An Interview with Dawn Paley, Author of Drug War Capitalism

Drug War Capitalism

Dawn Paley is a Canadian author.  Drug War Capitalism (AK Press, November 2014) is her first book.  We conducted an e-interview as protests grew against police and military policies in Mexico and the U.S.  The drug war on both sides of the border has played no small role in generating such dissent.

Seth Sandronsky: Can you talk about the actors and factors growing up that shaped who you are now?

Dawn Paley: I grew up near Vancouver, British Columbia, in a semi-rural environment.  My brother and I were pushed by our parents to work hard at school, and in some ways left to our own devices as children, spending long summers outside playing and winters reading and building things.  As a university student I studied women’s studies and that was when I had my first contact with left and political organizing.  After graduating I began to travel and file stories, little updates and reports, that sort of thing.  My first trips to Latin America were linked to reporting on the activities of Canadian mining companies and the social and environmental problems linked to their operations.  Eventually I got more into political organizing in Vancouver.   I co-founded the Vancouver Media Co-op and worked with a dynamic group of anti-colonial and anti-capitalist activists in the city around resistance to the 2010 Olympics.  Over a few years, I basically wove my time between reporting projects I was working on down south and community organizing locally, supporting myself through freelancing and summer jobs.  Over time, my connections grew stronger in Latin America and I began to link up with groups who continue to inspire me, like the Communications Network of the Nasa People in Cauca, Colombia.  I went on to do a masters in journalism.  My thesis project proposed a more responsible way of approaching foreign reporting, and used the 2009 coup d’état in Honduras as a case study.  I graduated in November 2010, and it was then I decided I wanted to write a book linking together some of these stories around resource extraction and militarization that felt disparate as article length pieces, but that are in fact connected.  The result is Drug War Capitalism.

SS: What is the thesis of your book?

DP: Drug War Capitalism proposes that the war on drugs is a tool for social control, and that outside of the United States, it tends to create social and political conditions which are beneficial for the expansion of global capitalism.  In the U.S., social control linked to the drug war is exercised in large part through police and prisons, disproportionately affecting communities of color.  In Mexico, Colombia, and Central America, social control linked to the war on drugs is exercised primarily through the use of terror.  Massacres, disappearances, the public display of bodies, mass graves; all of these things break down the social fabric and sow fear, which in large part demobilizes community organizing and makes it far more difficult for workers to form unions, for example, or for rural people to protect their land base.

The book is focused on U.S. policy, specifically Plan Colombia, the Merida Initiative, and the Central America Regional Security Initiative.  I argue that there are three key ways these kinds of plans can benefit transnational capital: through the promotion of structural reforms and major changes to host country judicial systems; through militarization, which is designed to protect capital and investments; and through deepening processes of paramilitarization which, as is clearly demonstrated in the case of Colombia, can work to the benefit of transnational corporations in clearing territory and dissuading union organizing.

One of the initial questions I had when I started working on this project was: why were people in the U.S. and Canada and elsewhere who protested the invasion of Iraq able to make a connection between U.S.-led war there and oil, yet in the case of the drug war, which is also a war on the people, is there rarely a link made with economic factors as drivers of the conflict?

SS: What surprised you most in researching and writing your book?

DP: I would say I was surprised to discover the extent to which the mainstream media, both in the U.S., in Mexico, and elsewhere, actively promotes a discourse around the war which criminalizes the victims of the conflict while promoting the official line without question.  At this point I can barely read the mainstream media on the conflict in Mexico — in so many ways it confuses more than it clarifies.

Take the case of Ciudad Juarez, where the mainstream media continues to insist that the spike in violence in 2008-2011 was because of inter-cartel violence.  They argue violence was reduced because of the state’s success in fighting criminal groups.  But a cursory look at the facts shows us that violence rose as the city was militarized, with the arrival of at least 5,000 Federal Police and 5,000 soldiers.  When state forces left Juarez, violence fell.  The connection between state militarization and violence is clear as day, both in looking at the statistics and doing interviews with people locally in Juarez.  Yet somehow, the narrative of inter-cartel violence dominates the vast majority of accounts of events in Juarez over the past years.

The surprising part is how consistent and powerful state narratives are, and how rarely they are questioned, even in the face of abundant hard evidence.  Even in the alternative media it can be difficult to find stories that seriously consider the economic context in which the drug war is taking place as potentially connected to the violence.

SS: How does the past 20-plus years of the North American Free Trade Agreement connect with the illegal drug business in Mexico and the U.S.?

DP: The book is focused on the war on drugs far more than it is on the illicit drug trade itself, and in that respect I’d say that the Merida Initiative is essentially a plan to deepen the structural reform agenda of NAFTA while militarizing the country.

There’s been a slate of reforms passed in Mexico over the past couple of years, which I look at in some detail in the book.  These include energy reform, which opens the country’s oil industry up to foreign investment and will allow transnational oil giants to explore and exploit oil in Mexico.  These reforms were passed while parts of the country were terrorized by violence linked to the drug war, but, also, they were done with the support of think tanks that are funded by USAID.  Similarly, the state oil company in Colombia was partially privatized during Plan Colombia.  The parallels are stunning.

In terms of the militarization aspect of deepening NAFTA, here’s an example.  Though it has been possible for communal landholders to sell parts of communally owned (ejido) land since 1992, and that is directly linked to NAFTA, the majority of communal landowners have refused to do so.  I argue that these lands, many of which are mineral-rich or contain oil or gas, will only be given up by their owners at gunpoint, or by force.  The militarization and paramilitarization that stem from the Merida Initiative are both useful in terms of forcibly displacing people from their lands.  We can see signs of that taking place already in Mexico, but there are also strong examples from Colombia, and of course the Merida Initiative is based on Plan Colombia, which ran from 2000-2006.

SS: What are the strengths and weaknesses of alternative/social media in Mexico?

DP: Social media like Twitter and Facebook have become crucial tools in terms of mobilization in Mexico, as evidenced by hashtags like #YaMeCanse (and #YaMeCanse2).  They’ve also become important tools for folks in areas experiencing drug war violence, who use hashtags like #ReynosaFollow to warn others of checkpoints and gun battles.  These hashtags and social media more generally provide important information that is often ignored by the mainstream media.

In terms of alternative media, there are some great sites, like Desinformémonos and SubVersiones, and magazines, like Emeequis.  Specifically in terms of the online outlets, I think they face a similar problem as Indymedia sites in the U.S. and elsewhere, which is a lack of funding to carry out longer-term, investigative journalism.  That’s the kind of work that I’ve been doing, and on a shoestring, in order to bring out some of these alternative narratives on the drug war.  But it’s very difficult to fund this kind of journalism, which is, in my opinion, sorely lacking.

SS: Where are folks in Mexico resisting the drug war status quo getting the least and most traction for progressive social change now?

DP: Where they are gaining traction is in the streets.  It is worth recalling that street mobilizations are often the product of deeper processes of organization, which can take place through assemblies and otherwise.

I think what has become clear to many following the forced disappearance of the 43 young men in Ayotzinapa is that the party system is no longer a useful vehicle for change in Mexico.  People want structural change.  In Guerrero there was a call put out by families of the disappeared young men, students of the Normal School, and other organizations for the dissolution of the state government and the convening of a constituent assembly.

That’s a very interesting development.  It remains to be seen where things will go from here.  The future is unwritten.

SS: Thanks you for your time, Dawn.

DP: Thanks so much Seth.  Folks that are interested can buy the book from AK Press (, check out my website (, or follow me on Twitter (

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild.  Email: <>.