colombia in ways more conducive to U.S.-dominated stability in the region. The United States wants to reconstruct Colombia to its liking, says Walker; the low-intensity conflict of the drug war is the vehicle for that purpose. It sounds familiar. Along with the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the agencies most active in this war have been the same ones we saw a decade and a half ago in Central America: the State Department, the Pentagon, USAID and the CIA.

But for other critical observers, the drug war, far from being a simple vehicle, is an end in itself. “With drug arrests in the United States currently running at nearly 1.6 million a year,” writes Daniel Lazare, “and a U.S. incarceration rate that, thanks largely to the drug war, is by now the highest in the world, the anti-drug effort must be seen as nothing if not serious.” For Lazare, the drug war is a deliberate mechanism of fear and irrationality meant to undermine thoughtful democratic participation. The goal, he argues, is “war itself.”

And Graham Boyd, who traces out the racial dimensions of the domestic U.S. drug war, says it is precisely the wartime footing of the new prohibition—“the logic of urgency and exception”—that leads U.S. citizens to “accept the idea that we need to lock up our fellow citizens in service to a higher goal, this war we are fighting.” The drug war itself, from this perspective, serves an undemocratic and interventionist agenda—an agenda with deliberately racist overtones.

Meanwhile, the news brings home the confusions of the drug war on a daily basis; stories of the non-stop violent struggle for control of illicit markets are packaged as “drug violence” stories. Mood-altering and mind-bending drugs have problems of their own and we don’t mean to belittle them in this report, but gangland murders in Mexico, drive-by shootings in New York and deadly battles over land in the Andes are the product of the economic and social distortions caused not by drugs themselves, but by their prohibition. As nasty as cigarettes—and their makers—may be, there are no headlines about shoot-outs over control of their distribution.

The juxtaposition of extreme poverty and the extreme profitability created by prohibition gives the illicit drug industry real staying power. “All I can guess is that they bought their way out,” comments a Haitian drug official, explaining why not one Haitian arrested on drug charges over the past five years had ever gone to trial. “It’s not hard to do with wages as they are, compared to the money they can offer.” And in the Andean countries, particularly Colombia, rising poverty and unemployment, and the collapse of traditional agricultural markets has created an economic climate ripe for the risky incentives of illicit drug money—money from the elevated profits created by the war on drugs.

So the destruction widens and we are left to look for the logic behind the racheting up of the drug war. This report is one such attempt.


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