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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Narcotrafficking, Statemaking and Inequality: Experiences from Mexico and Colombia

Mexico and Colombia have been theaters of the war on drugs for half a century, yet both Latin American countries continue to be two of the largest producers of illegal drugs in the world, where many regions are hellscapes of violence, corruption and inequality. Why do governments keep insisting on a strategy that has consistently failed according to its stated aims?  In this Northwestern Buffett "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar, Northwestern University associate professor of History Lina Britto was joined by journalist and author of Drug War Capitalism Dawn Marie Paley to break down dominant myths around narcotrafficking and the war on drugs. In their discussion, Britto and Paley illuminated how illegal drug economies in Mexico and Colombia have perpetuated multiple forms of injustice over time. Here are three takeaways:

  • Decades of neoliberal economic reforms in Mexico and Colombia, in partnership with the United States and other international actors, have created conditions for the illegal drug trade to thrive. Often, illegal trade flourishes in communities and regions with high poverty rates and little state presence, but “these conditions do not explain the situation we see today,” said Britto. For decades the Mexican and Colombian governments have imposed economic policies that “promoted free markets, less regulation and more economic competition, which were argued to reduce poverty. In reality, the opposite happened,” said Paley. These reforms, which were implemented in partnership with the United States and other international actors, “have created a system of privileges where only those with connections could thrive,” said Britto. As a result, “small producers and farmers were cornered to the economic fringes and marginalized,” she added, which created an economic situation for the illegal drug trade to flourish.
  • Political corruption and a proactive military response have exacerbated the situation. In response to the growing illegal drug trade, Mexico and Colombia implemented a “proactive military strategy to intercept and criminalize the movement of illegal substances,” said Paley. “The premise was that drug production and trafficking were national security threats that warranted military interventions. It was the criminalization of the producers and the state’s militarization of the region that has prompted violent responses on the part of the producers and traffickers,” said Britto.  The end result was a “laboratory of experimentation for military intervention, creating a vicious cycle of violence for which there has yet to be an escape,” she added. 
  • There is a need to rethink how the official “War on Drugs” narrative is told, and who is involved in the storytelling. Despite the complicated reality on the ground, the story that the Mexican and Colombian governments promote “is very close to the Netflix version, in that there is a good government with occasional bad apples fighting bad guys,” said Paley, adding that journalists often find themselves trapped within the same storytelling framework.  However, a more nuanced approach that recognizes conflicts of interest is needed to ensure that the public accurately understands the situation.  For example, a common narrative is that paramilitary groups are fighting the state for control of the illegal drug trade, when they often in fact work closely with state forces for their own mutual economic benefit. This effectively upholds the status quo and ensures both governments are sufficiently armed “against any form of revolt and can keep the lid on the potential for popular resistance,” said Paley. “We need to stop making assumptions about who is good and who is evil.”

This dialogue was part of the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs’ "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series, which focuses on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter. This quarter, we’re focused on UN SDG 10: Reduced Inequalitiesexploring the infrastructures upholding today’s ballooning inequalities as well as the steps some are taking to build a more egalitarian future. This and other spring 2021 webinars focused on UN SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities are co-sponsored by the Northwestern University Community for Human Rights.