THE WAR on drugs is a key feature of US foreign policy. If we were to judge this war by its official goal we must recognize it has failed: the drug trade now spans the whole globe. The war has squandered treasure and ruined the lives of millions of people. Governments continue to pursue this war because the stated objectives differ from its real purpose. Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror provides a perspective that unveils the true nature of the war on drugs.
The authors focus on Colombia as the epicenter of the “Crystal Triangle”: the Andean countries that supply the international cocaine trade. The evolution of the government’s simultaneous campaigns against narcotrafficking and the existing insurgency groups is discussed in intimate detail. The book offers a unique vantage point on its subject, providing a clear picture of the role of the CIA in the international drug trade.
Genesis of Colombian drug trade
The Colombian narcoeconomy originated from two confluent dynamics: the internal conflict for land, and the geographical shift of US anti-communist operations.
Inside Colombia, the Comprador class (the business elite), had successfully resisted the struggle for land redistribution. The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) grew out of peasant groups involved in this struggle.
Internationally, the CIA role in drug trafficking operations dates back to the Cold War, when it began making alliances with gangsters, warlords, and heroin traffickers to fight communism in Europe, China, and Indochina. Since then, the focus of CIA operations has coincided with surges in drug production. The drug trade in Colombia, for example, helped the CIA finance its operations in Central America.
The CIA helped establish the Medellin Cartel by supporting the paramilitary organization Muerte a Secuestradores–MAS (Death to Kidnappers). It included members of Colombian security forces, landowners, and narcotraffickers. The CIA connected MAS with mercenaries that provided training in anti-insurgency tactics. The CIA also helped organize production and marketing networks vital to the cocaine trade.
The growth of cocaine production coincided with the ascendancy of sectors committed to international trade. Villar and Cottle identify these forces as the Narco-bourgeoisie: the beneficiaries of the drug economy.
The cocaine decade
The cocaine decade marked the rise to power of the narco-bourgeoisie. Among the individuals that formed part of its ranks, the authors detail the ascendance of Carlos Castaño and of Alvaro Uribe Velez.
As drug traffickers increased the size of their rural properties, class antagonisms intensified. They formed paramilitary groups with US support. Today, they are still part of Colombian’s intelligence network.
Villar and Cottle make a detailed class analysis of Colombia and its relation to the United States to demonstrate the importance of the drug trade for the economic stability of both countries, the involvement of the respective governments’ agencies in trafficking operations, and the futility of persecution of cartel leaders to combat traffic.
The description of Colombia as a narco-state is justified by pointing to several aspects of Colombia class structure: the shared enmity of the narco-traffickers and the traditional elites towards social movements, the cooperation of the national army with “illegal” paramilitary groups, the dependence of the legal economy on the drug economy, and the political prominence of individuals with known ties to the cartels.
The fusion between the state and the narcotraffickers, however, is by no means free of the occasional confrontation. The book’s account of the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar illustrates how conflict of interests can escalate into bloody confrontations between sectors of the narco-bourgeoisie. As they engaged in an all-out war with Escobar’s Medellin cartel, Colombian and American officials allowed the Cali cartel to prosper and integrate deeper into the power structure. Its subsequent disarticulation did not disrupt the already established narco-military networks. Under the leadership of Carlos Castaño, these networks were prepared to ruthlessly advance the class interest of the narco-bourgeoisie.
FARC’s involvement in the drug economy consists mainly on taxing the initial stages of the process. These steps are of little added value when compared with subsequent steps of the trade chain. Nevertheless, this role becomes the basis for US official to promote the paradigm of a unique and inseparable fight against the single entity of narco-terrorism.
By exaggerating the role of FARC in the cocaine industry, the US justified an imperialist campaign known as Plan Colombia aimed at defeating the insurgent group. Plan Colombia coincided with Alvaro Uribe’s governing agenda entitled “Democratic Security,” which was simply a doctrine of state terror that applied Washington’s counterinsurgency guidelines.
Not coincidentally, the Uribe era brought massive investments in capital-intensive infrastructure directed at exploiting the country’s natural resources. At the same time, neoliberal legislation eliminated labor rights, and paramilitary campaigns cleared out the population from rural areas in investors’ sights.
The careful description of these phenomena allows Villar and Cottle to conclude,
“Behind the official discourse of fighting drugs and terrorism there remains an agenda in Colombia that is no longer hidden: to secure military victory over the FARC and eliminate obstacles to US and international investment in mega-projects for the efficient exploitation of Colombia’s rich natural resources.”
To secure these objectives paramilitaries target everyone that dare challenge the economic interests of the imperial-comprador partnership. The authors go to great lengths to describe the terrorism of the narco-state and the psychological operations used to legitimize it.
Effects of the war on drugs
The last part of the book provides a description of the consequences of the war on drugs. Massive fumigation results in relocation of coca plantations further into the Amazon and in the regionalization of the drug economy across Latin America.
The dissolution of the cartels has produced a decentralization of the drug economy into many disparate entities. The industry became commoditized allowing the entrance of new players. Banking institutions help launder drug money and US companies participate in smuggling schemes to obtain black market pesos, helping to offset the nation’s trade deficit.
The cocaine industry provides profitable opportunities for “legitimate” American corporations, too. There has been a proliferation of private military companies (PMC) that help secure the flow of drug profits to US financial institutions. To maintain this flow, the banking industry must resist any attempt at regulating its practices, and the Pentagon must shield PMCs from investigation. To illustrate the inner working of these networks, the authors describe in detail the activities of several PMCs.
A war for drugs, a war of terror
This work does a superb work in connecting the dynamics of the internal conflict with the hegemonic interests of Washington. For Colombian readers it reveals how the strings are pulled to benefit international corporate interests. For American readers it shows the humanitarian crisis that American “aid” has caused.
The analysis put forward of the US-directed war on drugs and the remarkable description of its real effects is of fundamental importance for future social movements both in the US and in Colombia. Social struggles cannot succeed if they are blind to the real nature of the narco-state. The book is a useful tool in this regard.
Two warnings are needed. First, by defining the concept of the narco-bourgeoisie the authors provide an excellent analytical tool to explain many of the realities of Colombia and war on drugs. Unfortunately, careless use of the concept may hide internal conflicts inside the elite. After all, it was a sector of the bourgeoisie that prevented Uribe from holding on to power.
A second defect is the appearance that class conflict is limited to the FARC-led struggle against the government. This is a consequence of a recurrent technique used by Colombian governments: movements are always accused of being infiltrated by FARC. It is not surprising that international observers idealize the potential of FARC as a transformative force. This view is a serious obstacle for the growth of social organizations. The guerrillas do not have a monopoly on class resistance; the book forgets this.
With these two caveats in mind, one can follow the book’s carefully constructed arguments and accept its maxim: “this is a war for drugs and a war of terror” that immiserates Colombians while cocaine floods the global markets.