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A Jaw-Dropping Explanation of How Governments Are Complicit in the Illegal Drug Trade

The drug war is far, far more than just simply criminals at work, says scholar Oliver Villar.

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I mean, we have to ask the question: how can such a drug trade flourish under the very nose of the leading hegemonic power in the Americas, if not the world, the United States? You had the Chinese Revolution, you had even authoritarian regimes, fascist regimes, that were able to wipe out the drug trade. Why can't the Western powers with all the resources that they have put a dent on it? 

But instead they have actually exacerbated the problem. It's getting worse, and the fact is there is never a real end in sight, and they don't want to change their policies, so someone is clearly benefiting and suffering from this. 

The logic, if we can call it that, is the conclusion that it is part of that paradox and part of their interest to maintain this political economy. We can look at it from a different angle, if you like. 

Look at oil, our dependence on hydrocarbons. We know that is bad for our environment, we know what scientists call "Peak Oil", and we know we will have problems with that form of energy system, but it continues. So is it in their interest to stop this? No, it isn't. This is what I see as the very fabric of capitalism and imperialism, and that the logic becomes the illogical and the conclusion becomes part of the contradiction. That's why I don't see it as a failure at all but very much in the interest, stubbornly or not, of US imperialism to drag on this war on drugs. 

LS: Can you tell us some of the reasons for the period in Colombian history that is called "La Violencia" and how it played a role ideologically in the Cold War as it was fought in Colombia? 

O.V. "La Violencia" was a period in Colombian history and probably the only time that the Colombian state acknowledged that the country was in a war with itself, a civil war, if you will. In 1948, there was a popular liberal candidate named Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a populist leader, who was promising land reform, and he promised at least to the landless and the poorest in Colombia that something would change in the country. 

Since then, an ultra-conservative and reactionary oligarchy has remained in power in Colombia. What this candidate stood for was some shake-up in the system. Gaitain was assassinated, conservatives were blamed for the assassination, and from there on we saw a civil war that dragged on up until 1958, when you saw the nucleus of the main body of armed resistance, which is now the FARC, take shape. 

Ideologically, the Cold War was seen as a way to justify the state repression which continued. Something like 300,000 people were killed in "La Violencia". But not much changed afterward. After 1958, there was no end to the class war. This was basically a war between those with land and those without land, which is important to understand in the political economy of cocaine in Colombia: that's the land, the problem of land. And this dragged on after 1958. So rather than viewing it as a problem that's historical involving land, they saw it as a problem of communism, but of course, once the Cold War ended there needed to be a justification to drag on this repression. 

Conveniently, we increasingly heard terms like the "war on drugs", "narco-terrorism" - and that provided ideological ammunition for the United States and the Colombian state and its ruling class to target the same revolutionary and main forms of resistance in Colombia. This included trade unions, student associations, peasant organization, and the same kind of what are considered subversive elements in Colombia. 

So the "war on terror" you could say is a continuation of very much the same rational that the state was using during "La Violencia". It is a continuing problem, which continues to be resolved by the state with force, which means to treat the security problem through military repression. So it's a serious problem in the wake of this political economy because violence becomes the means in which this political economy can be maintained. 

LS: When did the cocaine business actually begin big time in Colombia? According to the book Cocaine: Global Histories, before cocaine was made illegal by the single convention of the United Nations in March 1961 it came primarily from Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. [5] Why was the shift taking place then from Asia to Colombia, Peru and Bolivia? 

OV: In the context of the Cold War, it wasn't just simply an ideological war, it was also very much a real war in where there was resistance to capitalist and financial arrangements that were implemented throughout the world financial system at that time. 

In Asia we know, of course, there was the Vietnam War; we also had the Chinese Revolution beforehand, as I have mentioned before, and we know that drugs became a way to finance much of the counterinsurgency operations that were going on. We know for example that Chiang Kai-shek, the leader of the Kuomintang who fought Mao Zedong in the Chinese civil war and the Chinese Revolutionary process, was a drug trafficker himself. Many of the contacts that the CIA had in Vietnam, particular in South Vietnam, were also deeply enmeshed in the drug trade. 

What was known as the World Anti-Communist League at that time drew much of these alliances and organizations together in order to finance much of their operations. But when the Vietnam war eventually draw to a close, what did we see? We began to see a shift, not only with counter-insurgency operations against what was seen as communist insurgencies, but also in drug trafficking operations. 

This was essentially the time where I noticed, and this was of vital importance for the book, that the same kind of arrangements were emerging in Latin America. The regional section of World Anti-Communist League was the Confederation in Latin America, which was then headed by Argentina, particularly the military junta of 1976, and they saw by learning from lessons in Asia that by allying themselves and by managing drug operations themselves, and so forth, and by using the same elements to finance these operations against the communists, they could do the same. 

From there we saw some very important unfolding of history, which was the great concentration of operations within the drug trade, in Bolivia in particular with the Cocaine Coup of 1980, where you even had former Nazis who were employed and used with their experience to undergo these operations. [6] The Colombians, long before they became the main cocaine production center, saw this as an opportunity to get involved and take advantage of the situation. From there we saw the beginnings of the modern cocaine trade in Latin America which is now global, and has reached a global scale. 

LS: What function had in their time famous drug lords like Pablo Escobar? What was the secret of his success in particular? 

OV: As an entrepreneur he did see the events, particularly in Bolivia, I think, as an opportunity. Before then it was marijuana, not cocaine, that was the main drug at that time in the late 1970's. He saw a great opportunity to actually invest. He was the first to really begin to use small planes to traffic and smuggle cocaine into the United States. He became famous and a pioneer because he saw the opportunities at least from a capitalist perspective - what this would bring for what would became the Medellin Cartel. 

He became after the Bolivian chapter the clear cocaine monopolist from the 1980s and so on. I think it had to do with his experience in the marijuana trade which allowed it to happen. He also made contacts with the very Bolivians who were providing him with the supply of coca. It was his far-sightedness to take full advantage of the situation. 

LS: Despite the US claims that it is engaged in a war against drugs in Colombia, it is in fact engaged in an anti-insurgency war against the left-wing FARC guerillas, is this correct? 

OV: This is correct. What is known as "Plan Colombia" was a program first devised by president Bill Clinton, and, as I explained, from the Cold War onwards we had that growing drug problem in Colombia. What Clinton saw as the solution to deal with the insurgency was to say: Let's give it a drug package. What "Plan Colombia" did though was under the mask of the war on drugs it actually made it into a military package itself. Most of the money had military operations and training in focus. So what this did since the late 1990s is in fact make it a war against the FARC guerrillas. 

You have to take into account that the FARC have been there long before the cocaine trade appeared in the 1980s or the cocaine decade when it became big time. And so by focusing on the FARC, they can also be blamed for the drug trade. The New York Times is good at that, they see them seen as narco-terrorists. So the Colombian state can say: Well, we are fighting a war on drugs and terror, and the United States can also say: Well, they are our key partners in the Western hemisphere in this war. And they can also gear themselves to deal with the broader politics in the region, to deal with Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and other nations which are fast becoming much more independent and left-leaning. 

So it brings in a whole lot of other politics into question, but by fighting the FARC as the main threat to the Colombian state it deals with it in a very military way. They are a threat indeed, because they are not simply as they are called narco-terrorists, they are a group that has been indigenous to the history of Colombia, which past presidencies have actually acknowledged. But since September 11, 2001, there has been this increasing radicalization by the ruling class in Colombia to see no other alternative but finally to destroy the FARC once and for all. 

LS: Which has come, sadly enough, as a high price to the Colombian population in general. 

OV: Yes, we are looking at horrific statistics that go way beyond the state crimes of the 20th century in Latin America. Up until now it was Central America, Guatemala who held the record of victims from state-terror - 200,000. Second came Argentina with 30,000. Colombia has experienced 250,000 victims of state-terrorism in the past two presidencies alone, so since 2002 onwards. So this is quite horrific. Also the effects on trade unions are quite horrific. More trade unionists are killed in Colombia than in the whole world combined. It has the lowest rate of unionization in the whole continent. It has actually come to the point where there are not many more unionists to murder. 

Yet, this is not an issue, this is not a problem, and much of the world does not know much about this. It is quite ironic if we look at the war on terror in the Middle East, where we are hearing a lot of news about the Assad regime in Syria, the "rebels" there, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya was also terrible so we had to go in there and support the "rebels" - yet, we got the world's oldest rebel organization, more than half-a-century old, which has popular support among the poorest in Colombian society, and that is why they are able to continue the fight, and it's not drugs or terrorism, no.

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