Through a century of drug war, it’s been documented, then forgotten again and again:
Law and State enforce, rather than limit, drug trafficking and its associated violence. The world of the illegal drug trade is nothing without its “legal” collaborators.
“Drug trafficking without government protection and government without the support of the drug traffickers wouldn’t be able to do anything, they couldn’t work. Both have to work together.” — Pablo Tostado, drug trafficker (Narcoland)
The journalist Anabel Hernández has written extensively about the American- Mexican drug trade and the many links between drug traffickers and government officials, both Mexican and American. This work has earned her both a Golden Pen of Freedom and two bodyguards. She has suggested, in her excellent book Narcoland, that drug barons from Pablo Escobar to El Chapo wouldn’t have been able to gain the power they did, had it not been for mutually beneficial agreements with state power. In Narcoland, she documents how Mexican governments have always had relationships with drug traffickers. One example is the 2006-2012 administration of Felipe Calderón, which had close ties to the Sinaloa cartel, targeting only rival cartels during the escalation of military action in his presidency. The Mexico that Hernández documents is a state completely absorbed into the drug trade’s colossal, capital generating machinery, which transcends official rules and commercial regulations, but blossoms due to the most basic of capitalist rules: supply and demand. Some might believe that Mexico is a special case; that the merger between state and cartels seen there isn’t commonplace. It’s widely believed that it’s possible to identify two opposing sides fighting when we talk about the War On Drugs, and that the state is usually on the “good” side. Sadly, that is not the world we live in. This article intends to make that clear, by highlighting some cases of state power facilitating drug trafficking and arguing for how this exemplifies the inherent selfdefeating nature of drug laws.
Back when this was news
The United States is the most powerful state apparatus in the world, and its influence on worldwide drug policy, and worldwide drug markets, is unparalleled. Here is how: For years and years (and years), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), with the whole might of the American state behind it, has protected drug traffickers. The importance of the helping hand of the CIA for one’s ability to produce and move drugs across the globe, particularly to destinations in Europe and America, cannot be understated. This is not a conspiracy theory. It’s based on well-documented facts. It’s also old news — a dead horse which nonetheless deserves to be beaten without mercy. I believe it crystallizes a hard truth about any country fighting against drugs: Law and State enforce, rather than limit, drug trafficking and its associated violence. And of course, above all, capital is what dictates the relationship between these elements, and makes the lines between legality and illegality especially blurry. In 1972, historian Alfred W. McCoy published the first book detailing serious, welldocumented allegations of CIA involvement with the drug trade, specifically the opium trade in Southeast Asia. The book’s release led to a Congressional hearing, but in a turn of events that would be a promise of the future, the assurance that no CIA agent had directly fondled opium (an accusation McCoy hadn’t made) was all Congress needed to be satisfied. What the CIA did do was provide protection, arms and training to allied drug lords. It was pretty simple: The better equipped the allied guerrillas, the more useful. And it’s expensive to arm guerillas. As most of us learn through bitter experience, few things in this world come for free. Certainly, influence over proxy armies is not one of them. The drug trade allowed them access to seemingly endless funds, adding fuel to the fire, and the CIA didn’t have to waste time waiting for budget approval from back home to keep their allies happy. This gave agents considerably more control and freedom from bureaucracy. Win-win! In this way, drug funds came to make up a central element of the covert wars fought by CIA assets in Vietnam and Burma. While this marked the first major exposé of these kinds of CIA tactics, it wasn’t the first time such tactics were employed by the agency — nor would it be the last. This most definitely wasn’t some one-time arrangement, or the work of a few loose cannons within the agency. As good old McCoy, who would dedicate much of his life in a fruitless effort of meticulously documenting the CIA’s colossal fat fingerprint on the world’s drug trade, wrote: “After a string of knowing alliances with drug lords in its major covert wars — Burma, Laos, Afghanistan, and Nicaragua — over a span of forty years, it seems clear that such realpolitik was central to the CIA’s strategy for fighting the cold war.”
Fighting communism, by any means necessary
The sole reason the CIA was established in the first place, back in 1947, was to fight communism. A telling example of the agency’s priorities: After the CIA’s decade long covert war in Afghanistan, while the country was under Soviet occupation, the former director of the agency’s Afghanistan-affairs section was asked about allegations that certain collaborators had become powerful drug lords while working with the CIA. He stated matter-of-factly that the CIA had nothing to apologize for. Their goal was to fight the Russians, not solve drug crimes. During the 1980s, Afghanistan became the world’s biggest producer of opium. It was turned into heroin in drug labs across the Pakistan-Afghanistan border and made up, by far, the biggest share of heroin consumed in the U.S. and Europe. The intelligence community and Congress knew this, but accepted it as the price of fighting a just fight. Needless to say, no policy changes regarding punishment of American drug users were ever considered, even though the nation’s main supplier of heroin had the blessing and helping hand of the American security apparatus itself to expand business.
You can’t make this shit up
The popular series Narcos, about the rise and fall of Pablo Escobar, touches briefly on problems that arise with American agents collaborating with drug traffickers in order to bring down other drug traffickers. In the series, a lonesome DEA agent begins to exchange information with an unholy trinity — two drug cartels and a group of paramilitary nationalists — in order to take Escobar down. The goal is achieved, the drug lord is dethroned, but the agent must face just how little this has affected the flow of narcotics. It’s revealed that while Escobar’s regime crumbled, the amount of cocaine smuggled into the U.S. has actually gone up. The whole campaign to bring down the kingpin, from an American perspective, has been a spectacular failure. The depiction of the agent in Narcos is classic Hollywood. He has got his heart in the right place. His methods may be unconventional, but damn it, he gets the job done! Most importantly, he is a lone wolf. In reality, ongoing agreements with cartels go way beyond what idealistic lone wolves can accomplish. The DEA has repeatedly used this collaboration tactic, apparently taking a page from the CIA’s book — most recently (to my knowledge), between 2000 and 2012, years in which the agency had a deal with the Sinaloa cartel, who exchanged intell on rival cartels in exchange for a free pass to smuggle drugs into the U.S., which was uncovered in the Mexican newspaper El Universal. This led to substantial blows to competing drug lords, according to testimony from a DEA agent, effectually centralizing the power in the Mexican underworld, but of course not stagnating the flow of drugs moving across the border or stanching the death count of civilians. As mentioned earlier, the Sinaloa cartel was the preferred business partner of the Mexican government between 2006 and 2012, according to Anabel Hernández. But even when the DEA isn’t cooperating with cartels, the result of a takedown has always been more trafficking, because targeting one leader provides a helping hand to his competition. And there is always somebody waiting to pick up where another dealer left off. Fictionalized stories of drug lords always make for good drama, but the real stories go depressingly deeper. An interesting fact not mentioned in Narcos is that Escobar at one point had a mutually beneficial relationship with the CIA. At least that is what you might assume, knowing that he contributed $10 million to one of the agency’s foreign causes (not directly to the agency, mind you). It’s probably safe to assume he didn’t do it out of the kindness of his heart.
The Contras, Gary Webb and the wrath of the American Press
The donation Escobar made was for the Contras, a group of exiled Nicaraguans put out of power in the 1979 revolution by the communist Sandinistas. They were very closely associated with the CIA. So close, in fact, that the CIA “hired them, picked their leaders, plotted their strategy” and sometimes even “executed raids for them”, according to journalist Charles Bowden. The Contras needed money to fight the Sandinistas. At first they were openly financed by the U.S., but when Congress cut their funding, they found it somewhere else. They connected with the Colombian Medellín cartel, run by Escobar. The former chief accountant of the Medellín cartel, Ramón Milián (who allegedly delivered the money) and Carlos Lehder Rivas (another leading figure of the cartel), have both confirmed the $10 million contribution that started the business relationship. For Escobar, this was a wise investment; Anabel Hernández alleges that the Medellín cartel was granted “open doors for its drug shipments” into the U.S. in return, and that without a link to the CIA, this wouldn’t have been possible. An important connection between Colombia, Nicaragua and the U.S. was Mexico. (Later, Mexico’s role as their distribution link would make Mexican cartels the world’s most powerful criminal organizations). Once again, drug money came to make up a substantial part of a CIA-supported combat against communism. Through the ’80s, the Medellín cartel took over lucrative smuggling operations, as told in Narcos. It became the biggest supplier of cocaine to America. The CIA helped make this happen. Old news. According to McCoy, “All major U.S. agencies have gone on the record stating, with varying degrees of frankness, that the Medellín cartel used Contra forces to smuggle cocaine into the United States.” In 1995, a small American newspaper launched a series about the CIA collaboration with the Contras. Though the story wasn’t even news (having already been uncovered in the ’80s while it was happening), the journalist responsible, Gary Webb, saw his career destroyed — primarily by a loyal corps of fellow journalists who apparently saw it as their duty to make sure the good name of the CIA wasn’t dragged through the mud. Journalist Charles Bowden, somewhat of an authority on the drug war from both sides of the American-Mexican border, fact-checked Webb, and to his surprise, discovered that Webb was right on the money. Nobody else bothered to do so. And even worse, it seemed like the facts didn’t matter. Once again, the question of whether any CIA agents had touched any drugs became the important issue. Webb’s series led to an internal investigation of the CIA, where they could assure everyone that this had not been the case. Webb’s critics, such as big mainstream news outlets like the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and New York Times, took this as final proof that Webb had been wrong and ignored the investigation’s other, truly astonishing findings, which proved that the agency knew the Contras were smuggling cocaine from the get-go, but did nothing to stop it. They were even absolved by the Justice Department of any duty to report drug smuggling by their non-employees. See no evil, hear no evil. More than just looking away, the CIA provided aircraft and protection from U.S. law enforcement to the Contras. Other agencies who investigated the groups’ smuggling activities were kindly asked to fuck off. But even so, ultimately, none of that mattered. Rather than lack of evidence, perhaps this was due to lack of will to actually look at the evidence and accept the ugly picture it painted of the state power. Instead, a strange logic was cultivated by journalists, according to which the CIA couldn’t be faulted for what their hired subjects may have done, with the knowledge and help of the agency. It’s easy to see why the agency itself would push this narrative. It’s harder to understand why on earth most of the established press would follow suit. But they did. The allegations were old news. John Kerry (who would later become Secretary of State) headed a Senate subcommittee in 1989, initiated as a response to the previous reporting, where many of the connections were unearthed. Then, he stated that it was “mind boggling” to think the U.S. government had been involved in drug trafficking while leading a crusade against drug use. Truly. Gary Webb’s reputation was destroyed; he finally took his own life when it became clear that he would never be able to work as a journalist again. Sadly, the CIA didn’t need to do much to discredit him and his allegations against them. They congratulated themselves on this in a report, gleefully noting that articles about flaws in Webb’s reporting far outnumbered articles dealing with the actual story. They couldn’t believe their luck! It didn’t matter that there was a huge body of evidence to support the fact that the CIA facilitated drug smuggling, a subcommittee of Senators coming to the same conclusion, or a damn internal investigation by the agency itself admitting the fact. The CIA survives.
Banks, prisons and cartels: the blurring lines between legal and illegal
The examples of state agencies linked to drug trafficking are extreme, but I believe they hold relevance for any country engaged in the war on drugs, not just the United States. They are symptomatic of the connection between the state and the drug trade, worldwide. This is not about two opposing sides in a war that can be won. It’s about a cooperative relationship, though not necessarily as blatant as the cases with the U.S. and Mexico. As I’ve argued in the case with the DEA, any victories the law wins against a drug syndicate must always benefit another drug operation, intentionally or not. Case in point, Pakistan and Afghanistan: While the CIA was fighting its covert war, it tolerated open sales and production of opium in Pakistan and ignored the many labs turning Afghan opium into heroin. After the war, the U.S. pressured Pakistan to change its policies and enforce strict laws against drug use, production and sale. But what do you know — this just escalated things further over the border in lawless Afghanistan. They already had most of the production of opium, so it apparently wasn’t all that hard to set up heroin labs as well. It wasn’t a problem to escalate production to make up for the loss of opium from Pakistan either. Similarly, the crackdown on Colombian cartels created an opening for the Mexican cartels. This is an essential problem of prohibition. Drug laws defeat their own purpose, because they secure funding for criminal organizations by ceding to them control of a huge, highly in-demand market. In this capitalist world of ours, supply and demand is a much stronger force than the rule of law. This leads me to touch on another central part of the drug game, which deserves a dishonorable mention: the most rocksolid institution in all of society. I’m talking, of course, about banks. Money laundering is essential to the drug economy, and this is done through lawyers and bankers. Much like state agencies, financial institutions are largely held unaccountable for any laundering of drug money they might engage in. Banks only risk paying a miniscule fine. This is nothing compared to their illicit earnings, as was the case with HSBC; it was discovered that the Sinaloa cartel had been laundering billions of money through the bank. There are plenty of other examples. In the aftermath of such scandals, there is never any individual prosecution. The mere promise that nobody in the bank knew they were laundering money is sufficient, just like the CIA assuring the public that they did not handle drugs themselves. It would seem that state operatives and bankers are simply incapable of committing drug-related crimes! So why would they stop committing these (non-)crimes? The “legal” and “illegal” elements of the drug trade are in a symbiotic relationship. Drug lords are just the more visible parts, receiving the media attention and grand cinematic stories, but it’s the well-dressed government officials and businessmen who are, in the words of Hernández, “the true lords of the drug world.” The prisonindustrial complex is another totally legal institution that benefits greatly from prohibition and the drug war. Prison lobbies have successfully blocked reform of drug laws many times, openly arguing that their profits would decrease. Safe to say, the list of people benefitting from the drug war is long, but it’s the power- holders on both sides of the imaginary fence who prosper, not the people who make up the majority of our world – millions of whom get abducted, murdered, tortured or imprisoned as a result of the war on drugs. All this is old news, well established and broadly discussed, but often, it seems, only within small academic circles, where such knowledge isn’t considered dangerous. Perhaps this is why Gary Webb and a long, long list of Mexican journalists are now dead, while good old McCoy continues to document these matters for academia. Massmedia investigation of these matters often appears much later, after the facts are considered done-with, in a sense. Old news. But the consequences are still very much visible all around us, in the statistics of victims of the drug war killed by cartels, their own government, or from overdoses. The people with an interest in upholding the status quo don’t have highly moral reasons for doing so. It’s all about political power struggles and business advantage. And especially in the media, those countering facts by throwing accusations of “conspiracy theory,” or toning down the significance of evidence, are valuable idiots to the people in power. The world of the illegal drug trade is nothing without its “legal” collaborators: big banks, corporations and, of course, a little help from government. This is no sensational breaking story, but one we should keep spreading, as it so clearly reveals the hypocrisy of the war on drugs.
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CIA complicity in the global drug trade.
Hernández, Anabel. 2013 (2010). Narcoland: the
Mexican Drug Lords and their Godfathers
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Value of Drug Addicts: Uses of the Useless.
Esquire Magazine. 1998. The Pariah. Written by
The Intercept. 2014. Managing a Nightmare.
Written by Ryan Devereaux. www.theintercept.com
NPR. 2014. Awash In Cash, Drug Cartels Rely On
Big Banks to Launder Profits. Written by John
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laundering of drug money. Written by David
CNN. 2013. The true godfathers of “Narcoland”.
Written by Anabel Hernández.
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Mexican Drug cartel: Report. Written by Per Liljas.
El Universal. 2014. La Guerra secreta de la DEA
en México. Written by Doris Gómora.
Narcos. 2015. Netflix.