How America’s War on Drugs and War on Terror Go Hand-in-Hand

    The United States has not always been committed to upholding opium prohibition in Afghanistan.

    Instead, its approach for the past 30-plus years has been, in part, a function of its relations with, first, the country’s guerrilla fighters engaging in jihad against the invading Soviet forces of the 1980s, and then with the Taliban⁠—a political party formed by many of those fighters in the ’90s and later allied with the Islamist militant organization al-Qaida, which carried out the September 11, 2001 attacks.

    As Tim Golden, then a reporter for The New York Times, wrote shortly after the US invasion of Afghanistan in early October 2001, American officials had paid “relatively little attention” to the Afghanistan opium market “in recent years.” In the 1980s, however, the US had taken an an active role in the Afghanistan opium trade, funding Pakistani agents who assisted Afghan fighters in exporting opium between the two countries.

    With the beginning of the 2001 military intervention that would continue for nearly 18 years (and counting), American officials “closely focused on Afghanistan’s drug trade, saying that taxes on farmers and traders have become a crucial source of revenue for the Taliban and that drug money may be used to finance terrorist activities.”

    The illicit drug economy produced by prohibition has been widely recognized by international governance bodies and scholars as a funding source for organizations carrying out acts of terror.

    While American politicians are concerned about a “growing nexus between drugs and terrorism,” Dr. Oswaldo Zavala studies how the US, as a dominant global force, narrates and polices the two.

    Dr. Zavala is a professor of Latin American literature and culture at the City University of New York, and author of Los Cárteles No Existen (The Cartels Do Not Exist, 2019), a controversial book arguing that prevailing narratives about Mexican “cartels” are fundamentally flawed. He explained to Filter how US campaigns abroad against people engaging in terrorism and the drug trade are different—but at times coinciding—fronts in the same political project: imperialism.


    Filter: What are the shared antecedents of the global anti-terror and drug wars?

    Dr. Zavala: The War on Terror and the War on Drugs are both derivative of the general US national security agenda. The Cold War is the first historical articulation of such agenda, its first public name, since the passing of the 1947 National Security Act. This law provided the legal, institutional and political framework that allowed the US to articulate a discourse of “national security” that has a form but not a specific content. That is, it recognizes a new era in which a permanent foreign threat is expected with interchangeable enemies.


    How did Cold War enemies become drug war enemies?

    The first enemy, as we tragically attested in Latin America, was the supposed threat of global communism. But this came to an end with the collapse of the Soviet Union in the end of the 1980s, leaving the US with the need to manufacture a new enemy.

    Enter the Reagan administration: In 1986, he signed a national security directive naming drug trafficking organizations as the new national security threat. Traffickers were a logical candidate as they were already involved in the Cold War front both in Colombia and in Mexico. Mexican traffickers ironically contributed with weapons, money and even properties to train Contra fighters against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua. But regardless of the fact that they cooperated with US hegemony, they soon became the replacing object of the US national security apparatus.

    A parallel history may be traced for the War on Terror. From helping against Soviet incursions, the Taliban, just to refer to an obvious example, went from friend to enemy after the Cold War scenario ran its course.


    Photograph of Dr. Oswaldo Zavala; Courtesy of Zavala


    What are the similarities and differences between the War on Terror and the War on Drugs? 

    The War on Terror and the War on Drugs are certainly two sides, not of a coin, but of a polyhedron—since the national security agenda continues to fabricate new objects, recycle old ones and conflates two or three at a time. While there are clearly important social, cultural and economic differences, both wars are structured by a shared narrative: a racialized enemy emerging from the margins of a dominated foreign nation, supposedly building a transnational organization capable of subduing official institutions in that country, and penetrating the porous US borders, which in turn justifies the simultaneous militarization of the US borders and the target country alike.

    All cultural traits attributed to these two enemies are consistent with Western hegemonic prejudice: So-called narcos and terrorists have allegedly a pre-modern sense of family and religion, as well as no regard to human life, and practice a radical fidelity to their organization while professing an extreme fear/hate of US “freedom” and institutions. Narcos and terrorists are both cast this way by the US security state because they are in fact imagined by the same US imperial mind.

    Ultimately, the xenophobic and racist national security imagination explains why there have been repeated efforts in the US —by both Republican and Democratic politicians— to aggravate those manufactured threats by combining narcos and Islamic terrorists into a single persona, the menacing “narco-terrorist,” at the gates of the motherland: the US-Mexico border. And despite the fact that the US-Mexico border is one of the most surveilled regions of the world with both a virtual and real wall existing since the 1990s, Republicans and Democrats still argue, without evidence, that the supposedly vulnerable US-Mexico border may be penetrated by criminal migrants and terrorists simultaneously.

    How does US imperialism drive the global War on Terror and the War on Drugs?

    The War on Terror and the War on Drugs have been effective public names to disguise the violent strategies of US imperialism across the globe through its changing national security doctrine.

    In Latin America, the US national security doctrine has pushed friendly governments to adopt neoliberal policy that is accompanied by a security apparatus aimed at fighting domestic threats, from the communist guerrillas to “narcos”. As it becomes national policy, the national security doctrine facilitates the expansion of US military power to exert political and economic pressure to advance US interests and demands in Latin American countries.

    One of the recurrent objectives of the War on Drugs has been the depopulation of communal lands that maintained collective ownership since the Mexican revolution. At the heart of the dispute is the vastness of many of Mexico’s rich natural resources that the militarization effort has opened for extraction, as journalist, Dawn Paley, among others, has argued. Transnational interests have coincided exactly in those areas where official discourse claims an ongoing “war against drugs.” But the so-called “cartels” are a pretext to take military control of lands where oil, gas, mining and water await the greed of global corporations.

    The most illustrative example that comes to mind is the state of Tamaulipas. While the governments of Felipe Calderón (2006-2012) and Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-2018) claimed to fight a war against “Los Zetas” cartel (allegedly made of former military gone rogue), transnational conglomerates were busy preparing the extraction of shale gas, profiting from a major pipeline built by the federal government precisely on the most violent drug war territory.


    How would you like to see these wars re-narrated?

    In my book, I challenged the official narrative of the “drug cartels” as the object of Mexico’s obedient version of the US national security agenda.

    Sociologists like Luis Astorga and Fernando Escalante Gonzalo, journalists such as Ignacio Alvarado, and Federico Mastrogiovanni, and scholars such as Guadalupe Correa and myself, have published works in that same direction.

    The new government of Andres Manuel López Obrador has refused to continue the “drug war” but unfortunately has agreed to make Donald Trump’s bidding and is now deploying soldiers to contain the flow of Central American refugees seeking a new life in the US. I am afraid that, as it has been done in the past, the national security agenda is manufacturing a new enemy: the migrant, the “bad hombre” that is no less than a brutal war on human beings—not for committing a particular crime but simply for trying to survive leaving a region (in part immersed in conflict because of the long history of US interventions) to seek a better life in the US.

    The Central American migrant is resignified here as a wild card that may be perceived at once as all the enemies of the national security agenda: the toxic residue of failed socialist experiments, the violent trafficker, the radicalized terrorist, the non-adapting Hispanic dislocating traditional White society “values.”

    Migrants may become a perfect enemy for the immoral, hypocritical US imperialist agenda: It allows them to continue justifying the militarized state, and to continue denying basic rights to immigrants, securing their labor exploitation and political neutralization, while it rallies the sad xenophobic sentiments of the masses betrayed by the same neoliberal project.

    Mexico needs to reject the US militarist national security agenda. US voters need to elect radical change in 2020. Citizens in both countries need to embrace each other’s humanity by renouncing the categories that insist on inventing domestic and foreign enemies and by demanding their governments to commit to the establishment of a hemispheric humanitarian agenda that abolishes all discourses of war. As of now, no one, neither the government nor the people, is even thinking in that direction. Instead, we do little more than to prepare for the next war in the name of our security.

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