Stopping Insanity: The ‘War on Drugs’ as a Fetishization of the Use of Force

by William Arrocha

In September 2009 23 recovering drug addicts, ages 15 to 25, were gathered at El Aliviane (meaning “the remedy”) rehabilitation center in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. The gathering was part of what they called “holding their daily court,” in which they would talk about their tribulations as drug addicts in a society immersed in a “war on drugs.” This “war,” declared by Mexico’s president in 2006, echoes the so-called “war on drugs” that the U.S. government declared in 1971 under Nixon’s presidency. In the evening, around 7:30 pm, commandos linked to one of the drug cartels in Juárez entered the center and forced all 23 out onto the patio. They aimed their AK-47s and showered the recovering addicts with more than 100 bullets, killing 18 and gravely wounding the rest. After the slaughter, the commandos got back into their vehicles, drove away into the night, and were never seen again. The army and police forces arrived at the center a couple of hours later. Neighbors kept silent, the bodies were evacuated, and the scene was cleaned: one more chapter of this insane “war on drugs” was closed.

The 18 young men were an unfortunate fraction of the 60,462 confirmed deaths, including 1,400 children, in the ultimate fetishization of the use of force to deal with a manufactured “enemy”: the unappeasable market for drugs, whether illicit or legal. The mere idea of “combating” a market with the use of force is a result of two other fetishisms: the fetishism of commodities and the fetishism of the law. Fetishism of commodities, in this context, refers to the alleged religious practice of granting supernatural powers or just human powers to material objects that results in the latter establishing independence and dominance over humans or social constructs. The latter, fetishism of the law, refers to the idea that the law is an autonomous and self-sufficient reality with its own internal dynamics from which all social interactions derive.

Photo from Creative Commons.
Photo from Creative Commons.

Beyond the effects that any drug can have on human beings and society, the production and market distribution of so-called “illegal drugs” creates the misperception that drugs are independent from the people who produce and consume them. Drugs appear to rule over individuals and society, according to what are understood as “natural” laws. Moreover, in the case of these particular goods, their apparently independent nature appears to defy moral principles and positive laws that are also misconstrued as autonomous entities from which social structures and social behavior emanate, and not otherwise. Such fetishization of these commodities and the laws that categorize them as “illegal” has fostered a hegemonic discourse that criminalizes them, as well as those who engage in their production, distribution, and consumption. This criminalization has reached the point where it is considered a serious threat to the core values of society as well as the security of the nation.

For those who hold the monopoly of power of the state, the response has been to unleash one of the most aggressive campaigns to eradicate a market that has been portrayed as evil. Thus, the discourse and policies that follow are manufactured to trigger consent where the use of force is justified at all levels of the state. In framing the manufactured struggle as a quasi-religious endeavor, the repressive apparatuses of the state are deployed with a relaxation of the most fundamental human rights. What in a rational context are constitutional violations and human rights abuses become necessary evils to destroy a demonized market by instilling fear at all levels of society. The response from those who obtain the highest benefits within the context of a free capitalist market, and yet are threatened by such fetishization of the commodities of which they control the supply side, is to respond not just by embracing the same discourse but by increasing the fear in society so as to close the circle of what is now an irrational and demonized market. Drug cartels, which have clearly demonstrated their corporate sophistication (sustained by an insatiable demand for the now demonized commodity that they control), have developed and amassed an unmatched set of economic and fighting capabilities. Cartels are incredibly powerful: according to the General Accountability Office (GAO), Mexican cartels make approximate annual profits of $23 billion, and can exploit the quasi-religious fetishization of the commodities over which they have an almost complete monopoly in ways that even the state cannot. They can buy political influence from the grassroots up; they can control regional markets of goods that, although fetishized, are not demonized; they can create their own hegemonic culture through music, art, and even the deification of their leaders; and they can torture and kill in the name of evil.

What is the end result of this symbiotic relationship with a manufactured battle of “good” versus “evil”? An unprecedented level of corruption at all levels of society that, as they suffer from the discourse of evil, also witness the formation of new social discourses and structures that benefit from such demonized markets, as well as state apparatuses that can no longer sustain their moral discourses and, in a realpolitik policy frame, violate the same normative bodies and rules that were considered “pure.” The final result is a set of new game rules where everything is permissible, including insanity.

It is insane to see thousands being tortured and killed in the name of slaughtering an imaginary dragon called “illegal drugs” It is senseless to pervert state institutions in operations such as Fast and Furious, which ran from 2006-2011. This was an operation led by the American Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms that flagrantly allowed, from the highest levels of the Bureau and with the knowledge of the U.S. Department of Justice, thousands of high-powered guns to be bought by suspected arms traffickers working through straw purchasers on behalf of Mexican drug cartels. It is morally defunct to accept as a legitimate policy the laundering of billions of dollars from cartels funds, as the Drug Enforcement Agency and U.S. banks have done for years. It is irrational to deploy the military, as was done in Mexico, to attack an invisible enemy, and to torture civilians and kill in the name of a misconstrued enemy. But above all it is ludicrous to maintain the discourse that justifies the indiscriminate use of force as the only tool to resolve a social issue that has its origins in a system that fetishizes commodities and the law as it moralizes what is only an insatiable demand for drugs in a quasi-religious frame.

In August 2010, at 7:30 in the morning, Ciudad Juárez was waking up to embrace another warm summer day. Three human heads were found in the Gazebo that is gracefully placed at the center of the main plaza of the border port of Palomas (meaning “doves”). Two hours later the bodies of the beheaded individuals were found totally calcinated in the interior of a truck. Was this a message towards those who hold the monopoly of power? Was it a message addressed to the members of another cartel? Or was it a message to society and the media, to keep them frozen in a state of fear? Perhaps the answer is in all of the above questions. However, what is undeniably clear is that it was one more message of “insanity in the age of reason”: an insanity that for the sake of humanity can no longer continue, an insanity that must be stopped with the full force of reason.

Dr. Arrocha is a professor at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, teaching Global Politics, International Development, Mexico-US relations, and Human Rights, Migration, and Security. At present he is conducting research on Mexico-US relations as well as the political economy of US migration laws and policies with a focus on their impact on the human rights of minorities. Professor Arrocha has been published in The California Western Law Review, The Journal of Hate Studies, The National Autonomous University of Mexico Press (UNAM), The Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations, North Western Journal of International Affairs, Mesoámerica, and Libros de FLASCO, Chile.

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