Q&A with Dawn Paley, Author of Drug War Capitalism

In new her book, Paley breaks from a tired narrative to connect U.S. policy, free trade and the devastating war on drugs in Colombia and Mexico.


Since Mexico sent the military into the streets to fight the drug war in 2006, at least 140,000 people have lost their lives. Drug capos are killed or jailed by the Mexican government, and still the violence escalates. Canadian journalist Dawn Paley peels back the layers of this complex conflict, dismissing the simple cops-versus-cartels narrative that dominates most U.S. media reporting on the drug war. Her new book, Drug War Capitalism, reveals how U.S. foreign policy, free trade and the ever-expanding drug war and militarization contribute to the bloodshed in Latin America. Currently living in Mexico, Paley covers dangerous territory: greed, political corruption and a battle for dwindling resources under the guise of a drug war.

In her courageous and ambitious book, Paley argues that there’s no longer a clear distinction between the drug cartels, the government forces supposedly fighting them and the rapacious global economy.


Texas Observer: Can you talk about the origins of your book Drug War Capitalism and why you decided to write it?

Dawn Paley: I was in Colombia and watching Mexico totally degrade over the first couple of years of the Merida Initiative, and I wanted to link what people were telling me in Colombia and the kind of experiences they were having there with what was happening in Mexico. It was instinctual. But I didn’t have a hypothesis at the beginning so I just started working. The first thing I did was go to Reynosa and Monterrey and started speaking with people. And then I met [Tamaulipas politician and businessman] Francisco Chavira Martinez, and his way of understanding what was happening in Reynosa was that it was the municipal politicians themselves that were working with drug cartels to set off explosions in public buildings so that people would be afraid to go and ask for transparency from the municipality. What is happening is that it’s about more than just controlling cocaine. The violence is bleeding into political life, creating this climate of fear that is useful in maintaining the current economic and political model.

TO: Why did you call the book Drug War Capitalism?

DP: When I was writing the book I was thinking about it along the lines of Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine and the subtitle of her book “The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” My book is a different take on a similar idea of these various strategies that are deployed to promote and expand capitalism and I argue that the drug war is one of them.

TO: It was very interesting to hear your March presentation in McAllen. You talked about how trade agreements are often linked with military expansionism in countries. It reminded me of the Keystone XL pipeline expansion in Texas. The company hired local police as security. The police are from the community but then they become this private security force protecting the pipeline.

DP: Yes, it’s a whole area where we can see how U.S. foreign and military policy is brought back to the U.S. It’s been talked about with Ferguson, for example, where you see military equipment that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then there are former soldiers who have returned from overseas and are now policing communities. In the case of the drug war, the militarization is something that we know less about and it’s less documented.

The easiest argument to communicate to people who live in the United States, for example, is about how militarization benefits the corporate sector. People understand that. There are these environmental struggles and struggles around social justice and occupying public spaces, and the role that the police play here in the U.S. as protectors of banks, protectors of capital. It’s a role police play everywhere. Of course the police are good for big corporations that are conflictive and that create conflict in communities.

Drug War Capitalism
Drug War Capitalism
By Dawn Paley
AK Press
$10.55; 255 pages

TO: In your book you talk a lot about the link between militarization and the extractive industries like mining and oil and gas exploration.

DP: In Colombia during Plan Colombia it was very overt. Part of Plan Colombia included funding for U.S. soldiers to train Colombian soldiers to protect a pipeline that belonged to Occidental Petroleum. And there were other developments in Plan Colombia where soldiers had protected mining companies in the exploitation phase and were carrying the product and actually guarding the sites. One of the things announced in 2010 was that the Colombian Army would also carry out security for corporations carrying out mining exploration. So it’s the militarization of the entire lifecycle of extractive projects. And it was being done in a very blatant way and in the case of the oil pipeline, which was specifically funded by the U.S. And it’s done always with the same argument that it’s crucial to improve the business climate because that’s the way to reduce poverty—but it’s an argument that I think doesn’t have any basis in reality.

In Mexico, the militarization of the extractive industries might be a little less obvious. But there are a couple of cases in my book of federal police bursting into ejido meetings and trying to influence landowners, and trying to influence their decision-making around a mining project. In the same area in Chihuahua the army used its trucks to bring mining employees across a strike blockade. Those were two instances I was able to find for the book, but I think unfortunately over time there will be more evidence of collusion between police, the military and the promotion of these types of extractive projects. It’s not like this activity is always part of Plan Mexico. But Plan Mexico is crucial in arming and equipping soldiers and police units. Also we have a very hard time knowing exactly what’s being done with the money the U.S. is dispersing through the Initiative.

TO: What do you think will happen in Tamaulipas with fracking opening up, especially in a place with so much insecurity and violence?

DP: Multiple mass displacements have taken place in the Burgos Fields (in Tamaulipas). The area of the Eagle Ford Shale that runs south from Nuevo Laredo is essentially one of the most violent areas in Mexico where there’s no free press, people live in fear and there’s been multiple displacements from that region. We’ll see what happens with the fracking. It depends on gas prices, depends on the auctions held by Pemex and it depends on the ability to access water and how residents react to it. But I feel like what my book is doing—in the case of fracking in Tamaulipas—is calling attention to this new energy boom in one of the scariest, most dangerous regions of Mexico and saying, “let’s be open to the possibility that that’s not a coincidence.”

TO: Do you think there will be a rise in paramilitaries? Will oil and gas companies use private security forces in Tamaulipas because of the insecurity?

DP: Well, you can look at a case that Pemex started in Houston around the sale of stolen condensate, which the Mexican government says was stolen by the Zetas, primarily in Tamaulipas and Coahuila, and then brought across the border and sold to a syndicate of Texas fossil fuel companies that knew they were buying product that had been extracted illegally. And so these companies in Texas had these direct links with these armed groups. So it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think that their cooperation with these armed groups could extend to playing other types of roles. Another thing is, I’ve interviewed a number of oil and gas workers in Reynosa who talk about how dozens of people over a handful of years have been kidnapped and disappeared while they were working at remote sites and Pemex doesn’t do anything about it. One man recently told me that part of his job is marking these men down every week as absent. Some of these men have been missing now for four years and he marks them down as absent because the company won’t acknowledge that they have disappeared. It’s this absurdity where these high-level Pemex people are allowing this to happen and there’s been no big public denouncement by Pemex. I think if there were attacks against private contractors and U.S. or Canadian companies then it would be a scandal and there would be things we would know about and there would be more security measures in place.

TO: After so many years of writing about the drug war in Mexico, the U.S. media still covers it mostly like a crime story with body counts and not a lot of depth. Why is that, do you think? Why is there no context?

I feel like as a journalist there is this idea that if you you’re not writing about the drug cartels and the battles and not chasing ambulances then you aren’t really covering the drug war, you’re covering something else.

DP: I feel like as a journalist there is this idea that if you’re not writing about the drug cartels and the battles and not chasing ambulances then you aren’t really covering the drug war, you’re covering something else. The dominant discourse in the media is so restrained and the language that they use is about Cartel X and Cartel Y fighting each other and the amount of drugs, and there are these sets of things that you have to say… the body counts. And what the police say and what the government is doing about it.

Going outside of those boundaries is something that could be risky for people’s careers. There is very little space in the mainstream media for telling other versions or for challenging that official version. People have built their careers on that version of events. I think that’s another part of it: There’s analysts, there’s journalists, there’s police officers, DEA officers there are all of these segments of society that depend on that official version. Challenges to that version of events could undermine the legitimacy.

TO: What are you working on now?

DP: I’m currently working on a book about clandestine mass graves in Mexico and the politics of exhumation and who is looking for these graves. It feels like my next logical step after this book. I think of the clandestine mass graves in Mexico as being one of the very important physical remnants that the drug war has left in Mexico. The drug war has transformed Mexico into a cemetery. We are talking about upwards of 24,000 people declared disappeared over the past six years. Meanwhile the state and federal governments are not following any type of protocol when it comes to finding these graves or matching them with folks who have been disappeared. Looking at the way the mass graves are treated reinforces this structural impunity that allows the war to continue.