Image taken from Flickr user Gerald Lau

By John Washington

The Federal Courthouse in Tucson, Arizona stinks, and not just from the bodies passing through—sweaty, exhausted, shackled men and women caught by Border Patrol and poured into the prosecution mill known as Operation Streamline, a Federal program in effect since 2005 that sends seventy people a day (in Arizona alone) into the hands of the for-profit private prison industry—it also stinks like dollars. Many of the immigrants caught and processed by US Border Patrol in Arizona end up filling bed space in detention facilities run by Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). CCA, along with its biggest competitor, GEO Group, combined for $415 million dollars in profit in 2013. 100 percent of that came from government contracts.

Though more money is being spent fighting the Drug War than ever before, it is the complimentary statistic that is more revealing: More money is also being made from the Drug War than ever before. The Private Prison Industry in the US, as well as, indirectly, extractive industries and multinational corporations benefitting from increased “security” abroad, are annually raking in billions. Without exposing the drug interdiction/private prison industrial complex for the cash cow it is, untold victims (the overwhelming majority of whom are minorities) will continue to be crushed under the market-driven juggernaut of the War on Drugs.

With the 2014 arrest in Mexico of Forbes 500 drug kingpin El Chapo Guzman, and now his recent (and second) cinematic escape, as well as the incarceration of millions of drug users, sellers, and traffickers, the standard narrative tells us that the dealers and the users are the enemies—the bad guys that the Drug War is being fought against. And yet, in order not to submit to the standard hegemonic (and erroneous) narrative, in order to understand who is really losing in this so-called war, we must first consider who the winners are, the supposed good guys.

El Chapo’s escape, and repeated uprisings at private prisons in the US, reveal the toothlessness of the modern criminal justice system model, its endemic corruption, and the sham justice it doles out.

Several recent books and articles have exposed various players and facets of the Drug War, illustrating its racist origins, its racist/colonialist contemporary praxis, and the multinational corporations and private prisons that are benefitting from the battle cries to keep fighting. Only by taking into account a number of these recent exposés, or personally falling wounded on one of the battlefields, do you stand much of a chance to grasp how treacherous and long-reaching its tentacles are, or to see how the contours of our economic moment are jacking up the carceral state.

El Chapo’s escape (undoubtedly with the help of high-level government officials), as well as repeated uprisings (distinct from riots: see <target=“blank”>here and <target=“blank”>here) at private prisons in the US, reveal the toothlessness of the modern criminal justice system model, its endemic corruption, and the sham justice it doles out.

Both Michelle Alexander’s <target=“new”>The New Jim Crow and Dawn Paley’s <target=“new”>Drug War Capitalism look at the pernicious effects of the US Drug War, with Alexander focusing on its effects in the US and Paley laying out the havoc wreaked abroad, mostly in Latin America. Both books point, in varying degrees, to an underlying commonality: the neoliberal wielding of drug policies and policing for the social control of minorities.

Let’s start, however, with a third book, <target=“new”>Chasing the Scream, by Johann Hari. Hari traces the origins of the drug war to one particular and remarkable woman: Billie Holiday. Hari argues that her persecution at the hands of Harry Anslinger, the first head of the Bureau of Narcotics, exemplifies the racist origins that still color the drug war today, across both the country and the world. Anslinger’s hate for black people, jazz music, and drugs met with his obsession for derailing the fast-moving career of Billie Holiday, who, having been orphaned as a child, sex-trafficked, and abused throughout her life, was an unapologetic drug user. Holiday was, for Anslinger, a threat against whiteness and purity, and so he made her the public scapegoat, assigning his federal employees to harass her, plant drugs on her, and arrest her (arguably the greatest jazz singer of the century, consigned to toil in a pigsty while in prison), eventually driving her to her death. But besides attacking Lady Day, Anslinger was also the first man to weld the fight against drugs to the fight against communism—fanning the flames that would solder together capitalism and the Drug War. The two remain tightly fastened today. Hari describes Anslinger as curbing “whatever America was afraid of—blacks, poor people, Communists,” by teaching them the best way to “deal with the fear”: escalate the War on Drugs.

In a move that would set a precedent for another seventy years of US foreign policy, Anslinger didn’t limit the escalation to the US: he eventually brought his racist/capitalist crusade to the UN. One of Anslinger’s lieutenants at the Bureau of Narcotics explained how the bureau politically strong-armed intractable governments that weren’t enacting strict enough drug policies: “a casual mention of the possibility of shutting off our foreign aid programs… brought grudging permission for our operations almost immediately.” This is a caper the US is still pulling off, both at home and abroad, today. In one stateside example, Alexander analyzes the Byrne Program, a Federal initiative that funds municipal police departments. The Byrne Program effectively offers them a “massive bribe” to develop anti-narcotic programs and score high-numbers of drug arrests. Referencing Blumenson and Nilsen’s paper “Policing for Profit: The Drug War’s Hidden Economic Agenda,” Alexander describes an Oakland police commander emphasizing to his officers “that their jobs depended on the renewal of a federal grant… and that they would need statistics to show that the grant money was well spent.” He pumped up his officers at the beginning of a shift with comments like “Let’s go out and kick ass,” and “Everybody goes to jail tonight for everything, right?”

Obama’s 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, commonly referred to as the stimulus bill, “included more than $2 billion in new Byrne funding.”

In Mexico, Colombia, and much of Latin America, meanwhile, the US sends billions to foreign militaries and police departments for their equally community-destabilizing fight against drugs, allocating the majority of the money to interdiction rather than combating underlying crimogenic conditions such as poverty, unemployment, lack of education, or safe housing. This has been the model for both Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative: whopping multi-year aid packages to Columbia and Mexico, respectively, to help the countries wage the Drug War. The US State Department’s own website claims: “One basic measure by which Congress has evaluated the Mérida Initiative has been the pace of equipment deliveries and training opportunities.” The delivery stats of weapons and helicopters used to hunt and extra-judiciously kill civilians is no metric for success (though it is, of course, fatuously seen as a political solution from Egypt to Indonesia). In 2013, <target=“blank”>InSight Crime reported that 98 percent of murders in Mexico went unsolved. The murder and disappearance of the students in Ayotzinapa, in which the mayor, the Mexican Army, and state and local police forces (all of whom were potential recipients of US training and arms) were all likely involved, was not an isolated incident. Stories of state-sponsored violence abound. Similar to using weapons delivery as a yardstick for “success” in Mexico, Paley writes, “the success of Plan Colombia has little to nothing to do with drugs, but could be measured by examining growing levels of foreign direct investment and investor security.”

Undeniably, Mexico has problems with its prisons, but reforming them in the image of the US, to lock up historically high percentages of their population, is further backsliding.

In an article in The New Republic, Paley explains that the “Alliance for Prosperity” program, ostensibly intended as aid to deter future Central American migrants from heading north (many of whom are fleeing from Drug War-related violence) is in reality “more local spending on infrastructure to facilitate foreign investment, more corporate tax breaks and free trade zones.” The focus is off again: aid packages focusing on violent interdiction and/or paving the way for multi-national corporations. But US aid isn’t limited to deadly weapons delivery or economic structural reform (basically cheat-sheets for big business). The US Federal Bureau of Prisons, also working through the Mérida Initiative, is helping to reform Mexico’s penitentiary system, remodeling it after the prison industrial complex in the US. Undeniably, Mexico has problems with its prisons (mass prison breaks, horrific conditions, and extreme violence, to name a few serious concerns) but reforming them to lock up historically high percentages of their population is further backsliding. The same grappling hook for the private-prison pirates had been thrown over the gunwale into Colombia in 2000, when the country’s Minister of Justice signed “The Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System” together with US Ambassador Anne Patterson. The agreement and ensuing “improvements” went largely unnoticed and unreported. However, as Nasim Chatha makes clear in Alliance for Global Justice, USAID and the US Federal Bureau of Prisons funded and advised a project to construct and/or redesign as many as sixteen medium and maximum security prisons, leading to a 40 percent increase in prisoner capacity.” William R. Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, bluntly described the reforms as the US helping Latin American countries build “a new penitentiary culture.” Chatha writes, “The prison program may have motivated a surge of arrests… In addition, the new prisons are more militarized; greater blurring the lines between the civilian police forces and the military.” This work in Colombia parallels not only US prison expansion and police militarization (the “penitentiary culture” in the US) but an increase in both the number of Mexico’s federal prisons (from six to twenty-two) and an incredible and deadly increase in police militarization across the continent.

Nor are these trends limited to Mexico or Colombia. Between 1992 and 2013, the prison population in Brazil increased by more than 400 percent, compared with a 36 percent population growth over the same period, according to the country’s < a href=“”><target=“blank”>Ministry of Justice. There are currently 711,463 prisoners incarcerated in the so-called penitentiary industry, which Brazilian prison rights groups <target=“blank”>are arguing is the country’s new way to commodify human bodies—and not just any bodies, but specifically poor and non-white bodies.

In Drug War Capitalism Paley details how the sequela of Anslinger’s policy moves are still affecting Latin America today, destabilizing, displacing, and criminalizing communities. She directly and repeatedly points to “neoliberal capitalism” as waging an offensive against minorities and the poor. Here she succinctly defines the groups most affected by The Drug War: “The violence and forced displacement resulting from the drug war are experienced most acutely by poor and working people and migrants.” This is her first step in subverting the narrative that the Mexican and Colombian governments, with direct aid and involvement from the US, are fighting a war against drug trafficking cartels. Paley effectively blurs the line between the government and the cartels, detailing how the cartels are often directly working for the goals of the government.

The aim? In a word: Profit.

In a recent New Yorker article, Sarah Stillman quoted Jonathan Ryan, the executive director of RAICES, a legal aid service, comparing private prison corporations to the blood-sucking/money-thirsty cartels themselves: “It’s a for-profit enterprise that makes its money by holding people in boxes until they pay.”

Rationing toilet paper is not the most effective way for prison corporations to ensure continued profit; rather, it is to advocate for government policies that will ensure a steady stream of inmates.

I spoke with Alex Friedman, a former inmate (who served time at both private and state-run prisons) and current Associate Director of Human Rights Defense Center and managing editor of Prison Legal News, about the profit motive for private prison corporations. “That’s why they exist,” he told me. “Whereas a state prison is run to ensure public safety” and enact justice, “the goal [of private prisons] is to make money. To generate profit.” He listed for me how these differences play out inside the prisons. Private, for-profit prisons “work to cut costs, pay less to their employees, are often understaffed, heavily rely on inmate labor, ration toilet paper, and have fewer blankets.” Basically, they sacrifice concern for human comfort and dignity to bolster the bottom line. It shouldn’t surprise us to see more inmate revolts like the one that took place this February in a private, for-profit immigration detention center in Raymondville, Texas. The facility was referred to by the inmates as Ritmo—the Gitmo of Texas. With only one doctor, over-crowded bunkrooms, and overflowing toilets, the cost-cutting, profit-first focus at private prisons will undeniably lead to further inmate uprisings.

But rationing toilet paper and skimping on blankets are not the most effective ways for prison corporations to ensure continued profit; it is instead to advocate for government policies that will ensure a steady stream of inmates. Especially in the ‘90s, laws across the country were enacted to create mandatory minimum sentences, three-strike rules, and restrict or abolish parole. These policies most affected those who were charged with drug-related crimes and, as Friedman explained to me, they “pumped up the prison population… creating a market for prison beds.” According to Michael Ames, writing in Harper’s, the biggest for-profit prison corporation in the US, CCA, “spent $2.7 million [in 2013] on forty lobbying firms in twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia ‘to educate federal, state, and local officials on the benefits of partnership corrections.’ The company also operates a political action committee, CCA PAC, which makes political contributions to choice candidates.” According to a recent study by Grassroots Leadership, between 2008 and 2014, CCA spent at least $10,560,000 lobbying on issues related to immigrant detention and immigration reform. This is neo-liberal red-lining at its purest. The commodification of everything and the pulping of the poor; the incestuous wire-crossing between corporations and legislators.

Rolling out Drug War tactics for profit spiking, however, is not limited to prisons. In Drug War Capitalism Paley shows that the neoliberal reforms over-running Mexico (among other countries)—many of which would have been impossible to implement without the pretext of the Drug War—have led to booming profits for transnational corporations. She explains how neoliberal capitalism advances its aims by “the imposition of the rule of law and policy changes, through formal militarization, and through the paramilitarization that results from it.” The pretext of the Drug War is behind many of these reforms.

Mexican journalist Sandra Rodriguez, who writes in her recent book, <target=“new”>The Story of Vicente (which I co-translated, along with Daniela Maria Ugaz, and which is forthcoming from Verso Books in 2015) about how judicial reform in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, deemed necessary largely because of the skyrocketing homicide rate in Ciudad Juarez, was a lightly masked pretext to create stability for market reforms, or “governability for economic development.” Rodriguez quotes the Argentine Director of the International Institute of Juridical Sociology, Roberto Bergalli, explaining that US participation in judicial reforms in Latin American countries had a long history of negative outcomes. “It was exactly these types of interventions,” Bergalli explained, “that led to the formation of military groups that carried out coups in Brazil, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina.” Not only are the bureaucratic and legal reforms implemented as part of the Drug War economically motivated, they have a history of compounding violence, trading short-term market expansion for long-term stability.

If you take for granted Paley’s convincing conclusion that Drug War policies are a Trojan horse meant to implement neoliberal, corporate-friendly reforms in Latin America at the behest of its poorest citizens, we should ask ourselves if there is a similar capitalistic motivation behind the Drug War, described by Alexander, being waged in cities across the US. Indeed, Latin America has long been used, as the late author Charles Bowden <target=“blank”>described, as a laboratory for our future. To better parse out the question, let’s go back to our winners and losers. Most of the overlap between policies abroad and inside the US concentrates on the victims. Besides those slain in the streets or slammed behind bars, the losers are the poor, the black, the brown, and migrants. And so, if the effects are the same (wreaking havoc on poor, colored, and migrant communities), or even similar, does that mean the causes are the same or similar? Is neoliberal capitalism to blame for the unprecedented levels of incarceration in the US? Or is it a lurking systemic racism? Probably it’s both: Racism abroad as much as neoliberalism at home.

Here Paley’s argument goes beyond the fact that capitalism is inherently racist, as Malcolm X stated long ago, to include its inverted corollary: that racism is inherently capitalist. Whichever comes first, racism or capitalism, they are vile bedfellows. Drug prohibition has become the most efficient tool of social control in a post-Jim Crow era, and that social control is wielded by the booming private prison industry to secure increased profits. What is new in the neoliberal economic model is that the winners and losers don’t grapple hand-to-hand anymore—they are at an increased remove from each other. Yet, as Paley and Alexander show, the relationship between profit raking and dispossession works like a fulcrum: the greater the distance, the greater the leverage.

In the US, the biggest winner is the neoliberal economic system running, as Michael Ames puts it in his Harper’s article, the “largest peacetime carceral apparatus in the history of the world.” In Latin America the winner is the neoliberal economic system, which benefits from free trade of goods and restricted labor (the selective permeability of border walls) as well as the rise of corporatism and extractavism.

“Contractual occupancy quotas—also known as capacity guarantees,” Ames writes, “drive policies towards arresting and incarcerating.” These are policies spurred directly from private prison corporations’ lobbying efforts. Since 2009, Congress has mandated that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) maintain at least 34,000 undocumented immigrants in detention centers at any time. This “bed-quota” functions in the same manner as the round-em-all-up Byrne program, incentivizing the police to criminalize the community members they should be protecting.

Ames describes the effects of anti-immigrant policing priorities: “In early August of 2014, Geo’s stock” (Geo Group is one of the largest private prison corporations in the world) “experienced its largest price jump of the year, a 7 percent spike over two days that came on better than expected second-quarter news: tens of thousands of Latin American children had fled to the Mexican-American border.”

In effect, for the private prison industry, “more prisoners mean more dividends.” And, as Paul Wright, author of <target=“blank”>Prison Profiteers: Who Makes Money From Mass Incarceration, <target=“blank”>put it in an interview with Vice News, “The only customer private prisons have is the government.”

Much of the Drug War, especially in its international theater, still hinges on rhetoric and ideology gleaned directly from the Cold War.

Both Paley and Alexander argue convincingly that the Drug War, at home and abroad, is both a great failure and a great success. The failure is that we have incarcerated more young black men today than were enslaved in 1860. The failure is the tearing apart of the social fabric in US inner cities and many small towns throughout Latin America. The success (for a select few) is the rise of a new billion-dollar private prison industry. The success (for the upper classes) is the development and modernization of a corporate business environment in Latin America.

Much of the Drug War, especially in its international theater, still hinges on rhetoric and ideology gleaned directly from the Cold War: a pro-Capitalist shock-indoctrinating strategy that actually pumped drugs into communities, from Los Angeles to Nicaragua, establishing a network of traffickers and a web of corruption from Central America all the way to and across the US border. The CIA sold drugs intending to reap profits in order to weed out communism and fertilize capitalism. (The support of the rapacious Contras is the most cited example, but don’t forget the fracas of US dealings with Panamanian Manuel Noriega, or the blind-eye turned toward former Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s opium dealing brother). Now, the CIA, DEA, and USBP are waging a similar battle, but instead of selling drugs to foment capitalism, they are cracking down on drugs to the same end: market spread. Most US involvement in combating drug trafficking in Mexico is funneled through the Mérida Initiative, defined by Paley as “a program to limit human mobility while encouraging the flow of goods and services.” Paley pulls another quote from Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, who admits that the intention for the Mérida Initiative goes beyond basic security in that “citizen security underpins economic stability and allows trade.” She snags another quote from a US State Department Budget Report: “US policy toward the Western Hemisphere seeks to seize and expand opportunities for inclusive economic growth, transforming the region’s emerging middle class into dynamic new markets for US exports….” Likewise, Paley uncovers USAID’s focus in Mexico to be “on advocating for a new regulatory regime and additional privatization, efficiency, and foreign direct investment in the transportation, financial, energy, and telecommunications sectors.” The last time the US involved itself to transform trade and increase privatization in Mexico, through NAFTA, entire swathes of the employment sector were undercut by US-imported goods. Indeed, Paley refers to the Mérida Initiative as “NAFTA-plus.”

From anti-Holiday to anti-communism to free trade, the Drug War has worn many hats over the years, but plus çan change… profits and racism (and not “cleaning up the streets”) have always served as the primary fuel.

A Call for More Color

What to do?

Drug War Capitalism, The New Jim Crow, and Chasing the Scream all make a strong plea for the importance of politicizing the Drug Wars. Here, once again at her round-housing best, is Paley: “The war in Mexico is political: it is a counter-revolution, a hundred years late.” Alexander shows the politics in concrete terms, how Ronald Reagan’s use of “racially coded rhetoric and strategy” enabled him to spike anti-drug funding (from 1981 to 1991, DEA funding rose from $86 million to over $1 billion dollars) and dramatically reduce funding for drug treatment agencies (from $274 million in 1981 to only $57 million in 1984). Reagan also launched a “media offensive” to justify the massive spending increase for the War on Drugs, which was waged primarily against inner city black men: “Mass incarceration as we know it would not exist today but for the racialization of crime in the media and political discourse.” Hari describes it thus: “The race panics that drove the early drug war have not burned out.”

We must, if we have any hope of ending this devastating, quixotic endeavor, insist on putting the color and the politics back into every conversation we have about drugs.

All three books point us to the need to repoliticize the language revolving around drugs and the drug wars. Reagan sought to depigmentize his drug rhetoric. Alexander, Paley and Hari all work to put color (black and brown and green) back into the way we talk about drugs.

Here is Hari:

The arguments we hear today for the drug war are that we must protect teenagers from drugs, and prevent addiction in general. We assume, looking back, that these were the reasons this war was launched in the first place. But they were not. They crop up only occasionally, as asides. The main reason given for banning drugs—the reason obsessing the men who launched this war—was that the blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, and menacing white people.

These origins matter. Even if the politicians, private prisons, and multi-national corporations deny racist motivations as they pass or push for legislation to continue waging the international Drug War, we must, if we have any hope of ending this devastating, quixotic endeavor, insist on putting the color and the politics back into every conversation we have about drugs.

Paley begins Drug War Capitalism with the story of Maria Antonia Reyes Beltran, a Colombian woman who lived in a rural farming village and was nearly killed in a helicopter attack. A piece of shrapnel from a WWII-era cluster bomb, as well as six fragmentation grenades, were dropped from a helicopter onto a street where Reyes Beltran was walking, close to where many of her neighbors were gathered for a community meeting. She witnessed the murder of seventeen people. Twenty-seven others, including fifteen children, were injured. The helicopter then opened fire on the villagers who were running for their lives. The attack was led by two American men working for a private US security company called AirScan Inc, which the Colombian oil company Occidental Petroleum (Oxy) had hired to provide security while they were building a new pipeline. In an attempt to cover up the bombing, “the Colombian military claimed the dead were members of guerilla forces—a story that didn’t stick. Later, the military changed their story and said that it was in fact the guerillas who had bombed Santo Domingo. Neither American [there] that day has faced charges or jail time in the United States.” (Apparently they were not on the helicopter, but in an observation plane over the scene during the attack). Paley sums up the disaster from Washington’s perspective: “In the name of arming the state in its [Colombia’s] fight against drug cultivation and trafficking… US aid to Colombia skyrocketed throughout the 2000s….” but, “rather than stopping the flow of drugs, funding the drug war has bolstered a war strategy that ensures transnational corporations access to resources through dispossession and terror.”

What should frighten every one of us is that today the helicopters are not only flying over rural Colombia; they are also flying over US neighborhoods. They are flying over the US-Mexico borderlands. They are buzzing migrants and protesters. They are fueled by latent, new, and burgeoning racism. They are fueled by corporate greed and profits. Look up, right now, and you might catch a shadow against the sky: a fat cat capitalist motherfucker, one of the many weapons used in fighting the Drug War, beating its blades against the air.

John Washington

John Washington is a freelance journalist and translator. He is a frequent contributor to The Nation, where he writes about immigration and criminal justice. He has translated numerous books, including Anabel Hernandez’s forthcoming Massacre in Mexico: The True Story Behind the Missing Forty-Three Students. He is currently at work on a book, forthcoming from Verso, about US asylum policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jbwashing.

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