A Jaw-Dropping Explanation of How Governments Are Complicit in the Illegal Drug Trade
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Note: The following interview helps us understand the drug war from a dramatically different perspective than the one the corporate media paints. Instead the traditional portrayal of the war on drugs as a fight between law enforcement and illicit drug dealers, scholar Oliver Villar explains that the illegal drug trade is a tool of empire a means of "social control" as much as profit. Villar, a lecturer in politics at Charles Sturt University in Bathurst, Australia's insight is well worth the read.
Lars Schall: What has been your main motivation to spend 10 years of your life to the subject of the drug trade?
Oliver Villar: The main motivation goes sometime back. I think it has to do firstly with my own experiences in growing up in working class suburbs in Sydney, Australia. It always has been an area that I found very curious and fascinating just to think about how rampant and persuasive drugs really are in our communities, and just by looking at it in more recent times how much worse the drug problem has become, not just in lower socio-economic areas, but everywhere.
But from then on, when I finally had the opportunity to do so, I actually undertook this as a PhD thesis. I spent my time carefully looking at firstly what was written on the drug trade, but as coming from Latin America, I was very interested in particular in the Latin American drug trade as well.
So I looked at the classic works such Alfred W McCoy's Politics of Heroin, Peter Dale Scott's Cocaine Politics, Douglas Valentine's The Strength of the Wolf, and works that related not just to the drug trade, but from various angles including political science perspectives to see what we know about drugs.
I found there were a lot of gaps missing, and there was a lot written on Asia, on Central America, particular from the 1980s, if you recall the Iran-Contra theme and scandal, but nothing really on where drugs actually come from. Eventually my research took me to Colombia, and in the Western hemisphere at least, cocaine became that subject of investigation. I looked at it from a political economy perspective, and so from there on you can kind of get an idea about some of the influences in my background in eventually taking that much time to do it.
LS: Does the drug trade work very differently than people usually assume?
OV: Well, yes. What do people usually assume? Well, it's a criminological subject of investigation, it's a crime approach, it's criminals, it's pretty much a Hollywood kind of spectacle where it becomes clear who the good and the bad guys are. But what I found, it's far more than just simply criminals at work.
What we do know, if you go back to the history of the global drug trade, which I did pursue, you find that states, not just individuals or criminals, were also part of the process of production and distribution. The most notorious example is the British colonial opium trade, where much of that process was happening in a very wide scale, where the British not only gained financially but also used it as a political form of social control and repression.
What did they do? In China they were able quite effectively to open up the market to British control. This is just one example. And from there on I looked at other great powers and the way they also somehow managed to use drugs as a political instrument, but also as a form of financial wealth, as you could say, or revenue to maintain and sustain their power. The great power of today I have to say is the United States, of course. These are some of the episodes and investigations that I have looked at in my new book.
LS: From my perspective as a financial journalist it is remarkable to see that you treat cocaine as just another capitalist commodity, like copper, soy beans or coffee, but then again as a uniquely imperial commodity.  Can you explain this approach, please?
OV: Again drawing upon past empires or great powers, it becomes an imperial commodity because it is primarily serving the interests of that imperial state. If we look at the United States for instance, it becomes an imperial commodity just as much as opium became a British imperial commodity in a way it related to the Chinese. It means the imperial state is there to gain from the wealth, the United States in this case, but it also means that it serves as a political instrument to harness and maintain a political economy which is favorable to imperial interests.
We had the "War on Drugs", for example. It is a way how an imperial power can intervene and also penetrate a society much like the British were able to do with China in many respects. So it is an imperial commodity because it does serve that profit mechanism, but it is also an instrument for social control and repression.
We see this continuity with examples where this takes place. And Colombia, I think, was the most outstanding and unique example which I have made into an investigative case study itself.
Another thing worth mentioning is what actually makes the largest sectors of global trade, what are they? It's oil, arms, and drugs - the difference being that because drugs are seen as an illegal product, economists don't study it as just another capitalist commodity - but it is a commodity. If you look at it from a market perspective, it works pretty much the same way as other commodities in the global financial system.
LS: Cocaine has become one more means for extracting surplus value on which to realize profits and thus accumulate capital. But isn't it the criminalized status of drugs that makes this whole business possible in the first place?
OV: We have to think about what would happen if it was decriminalized? It would actually be a bad thing if you were a drug lord or someone to a large extent gaining from the drug trade. What happens if it is criminalized is that you are able to gain wealth and profit from something that is very harmful to society. First of all, it will never be politically acceptable for politicians to say: You know, we think that the war on drugs is failing, so we decriminalize it. That would be almost political suicide.
We know it is very harmful to society, and by keeping it criminalized it leaves a very grey area, not only in the studies and investigations that I've noticed on the drug trade, but it also leaves a very grey area in terms of how the state actually tackles the drug problem.
In many ways for law enforcement it allows a grey area in order to fight it. For instance, we can look for example at the financial center, which gains predominantly from it. But it also allows the criminal elements, which are so key to making it work, flourish.
And by not touching that, by largely ignoring the main criminal operation to take form and to operate, then what you are doing by criminalizing drugs is that you are actually stimulating that demand. So there is also that financial element to the whole issue as well. That's why this business is actually possible by that criminalized status.
LS: Do you think that those who were responsible to make cocaine or opium globally illegal were unaware that they were creating a very profitable business with that arrangement?
OV: If you are looking at the true pioneers who started much of the cocaine trade in South America, these were drug traffickers from places like Bolivia, which had a clear monopoly of coca production, and also at the people that formed the cartels in the 1980's like the Medellin cartel or the Cali cartel and other groups, I think they were not aware of the way things would eventually turn out.
But the other element, the state element, which made it part of their imperial interests to allow the drug trade to flourish, I think they perhaps had some sense - just looking at things in retrospective, of course - that this would be a very profitable business within that arrangement.
At the time of the 1980s in Latin America, it was pretty much seen as a means to fund operations, and at that time these were essentially counter-insurgency operations in the context of the Cold War. There was no real big ambition to say "We will create the drug trade because it is a very large business opportunity." I think it just became that because it was something that was of convenience - and that's exactly what we see now in how the banks operate today: it's of financial convenience, why get rid of it? Out of these historical patterns it has become what it has become, but for different reasons.
I don't think that even Pablo Escobar would have imagined just how enormous the global drug trade would become. They were largely driven by self-interests and their own profits. But then the state made it much bigger and made it into a regional institutionalized phenomenon that we see to this day. And we can see also how the state in parts of South America, like Bolivia with the 1980 Cocaine Coup as it was known, and also the rampant institutionalization of cocaine in Colombia, has become very much part of this arrangement.