Drugs Other Countries’ Ruthless Vicious Capitalists'>The War on Drugs Other Countries’ Ruthless Vicious Capitalists

This long Benjamin Wallace-Wells piece on the lost war on drugs is worth reading in any case. But I’d like to pose his description of the fizzling war between drug gangs against the US response to such fizzling violence.

First, Wallace-Wells offers a description of the truce between two Salvadoran gangs earlier this year.

Early this year, a former Salvadorean guerrilla fighter named Raul Mijango began meeting secretly with the leaders of the nation’s two largest gangs, Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Barrio 18, in prison, in an effort to negotiate a form of truce. The Salvadorean street gangs (each of which was founded in Los Angeles) are not major international movers of drugs, but they are known for an almost tribal violence, and in recent years, the conflicts between the two groups has threatened to overrun the state.

Mijango would not say who authorized his mission, though it was widely assumed that the government had sent him. The gang leaders in prison did not consult their allies in Los Angeles. But Mijango, a former guerrilla fighter, knew what exhaustion looked like. “I sensed from the beginning that they felt that maybe this was the opportunity they were looking for,” he says. In February, he asked the leaders to meet in the same room in a prison that had been set aside for that purpose, and though “the idea did not please them,” Mijango says, he felt some trust had been brokered when they saw one another face-to-face. Soon he had the framework of an agreement—in which the gangs would call off their feud with one another, would stop recruiting children. In return, the leaders wanted to be sent to other, more congenial prisons, where they could be closer to their families. That was all right with the authorities, and so, in May, the leaders were transferred.

The truce was not formally announced. The way that it reached the outside world was that the killing simply stopped.

This truce is just one of the reasons I’m so puzzled by Treasury’s decision to list MS-13 as a Transnational Criminal Organization earlier this year is so puzzling. Just after the US has made a slew of MS-13 arrests and MS-13 in El Salvador has backed off the killing, the US has decided to wield terrorist-like legal means against it.

As if we had to invent a reason to keep them illegal.

Then there’s Wallace-Wells’ explanation why–in spite of US based examples where you can target violence while leaving the drug sales intact–some top diplomats believe you can’t end the war on “drugs.”

Another reason legalization may not do much to diminish the violence is that some of the largest Mexican cartels, as they have moved more deeply into extortion and kidnapping, may be evolving out of the reach of drug policy. The problem is that some of the largest Mexican groups have moved deeper into extortion and kidnapping and have become less dependent on narcotics. “My fear is that if you legalize drugs tomorrow, I don’t think you’re going to reduce the number of cartels or the amount of homicide or the flow of illicit goods,” says Adam Blackwell, a Canadian diplomat who is the secretary for multi­dimensional security at the Organization for American States. “Focusing too much on drugs takes us away from the real issues, which are”—he searches for the right word. “Structures. Cartel structures. Gang structures.”

Blackwell’s formulation almost exactly parallels what Hillary said yesterday about the drug war.

“I respect those in the region who believe strongly that [U.S. legalization] would end the problem,” Clinton said Thursday at a Washington D.C. forum hosted by Foreign Policy magazine. “I am not convinced of that, speaking personally.”

[snip]

“I think when you’ve got ruthless vicious people who have made money one way and it’s somehow blocked, they’ll figure out another way,” she said. “They’ll do kidnapping they’ll do extortion.”

But both Blackwell and Hillary suffer from a definitional problem. As a commenter here recently noted, drug cartels are actually not cartels; that’s part of why the competition between various gangs is so violent. So it can’t be the “cartel structures” that distinguishes gangs from other capitalist enterprises (many of which are much closer to cartels than drug gangs) that operate ruthlessly.

And while most purportedly legitimate businesses don’t kidnap (they leave that to the US government!), they do extort, though that usually takes the form of threats to take away market access.

At some point, when you take the violence away, the drug networks look like a significant group of very respectable American capitalist enterprises that use vicious techniques–that at least should and probably are illegal–to make money. At some point in this stage of the war on drug capitalists, we’re going to have to get a lot more specific about what makes these capitalists bad even though they use many of the same approaches the capitalists running our own country use.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

9 replies
  1. skeptonomist says:

    Illegal services and substances offer special opportunities – large numbers of people will pay for these things. It differs in the first instance from legitimate “free-trade” only in that the things sold are illegal. This kind of business is completely different from other kinds of crime, which are less tolerated by society and police. Other crimes such as extortion become more feasible as police are corrupted by drug money.

  2. mercurino says:

    At some point, when you take the violence away, the drug networks look like a significant group of very respectable American capitalist enterprises that use vicious techniques–that at least should and probably are illegal–to make money. At some point in this stage of the war on drug capitalists, we’re going to have to get a lot more specific about what makes these capitalists bad even though they use many of the same approaches the capitalists running our own country use.

    this is a compelling hypothesis, but i think you need to make a much greater effort to provide some specific evidence to prove it. the phrase “when you take the violence away” is doing a HELL of a lot of work here, as is your use of the vague and undefined “vicious techniques” that “American capitalist enterprises” use. Are “threats to take away market access” the only thing that constitute such “vicious techniques”? I’m not even sure what you mean by this.

    You’re advancing a provocative argument. More specifics, please!

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    @mercurino: If anything, I think Marcy pulled her punches in her excellent article. In fact, the entire war in Iraq is an example of using inordinate amounts of violence to maintain and extend US and its allies predominance in the energy market. The US Defense establishment does not exist to “defend” the US from attack. Instead, it is an aggressive and growing militarist enterprise, with 100s of bases strewn around the world, whose aim is to secure markets and resources for American capitalism. if you threaten that, or even, as Cuba did some decades ago, decide to remove yourself from US capitalism’s influence, you will be met by invasion, assassination attempts, and economic warfare.

  4. Arbusto says:

    “I think when you’ve got ruthless vicious people who have made money one way and it’s somehow blocked, they’ll figure out another way,” she said. “They’ll do kidnapping they’ll do extortion.”

    God Love Hillary. By her reasoning drug capitalists won’t increase their expansion of extortion and kidnapping or other lucrative endeavors if we continue fight an ineffective and Never Ending War® on drugs. Who’s zooming who?

  5. emptywheel says:

    @mercurino: Thanks.

    You’re right I did a lot of work with the “take the violence away.” Partly I was pointing to the Wallace-Wells part about Baltimore, where they’re only purusing the GUNS, but not the drugs. Something like that. Whereas I suspect we’re doing the opposite with the war on Latin American drug capitalists, doing things that take the drugs away but leave the assault rifles.

    But yeah, I can expand on the viciousness.

    Though one thing I’ve pointed to repeatedly is that our banksters effectively are money laundering themselves. As are most companies that operate globally. The extortion in question comes when Goldman Sachs says you can’t buy into, say, Facebook, unless you buy its obviously fraudulent securitized products. So you willingly buy into a fraud just to have access to the actually lucrative products out there.

    Stuff like that.

    Anyway, fair comment all around.

  6. Garrett says:

    @Jeff Kaye:

    Afghanistan, seen that way, is pretty damn bizarre.

    We use inordinate amounts of violence to give our supporters predominance in the drug markets. And giving our supporters predominance in the drug markets is our way of purchasing their support for our inordinate amounts of violence.

    All very circular and lacking any point.

  7. johng says:

    The cartels in the country of origin only get about 10% of the retail. The vast majority is made in the end user country. That’s a lot of cash which has to be banked. And the banks don’t want that stopped.

  8. scribe says:

    Back when I was still a subscriber to the Wall Street Journal, say in the late 80s, they had some reporter(s) do an article in which they applied the usual paradigms and tropes of business reporting to the then-designated-worst-problem-in-the-world Colombian cocaine cartels. Crack was a new product introduction, your local dealer giving out free coke until you got hooked was a promotional introduction, and so on.

    The uproar was huge, given that coke was bad-bad-bad and business was good-good-good.

    What I can say is that very legitimate businesses here in the States and elsewhere routinely plan and undertake to do violence upon their competitors, to destroy their businesses, steal their key employees and customers and so on, all of which we hear described as the worst aspects of the drug “cartels”. And they giggle and laugh all the way to business success or failure of their schemes.

    This is just the current top dogs trying to maintain their status by using military and police forces to that end. A racket, in other words. Ask Smedley Butler….

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