The War on Drug’s Bloody Face

Karl Marx opens his always relevant work The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte with this oft-repeated observation:

Hegel observes somewhere that all great
incidents and individuals of world history
occur, as it were twice. He forgot to add: the
first time as tragedy, the second as farce.

There have been many such instances and individuals since Marx wrote that passage in 1852. Our own present day contains several examples, such as the awful fact that there exists a strong possibility the United States will have a quarter century’s worth of Bushes and Clintons as president. Or perhaps Rudy Giuliani will be able to repeat his local carnage on a national level. A far more tragic instance is how the world stood by as a speedy genocide unfolded in Rwanda just over a decade ago, while largely doing the same as a slow moving genocide has taken place in Darfur.

While the skullduggery in Darfur and Iraq continues, another demonstration of Marx’s theme, what future historians may call the longest, most useless, and perhaps most costly war of our time also continues unrelentingly and always shows signs of expanding: the poorly titled “war on drugs.”

Two recent news items confirm this reality. First, the AP reports on August 25 that about 1,100 Colombian refugees have fled to Ecuador, joining the 250,000 already living there; the UN estimates that another 3 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence creating the largest internal refugee population in the world outside of Sudan. How many Americans know that the Colombian government is the third largest government recipient of American aid after only Israel and Egypt? Or that the U.S. funds a campaign of aerial herbicide spraying that has destroyed the livelihood and environment of thousands of peasants.

The second news item comes from a UN report that establishes that opium production in Afghanistan has reached record levels for the second straight year (up 17% in 2007). This despite a $600 million American counter-narcotics initiative; the NY Times reports that a proposal for a polite aerial fumigation program is now being considered despite opposition from Afghan officials.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime Policy, was quoted in the Times as stating: “Afghanistan today is cultivating megacrops of opium. Leaving aside China in the late 19 th century, no other country has produced so much narcotics in the past 100 years.”

Fitting that Mr. Costa should refer to 19th century China. It was there that the then greatest imperial power in the world used the opium trade as a means to open China up to foreign imperialism and exploitation. How ironic then that a century and a half later the current world hegemon uses the disruption of this same trade, 6% of all global trade, as a cover for its current imperialism

In the mid-19th century it was the British provoking two “Opium Wars” against China that eventually forced the Qing government to grant Britain, and other European powers, favorable treaties, ports, and other privileges within China (including British rule over Hong Kong). The Qing government had previously banned opium imports as a threat to morality and custom. The 21st century, picking up where the 20th left off, now has the U.S. justifying imperialism abroad and repression at home in the name of the health and morality of its own population against the trading and selling of drugs- historical tragedy and farce come full circle.

Some of the casualties of this war have been well documented. The U.S. contains the largest per capita prison population in the world, young African American men continue to be exponentially more likely to be ensnared in the criminal justice system, Colombia cannot escape from its drug fueled civil war with the U.S. playing the patron to a government presiding over an extremely unequal economic arrangement that includes the highest number of murdered union activists in the world. Meanwhile in Afghanistan the criminalization of opium, probably the most practical crop at the moment, helps fuel the resurgence of the Taliban (itself a strange ally in America’s drug war before 9/11).

As dreadful as all that is it still doesn’t nearly cover everything. The criminalization of drugs, mixed with neoliberal economics and rapid urbanization in the form of slums, has left most of the countries in the Western Hemisphere in spiraling violence. Time magazine recently reported that Mexico is well on pace to eclipse the 2000 drug related murders it recorded in 2006. The story also notes that the violence has reached previously immune northern cities and become more horrific:

The atrocities would seem more familiar south of
Baghdad than south of the border: mass executions,
contract shootings carried out at funerals and ghastly
video-taped beheadings posted on the Internet while
victims heads are tossed in the streets…the latest surge
in violence is claiming a broader range of victims, including
police, businesspeople, journalists, and politicians.

Further south Central America, the transit route for drugs from the Andes to the U.S., has in effect been seized by high level drug traffickers, corrupt police, and street gangs. Estimates on the number of gang members in the region run as high as 100,000 (the two largest gangs, Mara 18 and MS-13, have their roots in Los Angeles among Central Americans who fled the U.S. sponsored wars of the 1980s) and murder rates have exploded in recent years to some of the highest in the world. The same can be said of Brazil which in the past 15 months has seen its two main cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, become battlegrounds between powerful drug gangs and even worse displays of police force (one week of violence in Sao Paulo in May 2006 left 170 people dead).

The beauty of this war for U.S. policy makers (missed by mainstream critics of the drug war) is that it offers an instrument of domestic control in the form of prisons, probation, and the eliminating of voting rights to poorer citizens, and at the same time greases the wheels of the arms and law enforcement industries (the U.S. spends around $50 billion a year on the drug war), while enabling a permanent connection with militaries throughout the hemisphere at a time when even conservative politicians have to sound somewhat like Hugo Chavez (briefly overthrown in a U.S. supported coup) and Evo Morales. A rise in populism in the region has always meant the potential of U.S. backed military interference.

The surest solution to combat this imperialism and repression has long been obvious: the legalization of all narcotics. The effects of this would be multifaceted and magnificent: the opening of prisons, the eliminating of an imperial pretext, and the weakening of street gangs and crime dons that hold local populations prisoner in places like El Salvador, Brazil, and Jamaica. Add to the list greater medical oversight, less health risks for users (most of whom use drugs without adverse heath effects), and economic benefit to poor farmers.

As the anti-war movement goes forward against war in the Middle East, it is critical that it not overlook a war fought by every American president since Nixon, a heavy casualty war that takes place all over the world. The time has come a militant anti-war movement to meet it head-on.

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York City and is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York Read other articles by Joseph.

3 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. blackhawk said on September 6th, 2007 at 9:34am #

    Your article is specially relevant to Central Americans that have to bear a manifest decomposition of society, because cocaine traffic is infiltrated at all levels. However, if drugs were legalized, transforming the commodity character of drugs like cocaine and heroin and turning them into objects that will no longer be produced and sold for profit is not possible as long as present conditions of capitalism exist.

  2. Pat said on September 7th, 2007 at 11:51am #

    There is a solution. More and more American elected officials are coming out against the drug war. Making your opposition and their positions known to the U.S. congress, where the drug war originates, and to the presidential candidates, too many of whom support this war on democracy, is the way to end it.

    SEE: U.S. mayors call for end to drug war

    “NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the United States Conference of Mayors believes the war on drugs has failed…”

  3. Steve Chaput said on September 11th, 2007 at 9:21am #

    Nothing perks up the ears like opening with a quote from Marx.

    As always a nicely researched and well written article. The “War on Drugs” is one of those things which drops quickly from the headlines until some politician wants to use it come re-election.

    Also a reminder that opium production is once again on the increase in Afghanistan, no thanks to U.S. blindness. That got about thirty seconds on a news report last week, which was a surprise.