Colombia's drug-fuelled war of terror exposed

Colombian National Police officers guarding workers eradicating coca.
Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cocaine, Death Squads & the War on Terror: US Imperialism & Class Struggle in Colombia
By Oliver Villar & Drew Cottle
Monthly Review Press,
New York, 2011

Dedicated to “the workers and peasants of Colombia”, Cocaine, Death Squads and the War on Terror is a serious and rigorous study of Colombian society.

For the authors, both lecturers in politics at Australian universities, the book represents a labour of love, condensing more than 10 years of research.

It is an openly partisan salvo on the side of the oppressed against the imperialists and their Colombian allies among the elite. It is a valuable and necessary weapon against the lies of the Empire.

A foreword, provided by Peter Dale Scott, a former Canadian diplomat and author of Cocaine Politics: Drugs, Armies, and the CIA in Central America, opens the volume, providing a necessary overview of the US role in Colombian drug trafficking operations.

Villar and Cottle undertake a rather ambitious task - to draw out the relationship of the Colombian economy, the Colombian state and US imperialism. That it does so in about 150 pages without skipping important details, makes it a dense, but worthwhile, read.

Why does the cocaine trade flourish? What do the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN) guerilla groups really represent? What is the “war on drugs” really about and how successful has it been? These are just some of the questions Villar and Cottle explore.

The authors remind readers that the problem of cocaine production is not inherent in Colombian society. Coca has long been an indigenous crop of the Andean region, but it is not identical to cocaine. It was not inevitable that coca production be converted into cocaine production.

Rather, “Colombia’s cocaine trade is largely a product of the nation’s history”. Spanish colonisation started the process, forcing landless peasants into brutal slave labour to produce coca as a medicinal crop for European markets. This unleashed a class struggle in the countryside that continues today.

Villar and Cottle explain the historical factors that converted this form of exploitation into cocaine production.

The transformation of coca production into cocaine production was the result of capitalist chemical production techniques. The new drug found an insatiable market in the US.

The authors detail this history, especially the “cocaine decade” of the 1980s and the impact that it had on Colombian society and politics.

It is a dynamic and complex relationship, but it essentially goes like this: the cocaine trade has distorted the Colombian economy, making it a kind of cocaine "banana republic". There is a corresponding ruling class, a "narco-bourgeoisie" of drug cartels, that operates a cocaine-infused political superstructure ― what Villar and Cottle call a "narco-state".

But aren't the Colombian and US governments meant to be waging a “war on drugs”? The authors provide the seemingly counter-intuitive, but perfectly logical rebuttal: the war on drugs is in fact a war for drugs, for control of the production and distribution of cocaine.

A key opponent in this war is the FARC, a guerilla army largely comprised of peasant farmers that continues to control large swathes of rural Colombia.

The authors go on to undermine another popular misconception about Colombia. The FARC, commonly held to be a “narco-terrorist” guerilla outfit, is presented by Villar and Cottle as something else.

“In 2001”, they write, “Colombian intelligence estimated that [the] FARC controlled less than 2.5 percent of Colombia’s cocaine exports, while the [right-wing, state-sponsored guerilla group the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia] AUC controlled 40 percent, not counting the narco-bourgeoisie as a whole”.

The real role of the FARC and ELN, the authors write, has been to “spearhead popular resistance … to state oppression”.

It is impossible to do more than scratch the surface of this book in one short review. Suffice it to say, it provides a rigorous Marxist analysis of the intersection of Colombian economics and politics and its toxic relationship with US imperialism.

[Owen Richards maintains the blog Venezuela: Translating the Revolution.]