Book Review: Dawn Paley looks at the people on the ground in the War on Drugs in 'Drug War Capitalism'

Official accounts of the War on Drugs in Mexico, Central America, and Colombia tend to tell tales of massive cartels fighting each other over territory and trade routes. This narrative dominates our government's reporting as a way to justify increased economic and military intervention in the region. Dawn Paley's new book, "Drug War Capitalism," challenges what she calls this "cartel wars narrative" and asks big questions about the real effects of U.S. intervention in Latin America, forcing us to reckon with the global costs of this war on people and their communities, land, and ways of life.

Paley opens her book by taking us to Tame, a small municipality of about 200 people in Arauca, Colombia that was bombed in 1998, ostensibly because of drug activity in the region. The bombing flights, she notes, were actually led by Occidental Petroleum, a U.S.-based international oil and gas exploration and production company, whose planes were supposed to be restricted to pipeline surveillance. On this day, the flight was rerouted to help the Colombian Air Force hunt suspected guerrillas, and this village paid the price with 17 people killed and 27 others injured. Flash forward to March 2013 and the Colombian military is back, bombing the same area. Paley quotes Daniel Zavala on this latest round of attacks: "At my neighbor's house . . . a helicopter opened fire approximately 50 meters from his house; it literally rained lead." There were kids in the house, Zavela tells Paley, and they are permanently traumatized. The stories continue, and the reader is left with a sense of the fear, pain, and terror people live with every day, all in the name of a War on Drugs.

Centering these stories of the people on the ground, Paley builds an alternative account of the drug war in Latin America. What she finds is devastating, and her book shares some of the horrific realities of living under the regime of terror brought by the war. The recent story of 43 disappeared students from a rural teaching college in Mexico's Guerrero state made the news in the United States, but just barely, and that 43 is a tiny portion of the people dead and missing in Mexico as the drug war continues unabated. Paley uses official numbers to account for the extent of the terror: Since December 2006, there have been over 150,000 homicides and 40,000 people disappeared in Mexico alone. The numbers are outrageous even as they are almost certainly low, and the level of violence creates conditions of terror that drive people off their land. These victims are generally linked to criminal activity, as if to justify their deaths, but Paley argues that their deaths are better thought of as the result of a terror campaign that leaves land open to new kinds of commercial development, and the people are rendered pools of surplus labor with few choices in their own working conditions.

She argues that the war is about much more than simply stopping the flow of drugs to the United States. Instead, she sees the drug war as "a long-term fix to capitalism's woes, combining terror with policymaking in a seasoned neoliberal mix, cracking open social worlds and territories once unavailable to globalized capitalism." The war creates the very unstable conditions it purports to address, and direct foreign investment and policies promoting certain kinds of capitalist economic growth become the solutions to the problems created by the war itself. Zavala and his community are in the way of that pipeline, and the terror that rains down on them pushes them out of the way, making room for U.S. industry to take over. It is a complicated argument that Paley explains well, and an important one to make in that it refuses to separate the U.S.-backed wars in Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere from the overall economic context. Paley's book walks the reader through this history in chapters about Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras and then asks how we might think "peace" in the context of this war without end.

And this terror campaign is funded by U.S. dollars. The Merída Initiative, a partnership between the United States and Mexico, has transferred $2.1 billion since 2008 to support the Mexican government's militarized War on Drugs, but Paley argues in this book that the plan has actually funded exactly the terror that she details. As Paley noted in an interview with City Paper, "People are terrorized as part of this war, and their mobility and freedom of expression are curtailed. These are the stories that one hears when working in the field, not stories of drug cartels." Her book prioritizes these stories because, in Paley's words, "as journalists we have a responsibility to share the stories of those affected by policies and violence, not just those deploying them." "Drug War Capitalism" does just that, in the context of making a vital new argument about the role of U.S. funding in making a war that is less about drugs themselves than enabling capitalist expansion.

She also offers a framework for thinking about various kinds of social control. In our interview with her, she noted, "In the U.S., that social control comes through the prison system, and it is primarily deployed against young people of color. In Mexico and elsewhere, the social control linked to the drug war is exercised primarily through the deployment of terror." These are essential connections to make in the global struggle for freedom, and Paley's book offers an important way to make those connections.

The book is ultimately explanatory, complicating the situation in Latin America and the blurry lines between cartels, state governments and militaries, and U.S. aid. Paley acknowledges that her picture might cause readers despair as the neoliberal logics of the drug war seem to strangle the land and people with terror and violence. She hopes, though, that her work "will help to nourish future actions and thinking in defense of the land and of autonomous spaces outside of or in contradiction to capitalism." For the reader looking for answers, Paley's book will disappoint, but it is relentlessly honest: There's no easy way out.

Paley will discuss her book on Friday, Dec. 12 at 7:30 p.m. at Red Emma's, 30 W. North Ave., (443) 602-7585, redemmas.org.

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