Gangster Warlords and the War on Drugs
I have recently finished reading a book, Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields, and the New Politics of Latin America, by Ioan Grillo. As the title makes clear, the book deals with Latin America, specifically, Honduras, Brazil, El Salvador, and Mexico with regard to illegal drugs and how those who cultivate and sell them have impacted politics in Latin America. The power, both legitimate and illegitimate, that is wielded by these drug lords, who Grillo argues should be called “warlords,” is quite amazing. In fact, they are so powerful, it is quite clear that the war on drugs is being won by, as some put it, the drugs.
It also becomes clear that so long as “the war on drugs” continues, there will be no end to drug abuse and the violence that accompanies it. The war on drugs guarantees the continuation of the very conditions it is being waged to end. Put differently, as long as the war on drugs continues, just so long will there be “gangster warlords” as these warlords are the inevitable product of this war, just as the war on terror will produce, inevitably, terrorists.
But the situation is worse than that because those who started and those who continue the war on drugs knew and know this. They knew that a war on drugs would produce drug lords or cartels, and they chose or embraced their war anyway. Why? Because both the war on drugs and those Grillo calls “gangster warlords” serve to keep the political class, the prevailing regime in power, while simultaneously rendering any significant change unlikely, even to the point of being unthinkable.
In other words, the war on drugs, which was and is presented to us as a great effort aimed at great change, eradicating drug abuse, is actually nothing of the sort. It is rather a way of preventing change, a way of preserving the status quo.
This will seem strange to most, even inane to some. One reason this is so is because so many assume that preserving the status quo does not require great efforts and, indeed, dictates against great or visionary political agendas. Status quo politicians are, it is commonly thought, opposed to ambitious public policies, are conservative, and in favor of government doing as little as possible. But this is where people go wrong. It is anything but easy to preserve the status quo; in fact, it takes great efforts involving great force to do so. It even takes, as the war on drugs illustrates, significant violence.
Once it is realized that the status quo is not, to say the least, self sustaining or self perpetuating, the actions, the deeds of the political class(es) appear in a different light. For then it appears that what is presented to us as an agenda for change is, in reality, a means of preserving the status quo. Hence, the political class(es) persevere in their actions, their policies long beyond the point where their failure, their ineffectiveness is obvious. Why? Because it is their ineffectiveness that makes them successful in helping to preserve the status quo.
Strangely then, for the political class(es), the fact that the war on drugs is failing is not an argument against it but rather an argument for it. A politics of the status quo requires such “failures” because as long as drug abuse and its consequences continue, it will seem imprudent, unwise, even “radical” to change those holding power or to change their policies. The war has not yet been won, drugs are still being abused, and cartels and drug lords are still doing business. Thus, it can be made to seem, even in a time of considerable dissatisfaction with the prevailing regime and popular unrest, that changing policies that don’t seem to be working is “radical.”
It is this sleight of hand – disguising status quo policies as the vehicles of change - that helps to explain the power of incumbency, of the tendency for the voters to continue the same people in office even though they recognize that things are not going well, to put it mildly. This sleight of hand is also a sleight of mind, so almost without knowing why, voters continue to re-elect members of the ruling class(es). It is as if they, the voters, have lost the capacity to think they have or could have alternatives, at least what are labeled “realistic” alternatives. Almost as a matter of course, the alternatives are made to appear “unrealistic” and this despite the fact that it is the prevailing policies, those policies underlying the status quo, that are genuinely unrealistic.
Our politics has then the quality of being almost all “smoke and mirrors,” or the character of a magic show where change, real change is made to disappear while the status quo is made to seem like real change, “change we can believe in,” In the year Richard Nixon declared a war on drugs, more people died in the U.S. from falling down stairs than died from ingesting or injecting both legal and illegal drugs. Why then the war on drugs? Because that way, Nixon could preserve the status quo while seeming to be seeking real change, change that could be believed in. Nixon practiced the same kind of politics in Vietnam, seeking change, “peace with honor,” while continuing the war and LBJ’s policies, which meant continuing the captivity of our POWs until his re-election was on the line.
As Bob Dylan wrote and sang, “there is no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” Failure eventually catches up to us, but the damage done until it does is quite considerable.