A Jaw-Dropping Explanation of How Governments Are Complicit in the Illegal Drug Trade
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But then again, it would not have been possible without the imperial hand of particular the United States and the intelligence agencies. There we have that imperial commodity and imperial connection as well. They didn't work alone, in all these criminal elements, of course, there was an imperial hand in much of all of this, but why it happened, I think, is the matter of debate.
LS: Catherine Austin Fitts, a former investment banker from Wall Street, shared this observation once with me:
Essentially, I would say the governments run the drug trade, but they're not the ultimate power, they're just one part, if you will, of managing the operations. Nobody can run a drug business, unless
the banks will do their transactions and handle their money. If you want to understand who controls the drug trade in a place, you need to ask yourself who is it that has to accept to manage the transactions and to manage the capital, and that will lead you to the answer who's in control. 
What are your thoughts on this essential equation?
OV: Going back to my emphasis on the state, coming from a political science background, this is what some criminologists would say, that this is state-organized crime, and the emphasis is the state. And again if we go back to the global history of the drug trade, this isn't something new. If we look at piracy, for example, that was another form of state-organized crime sanctioned by the state because it served very similar means as the drug capital of today serves as well.
So yes, the state is very much involved in managing it but it cannot do it alone. You have the US Drug Enforcement Administration, for example, which is officially the law enforcement department of the US state in charge of combating the drugs; and you also have other intelligence agencies like the CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] that are involved in fighting drugs, but also, as I have seen in my studies, actually allowing much of the drug and financial operations to continue.
We saw recently similar things unfolding in Mexico with the operation "Fast and Furious", where CIA arms were making their way to drug cartels in Mexico. We can draw our own conclusions, but what we do know is that the state is central to understanding these operations, involving governments, their agencies, and banks fulfilling a role.
LS: How does the money laundering work and where does the money primarily go to?
OV: We know that the estimated value of the global drug trade - and this is also debated by analysts - is worth something between US$300 billion to $500 billion a year. Half of that, something between $250-$300 billion and over actually goes to the United States. So what does this say if you use that imperial political economy approach I've talked about? It means that the imperial center, the financial center, is getting the most, and so it is in no interest for any great power (or state) to stop this if great amounts of the profits are flowing to the imperial center.
What I find very interesting and very valuable are the contemporary events that are unfolding right now, the reports that even come out in the mainstream media about Citigroup and other very well-known money laundering banks being caught out laundering drug money for drug traffickers across South America and in Mexico as well, as the so-called war on drugs is unfolding.
The global financial crisis is another example, because the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime came out and said it was thanks to the global drug trade that the financial system was kept afloat, where all this money was being pumped in from were from key imperial financial centers like New York, like London and Switzerland, and so on. In this case, money laundering is simply beyond again that criminology framework; it does involve that imperial state perspective, and I think that's the way it remains because of these benefits.
LS: Do you think that "lax policies" are responsible for the fact that large multi-national banks are laundering drug profits? 
OV: If you think again about the criminalized status of drugs, it's criminalized in society, but when it comes to the economic and financial sector, which should be criminalized, it is actually decriminalized. So we have some kind of contradiction and paradox where it would be great if it would be criminalized, but when it comes to the financial sector, it is actually fine - it's lax, it's unregulated, and we know that the US Federal Reserve, for example, can monitor any deposit over $10,000, so it's not that they don't know - they know what's going on.
It rolls back to your previous question. It continues to benefit the imperial global architecture, particular in the West, and so it becomes a lax policy approach towards these money laundering banks because they wouldn't have it any other way, there is much resistance to it.
Since Barack Obama came to power in 2008 and the financial crisis took hold thereafter, we've heard a lot of promises from Western leaders that they would get tough and so on, yet today we see that nothing much has changed. We've had now this episode with Barclays in the UK and the price fixing [of the important London Interbank Offered Rate] - this goes on.
Of course, they prefer to have this contradiction and paradox in place, because this is in fact what is allowing the drug profits to come in. If the government would take this problem seriously and would actually do something about these money-laundering banks, we would see a real effort to fight the drug problem, but that is not going to happen any time soon.
The last time we ever heard there was a serious effort to do this was in the 1980s and only because of much pressure, where George Bush Sr was forced to act in what was known as "Operation Greenback".
What happened was that they started to find an increasing number of drug money-laundering receipts in Florida and other southern parts of the United States. This started to work, they put pressure on the financial companies which were actually involved in that process - and then he suspended it all, the whole investigation. That would have been an opportunity to actually do something, but of course it was suspended, and ever since we haven't seen any serious effort, despite the rhetoric, to actually do something.
LS: Why is it that the [George W] Bush and Obama Departments of Justice have spent trillions of dollars on a war on terrorism and a war on drugs, while letting US banks launder money for the same people that the nation is supposedly at war with"? 
OV: That is another issue that is part of the contradiction of imperialism, or the process that I call "narco-colonialism". The stated objectives are very different to the real objectives. They may claim that they are fighting a war on drugs or on terror, but in fact they are fighting a war for the drug financial revenue through terror, and by doing that they have to make alliances with the very same people who are benefiting from the drug trade as we see in Colombia.
The main landlords and the business class who own the best land have connections with right-wing paramilitaries, which the DEA knows are actually exporting the drugs, and have direct connections to various governments and presidencies throughout recent Colombian history. These are the same people who are actually being given carte blanche to fight the war on terror in the Western hemisphere - yet this is a contradiction that no one ever questions.
So I think it's not about fighting the real terrorists, it's about fighting and financing resistance to that problem, and in Colombia there has been a civil war for quite a number of years. It's really the same paradox; it's funding the very same state mechanisms to allow the whole thing to continue.
LS: What should our readers know about the political economy of the drug trade created by the war on drugs?
OV: What we should know is that there needs to be a complete restructure and revision in the way we examine the drug trade. First of all, it's not crime that is at the center of the political economy, but it is the state, imperialism and class - that I think is essential, or at least I find it very useful in examining the drug trade.
We can see that clear in Colombia, where you have a narco-bourgeoisie which is essentially the main beneficiary there. These aren't just the landlords, these are also the paramilitaries, key members of the police, the military and the government; but also the connection to the United States, which is a political relationship, which is financing them to fight their common enemy, which is at this point in time the left-wing guerrillas, predominantly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the FARC.
So this again goes back to your previous question about this contradiction: why are trillions of dollars being waged to fight the drug trade in Colombia, but also in Afghanistan, when like in Colombia, everybody knows Afghanistan has a very corrupt regime and many of them are drug lords themselves who are the main beneficiaries in that country?
It has little to do with drugs, it has little to do with terrorists, it has everything to do with empire building, of which the main beneficiary is the United States.
LS: Since you already mentioned it, what is the major importance of the narco-bourgeoisie in Colombia seen from a market perspective?
OV: This goes again back to the notion of who is managing the drug trade, and Catherine Austin Fitts' perspective includes the government, and I sympathize with that approach, but we must bring class to that political economy of drugs. Why is class important? Why is a narco-bourgeoisie important? Well, it's because without a class that not only is growing, producing, and distributing the drugs and has the state resources to do so thanks to US financial assistance and military training and operations, we would not have a cocaine trade.
So the narco-bourgeoisie is essential and the main connection to that imperial relationship that the United States has. Without that kind of arrangement there would be no market in Colombia. So from a market perspective, these are the people who are essentially arranging and managing the drug trade in order to let the cocaine trade actually flourish. In the past, the same kind of people were fighting communists; today they are fighting "terrorists" supposedly.
LS: You are arguing in your book that the war on drugs is no failure at all, but a success. How do you come to that conclusion?
OV: I come to that conclusion because what do we know so far about the war on drugs? Well, the US has spent about US$1 trillion throughout the globe. Can we simply say it has failed? Has it failed the drug money-laundering banks? No. Has it failed the key Western financial centers? No. Has it failed the narco-bourgeoisie in Colombia - or in Afghanistan, where we can see similar patterns emerging? No. Is it a success in maintaining that political economy? Absolutely.
So I have to say when we are looking at it from that political economy / class basis approach with this emphasis on imperialism and the state rather than simply crime, it has been a success because what it is actually doing is allowing that political economy to thrive.