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“It’s a war on the poor” — why the war on drugs is still sweeping the globe

Miles Ellingham talks to ANTONY LOEWENSTEIN about the war on drugs and disaster capitalism 

INDEPENDENT, investigative journalist and author, Antony Loewenstein has been a maverick player on the left-field of journalism for almost 15 years, reporting on the Israel-Palestine conflict, repressive regimes, disaster capitalism and, most recently, the war on drugs.

His new book Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs takes a macro-political lens to subject, investigating both wealthy consumer countries such as the US and Britain and impoverished, transit and narco-states, such as Guinea-Bissau, Honduras and the Philippines.

I talked with Loewenstein on a long-distance Skype call to discuss the “war on drugs” — how it functions as a conduit for the US empire and how, at its rotten core, it’s all about “class, class, class …” Loewenstein also shared his views on the current coronavirus pandemic and how it’s in danger of being co-opted by the ever-watchful forces of disaster capitalism.

ME: So, what prompted you to write a book about the war on drugs?

AL: I started writing the book five years ago and what frustrated me was how many people thought the drug war was either over or coming to an end and my sense was that this was an untrue narrative.

There are huge problems around the drug war, not least because demand for drugs in the West is at an all-time high. The amount of people in Britain, for instance, who are using cocaine is off the chart — and that cocaine has to come from somewhere.

This is not just something that happened under Ronald Regan 30 years ago. This is a real war, now.

I was also wholly frustrated by the journalism around the war on drugs. I felt a lot of it was inaccurate, uses language that’s dehumanising to the user and ignores countries that have a direct connection to drugs.

Transit countries are key to this whole question of the drug war, particularly those in West Africa and Central America.

So, while I didn’t want to write a book that demonises the users of drugs, I did want to interrogate the mechanism of this unseen, hegemonic war.

ME: Most people, when they think of drug-producing countries, think Colombia, Afghanistan or Mexico. What made you look at somewhere like Guinea-Bissau?

AL: Well, I had heard that Guinea-Bissau, this tiny African country, a former Portuguese colony, had recently become a narco-state. Enormous amounts of cocaine are trafficked through the country on their way to Europe from South America.

Chances are, most of the cocaine being consumed in London tonight will have come through Guinea-Bissau, one of the poorest nations on Earth.

All levers of the state, military and political, have been co-opted by South American drug cartels. This is allowed to happen because it’s such a poor country, meaning it’s a vulnerable country. It’s a beautiful country, but those tropical palm trees mask a population that’s been entirely subjugated by the drug trade and drug war.

So I wanted to bring a case study of Guinea-Bissau, to say to the consumer states: “these are the countries that have to suffer to get the drugs to you.” Not to make them feel guilty — but to make them aware that this is what the drug trade and drug war means.

ME: Tell me about Bubo Na Tchuto?

AL: Na Tchuto was a retired general in the Guinea-Bissau navy and the US allege that he was one West Africa’s leading drug kingpins.

In reality, Na Tchuto was set up by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to be involved in a fake drug importation business to allegedly import huge amounts of cocaine and give some of that money to the Colombian Farc.

So he was busted by the DEA, taken to the US, put on trial and ended up pleading guilty for a shorter sentence. He served four years in jail and he’s now back in Guinea-Bissau.

The reason I gave the example of Na Tchuto in the book was to show what the DEA regularly does. It essentially entraps people, makes up stories and prosecutes people for the idea of carrying out those stories.

And this is exactly what the FBI has been doing since September 11 to countless Muslims. It coerces them, manipulates them or pressures them to say or plan for an alleged terrorist attack, when they’d never have done that unprodded by the FBI.

And I’m not saying dangerous people don’t exist, they do, but the implication that this old West African guy was some crazy drug kingpin — it’s ludicrous.

ME: How about Honduras — another transit state?

AL: Honduras is where the majority of the cocaine, heading for the US, travels through. It’s been a US client state for a hundred years and has subsequently become, or been allowed to become, a narco-state — with a narco-president, narco-mayors, narco-government — and the Honduran people are terrified. The drug war has turned their country into a failed state.

Not enough journalists go there. And some of the reporting, particularly from the New York Times, surrounding Honduras has just been propaganda.

Normally it’s a journalist who goes there, embedded with DEA forces or Honduran forces propped up by the DEA. They go over there and praise these illicit counterinsurgency tactics, the idea of co-opting violent thugs to go after the thugs you don’t like.

ME: What’s the end game of the war on drugs for the US?

AL: This is an important point. The drug war has never been about ending drug use, or the drug trade. It’s never been about that — ever.

It’s about keeping control and influence over forces you can deal with, that you can work with. It’s about propping up intelligence assets and eliminating those who aren’t, so to speak, your friends.

Honduras is a classic example of this. Juan Orlando Hernandez, the current president, has been accused — with serious, hard evidence — of taking cartel money. His brother, Tony Hernandez, was recently found guilty in a US court for trying to import huge amounts of cocaine.

If Washington wants to maintain this insane prohibition on drugs, it will inevitably have to maintain states like Honduras to do its dirty work.

During Trump’s first term, there’s been a lot of press demonising migrants fleeing Honduras, but no-one is asking “why are they fleeing?” And that’s because if you start to pull that thread you begin to realise the US’s role is absolutely central.

ME: Do you see the drug war as imperialist?

AL: Nobody who covers the drug war talks about empire. But empire is what the drug war is about. And it’s always been about that — maintaining empire and controlling empire.

And on that level it’s sadly been very successful and millions of people have died in the process.

ME: What about countries that try a hard-line deterrent approach to eliminate drugs, like Duterte’s government in the Philippines? Does that work?

AL: No. The reality is that what Duterte’s doing is a war on the poor. Ninety-nine per cent of those who’ve been killed by Duterte’s anti-drug death squads are the intensely poor — people living in slums, living with families in complete squalor.

This is not about going after high-level dealers and users of cocaine (which is ubiquitous among the upper echelons of Filipino society). Something I saw in the Philippines is that the drug war is about empire in a geopolitical sense, but in a social sense it’s about class — class, class, class. It’s a war on the poor, whose lives are incredibly difficult.

Tragically, however, it’s a very popular war. Many Filipinos support the drug war. When I was there investigating, I found that even people who had family killed by Duterte still admired what he’s trying to do.

It’s almost this Freudian thing — Daddy needs to come and clean out the streets. It’s much like Trump. The drug war is Duterte’s vessel for this, instead of “build the wall” or whatever it is now.

What price are we willing to pay for our perceived security, that’s the question in the Philippines — tens of thousands of people massacred by vigilante groups in their slum? A lot of people are, sadly, fine with this.

The other scary part of this is whether what Duterte is doing will provide a blueprint for potential authoritarians. Because he’s getting away with it. Trump has even said he admires what Duterte is doing.

ME: What about on a consumer level? Drug prosecutions may focus on the lower tiers of class, but drug use certainly doesn’t.

AL: In countries like Britain, which I explore in the book, drug use cuts across all social classes and has become almost ubiquitous.

For years there was an impression with cocaine that it was just the rich. And years ago that was true. Now it’s not.

It’s incredibly cheap and incredibly pure — not that you can’t get impurities in an unregulated substance. Many people also die. Or get hospitalised from going to the pub and taking it — which makes them drink more pints which they often can’t take.

So hospitalisation rates from drugs in Britain has never been higher. Not because the drugs are somehow more dangerous, but because more people are doing them.

And the broader question is, “why is there such a big demand?” There’s a number of reasons for people to take drugs — they want to get high, they want to get over a personal tragedy, there’s a thousand reasons.

But the idea that keeping these drugs illegal so fewer people will take them is deluded and has failed so spectacularly as to be absurd.

There are millions of people who will break the law in Britain over the next week by taking drugs. I have no problem with them breaking stupid laws. But it goes to show two things.

First that the prohibition approach is not working — and second that more people than ever feel the need for some kind of alteration or escape.

ME: So who’s benefiting by the perpetuation of the war on drugs?

AL: Many people. The DEA get higher and higher budgets every year. And there’s an osmosis between the war on terror and the drug war.

People in the corridors of power argue that there is a link between the cartels and Middle Eastern terrorist cells like Isis or al Qaida. This is complete bullshit.

There is evidence that certain drug money has assisted militant groups, such as the Taliban, but this expansion of the invisible enemy is a political tool. It’s a self-perpetuating, quasi-religious battle and there’s billions of dollars invested in it worldwide. It allows empire to continue across the globe.

Most politicians I’ve talked to about the war on drugs are, frankly, gutless and shit-scared of putting forward an alternative view, for fear of being seen as weak. Things are changing a bit, though.

In Britain you even have Tory MPs like Crispin Blunt [a former prison’s minister], calling for legalisation of drugs. Labour has a unique opportunity, with a new leader, of putting forward a more sensible drug policy.

ME: We’re now in the midst of a pandemic. Your previous book, Disaster Capitalism detailed how corporations make a killing from disaster. Should we be worried?

AL: Disaster capitalists always look for an opportunity to strike when society is weak and vulnerable. The coronavirus crisis has exposed the weaknesses of the current, global economic order, even in wealthy countries such as the US and Western Europe, where government mismanagement has led to catastrophe and far too many deaths.

There are companies and individuals seeing financial opportunity in this disaster. From pharmaceutical companies looking to profit from a possible vaccine to private health care providers aiming to exclude anybody who doesn’t pay the top premiums, our capitalist societies are designed to benefit the rich and exclude the poor.

Why are private corporations being contracted to build field hospitals in the first place — a company in Australia such as Aspen Medical, for instance, which has a troubling record — when the state should be providing all necessary services?

We should also be wary of states using the cover of Covid-19 to institute extreme surveillance methods, often designed by shady, privatised intelligence services, allegedly in the name of protecting us.

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