Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror:
U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia
By Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle
New York, Monthly Review, January 2012, 208 pp.
Review by Seth Sandronsky
Why write a book about class, cocaine, Colombia and the U.S.? Oliver Villar and Drew Cottle have an answer. In Cocaine Death Squads and the War on Terror: U.S. Imperialism and Class Struggle in Colombia they provide data and evidence to refute Uncle Sam’s official version of relations between both nations today and yesterday.
To this end, the authors present a strong counter-narrative that begins with cocoa plants and continues with the capitalist production and distribution of cocaine. The Cold War looms large, but Villar and Cottle don’t stop there. They explain how and why the U.S.-led war on the Third World—under the rhetoric of fighting communist insurgents—is now knee-deep in a cocoa-plant growing region in Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru. Villar and Cottle call this place the Crystal Triangle.
The authors provide evidence of Uncle Sam’s anti-communist crusade (now the war on terror) in concert with illegal drug trafficking. Past sites of such operations include pre-revolutionary China and Southeast Asia’s Golden Triangle, with the track record of American armed forces and mercenaries and their drug-industry allies.
This is a class war, thus, the basic motive is simple. The U.S. intervenes for the interest of an investment class that opposes nationalist governments under popular control. In the authors’ words, such a foreign policy is “the consequence of efforts by the United States to enhance its political and economic position in the world economy.”
The U.S. expands its reach to the Golden Crescent of Afghanistan and then to the Crystal Triangle of Colombia. There, the main enemy of the U.S. and Colombian elites becomes the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
In an introduction, ten chapters, bibliography, notes and an index, we learn much more about this Latin American nation and region. The authors lay bare the factors and forces that spawned Colombia’s “narco-state” and “narco-economy” as U.S. consumption of cocaine skyrocketed. Working people in both nations suffer as the post-9/11 war on terror expands with no apparent end.
Chapters on the “narco-cartel system” and the “post-cartel system” help us to make sense of changes in the cocaine industry. Take the death of Pablo Escobar, a Colombian drug kingpin. As the authors write, his demise heralds: “Sophisticated modes of production and distribution and technological developments (that) increased efficiency.”
Meanwhile, U.S. firms export into the Crystal Triangle an estimated 90 percent of the chemicals—i.e., acetone or ether—required to process drugs such as cocaine. Villar and Cottle follow Marx’s critique of capitalism as a class project of economic control over the labor process of producing goods and services for sale. They place changes in Colombia’s cocaine production, exchange, and distribution to trends in other industries. That is, accelerated and integrated cross-border supply chains to expand and extend commodity exchange and capital accumulation.
Modernization in the cocaine industry occurs as a postwar era of U.S. economic supremacy winds down and global competition heats up. “Plan Colombia” under President Clinton gets dressed up as a war to eradicate cocaine trafficking, but we learn, however, that this war is mainly a campaign to further control of the cocaine industry ownership class in fewer hands, at home and abroad.
In Colombia, this conflict maims and murders peasants and dissidents. Stateside, the same drug war propels a massive rise in people imprisoned for their involvement with cocaine—the authors could have fleshed out this trend a bit more. (Those held in the American gulag are disproportionately nonwhites and low-income, the people last fired and first hired whose labor services employers can do without.)
Some have called Colombia a “genocidal democracy.” Villar and Cottle verify the role of the U.S. state apparatus—such as the CIA and State Department—in the counterinsurgency against Colombia’s labor unions, journalists and peasant producers. Uncle Sam funds this violence for reasons of profits and power.
If readers want to learn how “the war on drugs and terror is part of a counterrevolutionary strategy designed to maintain rather than eliminate the economic conditions that allow the drug trade to thrive,” Villar and Cottle’s book is an eyeopener.
Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento.
Power Concedes Nothing:
One Woman’s Quest for Social Justice in America,
from the Courtroom to the Kill Zones
By Connie Rice
New York: Scribner, 2012, 339 pages
Review by Kristian Williams
Connie Rice’s memoir, Power Concedes Nothing, is an invigorating self-portrait of a smart, capable, extraordinarily driven woman. It recounts her adventures using both law and politics to confront some of the most intractable problems facing Los Angeles’s poorest residents—corrupt policing, failing schools, and gang violence. The book is a textbook study of co-optation, the process by which oppositional figures are incorporated into an existing power structure in order to contain and neutralize their threat.
Connie Rice (not to be confused with her cousin, Condoleezza Rice) made her career and built her reputation suing the Los Angeles Police Department for their indifference to the civil rights of Black people, but sometimes for discriminating against people of color, women, and gays within their own ranks. But by the end of the book, she is giving awards to Chief William Bratton and Sheriff Lee Baca—and gratefully accepting Bratton’s gift of a replica LAPD Chief’s badge engraved with her name.
Rice starts out fighting death penalty cases with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She then moves naturally to aggressive litigation to address police brutality and, shortly after the Rodney King riots, was asked to help with negotiations between rival gangs organizing a truce. The truce greatly reduced the number of shootings and Rice found herself in the position of intermediary as the gangs worked to enforce its terms. In 2000, Sheriff Baca called Rice and asked her to use her gang contacts to help quell a riot in the Pitchess Detention Center; she brought gang members in to negotiate and successfully ended the disturbance. That same year, the head of the Police Protective League—“the police union whose leaders had bedeviled our female and minority officers and once thrown me bodily out of its headquarters”—also asked for her help. She co-authored the League’s report on the Rampart scandal, demonstrating that the division’s corruption extended to the higher ranks as well as the line officers.
The lesson that Rice took from these experiences was that you could win more working with the authorities than against them. She went on to draft a model program for gang interdiction, create an academy to train police in anti-gang strategies, and, eventually, to advise the Department of Defense on counterinsurgency warfare. In the book, she revels in her team’s influence: “Within the first eight months following our report, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger had eight of our expert co-authors fly up to Sacramento and brief his staff. He thereafter appointed his own gang czar, Paul Seave, and I joined his advisory board…. State Assembly leader Karen Bass requested our help in drafting legislation with Assembly Speaker Fabin Nunez’s office to require recipients of state gang reduction funds to coordinate services in comprehensive strategies…. [Over time] our military and transnational encounters grew, including meetings with war college staff, travel to Central America with FBI gang experts; briefings with Condi [Rice], retired general Stan McChrystal, and General Robert Holmes.”
The ironies here are numerous, but perhaps the greatest among them is that Rice doesn’t see the results as co-option, but as unalloyed success. She writes: “It wasn’t a bad tally: getting inside LAPD to figure out what was going on; winning their trust while reinvestigating the Rampart scandal; documenting Charlie Beck’s transformation of Rampart Division; learning the lowdown of policing from hundreds of officers; addressing their fears; forging ties between police and gang intervention; pushing the city and county to step up gang violence reduction efforts; boosting officer and gang intervention training; helping Baca and Bratton join forces; and helping Bratton reframe policing and racial reconciliation.”
She seems to assume, throughout her memoir, that her entrance into the institution signals a change, not in herself, but in the culture of policing. Such naiveté is strange, since she had realized, very early in her career, that the problems with the American criminal justice system were pervasive and systemic: “Law school’s pristine parsing of constitutional principles, lofty notions of liberty, and abstractions on the sanctity of due process had almost nothing to do with the mess I’d seen on the death circuit…. If we determined the most important decision of any legal system—whom to kill—with this bias-ridden, corrupt, error-laden system, then how much integrity could our legal system really have?”
Rice had also learned that good deeds have unintended consequences. She had come to regret, for example, her limited cooperation with the Grape Street Crips and her role in the truce negotiations, recognizing that the “community-friendly stuff” had served not only to reduce violence but also to “validat[e] the gang’s status.” But somehow she doesn’t see the parallels when her later gang work receives “vigorous support from more conservative bodies” and its “strongest support…from law enforcement,” while her liberal allies back away. Furthermore, being conversant in the theory of counterinsurgency, she must understand the strategy of co-opting opposition to help legitimize the state and expand its power. She certainly knows that the city’s “gang czar seeks gang cooperation” to limit violence. Yet she betrays no suspicion that she is being manipulated in the same manner.
And Rice maintains this blind spot, even as she recognizes how police leaders use reforms to increase their own power: studying the LAPD’s history, Rice had noted how one reform chief, William Parker, “transformed the force with a new credo of crisp professionalism,” but also “ignored civilian rule, flouted Supreme Court rulings, and denounced the U.S. Constitution as a shield for criminals.” She had personally seen another chief, Bernard Parks, claim credit for changes that were only forced through litigation, and use the court-mandated reforms to build support for his own tenure. She had later seen Chief William Bratton’s new “compassionate and constitutional” police force unscrupulously attack an immigrants’ rights demonstration in MacArthur Park, “running down grandmothers with strollers, chasing fleeing priests, and battering journalists with cameras.” Somehow none of these lessons carried over to her current circumstances. The question is, why not?
One answer is sheer egotism. Everyone has the right to be the protagonist in their own autobiography, but Rice sometimes takes it to absurd lengths—comparing herself, at various points, to Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Elizabeth I. It is possible that her psychological need to be important has led her to crave validation from authority and once that validation has been granted, as she feels herself gaining personal influence, the authorities in question and the institutions they (and now, she) are a part of begin to seem increasingly legitimate. In other words, as her efforts to reform these institutions began to have an effect, Rice found herself invested in them and in the structures of authority that granted her some recognition.
A deeper reason may be her progressive ideology. Rice is a civil rights activist, but more particularly, she is a civil rights lawyer, and her lawyer’s mind seems less offended at the racism and brutality of the LAPD than at its lawlessness. If you see the problem as one of lawless policing, then it makes a certain amount of sense to think that lawful policing must be the solution. Likewise, Rice is a liberal, but she is a law-and-order liberal. For example, she calls “freedom from violence…the first rule of civilization” and “safety…the first civil right.” Later she adds, “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are meaningless without safety.” Finally, she concludes, “The only thing worse than a racist and brutal LAPD was no LAPD.” But, of course, the notion that any government is better than no government has been the alibi for authoritarianism since Hobbes wrote Leviathan.
Whatever the cause, the result is that Rice does not oppose the police. On the contrary, in her own way, she wants to help them. (As Sheriff Baca joked, “Connie sues you to let you know she wants a relationship.” Rice herself states: “[The police] department tottered on the brink of disintegration. My job was to help save it from the abyss.”) She wants to fix these broken organizations, to make them better at what they do. It should, perhaps, give one pause that she describes what the police do as “keeping people safe in ‘good neighborhoods,’ [keeping] people in ‘bad neighborhoods’…contained,” and quotes one officer: “What we do down here is suppression; it’s not safety, it’s containment to make sure it doesn’t spread to good areas.” Of course, Rice wants to change that mission, but she thinks the way to do it is by improving the police strategy. That is, she assumes that the problem is with the means of policing, and not the ends. And so she has come to believe that she can accomplish more by collaborating than through resistance.
With this in mind, the book’s title—Power Concedes Nothing—becomes somewhat puzzling. It is a reference to Frederick Douglass’s 1857 speech concerning the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies. Douglass argued: “What Wilberforce was endeavoring to win from the British senate by his magic eloquence the slaves themselves were endeavoring to gain by outbreaks and violence…. While one showed that slavery was wrong, the other showed that it was dangerous as well as wrong…. There is no doubt that the fear of the consequences, acting with a sense of the moral evil of slavery, led to its abolition.”
Douglass saw a role for moral argument and Parliamentary procedure. But he also saw that it was the resistance of the slaves themselves that made the institution seem untenable. So long as slavery was merely wrong, it could survive. Only when it became a danger to the slave-owners was it abandoned.
From these observations, Douglass extrapolated a general principle: “If there is no struggle there is no progress…. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (both from South End Press).
Gaza in Crisis By Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe
Edited by Frank Barat
Haymarket Press, 240 pp.
Review by Azhar Ali Khan
Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe have produced a book that is accurate, thoughtful, constructive, and humane. While the focus is on Gaza, where 200,000 people are living in sub-human conditions because of the U.S.-backed Israeli siege and attacks on defenseless civilians, this study provides a historical perspective on the conflict. It draws a bleak picture. On one side are the Israelis, bolstered by unlimited U.S. economic, military, diplomatic, and intelligence support. On the other are the helpless Palestinians, reduced to despair and hunger by their opponents, but enjoying the moral support of most of the world.
The book denies that the Palestinians fled from their homes in 1948 to enable Arab armies to defeat Israel. It says that Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and David Ben Gurion had stated long before Israel’s creation that the Palestinians would have to be removed. And they were.
The UN Partition Plan, agreed to under U.S. pressure because President Henry Truman relied on his Zionist advisers for his election, offered the 660,000 Jews—out of a population of 2 million—56 percent of the land. Many of the Jews were recent arrivals in Palestine, while the Arabs had lived there for generations.
The Haganah-led and state-sponsored ethnic cleansing began in December 1947, before Israel was created, and continued until 1954. Of the 900,000 Palestinians living in what became Israel only 100,000 remained—the others were expelled and thousands were killed.
The Israeli Arabs were kept under military rule for more than two decades. Even now, numerous laws in Israel discriminate against Muslim and Christian Arabs and make them second-class citizens. But they enjoy political freedom and are even represented in the Knesset. Arabs who came under Israeli rule after the 1967 war enjoy no such rights. Israeli leaders, led by General Moshe Dayan, decided not to expel them, but to deny them political, civic, and other rights and to make their lives miserable through checkpoints, curfews, arrests, and detention for years without charges and denial of building permits and other amenities. These actions were designed to force them out eventually.
Since 1967, the Israeli policy, having taken 80 percent of Palestine, has been to grab major chunks of the remaining 20 percent—Palestinians can have a mini-state in some arid Bantustans, which will also be controlled by the Israelis. Israel also refuses to accept responsibility for what it did to Palestinians during 1948-1954 and opposes their return to their homes. But Jews from anywhere can enter Israel and get citizenship.
Chomsky and Pappe state that the Israeli policy of dispossessing Palestinians and subsidizing illegal settlers—who now number half a million in occupied territories—has made a two-state solution impractical.
To have its way, Israel has often attacked the Gaza Strip and southern Lebanon, freely using U.S. arms and deadly weapons, like phosphorus bombs, on civilians. Many observers, including former UN General Assembly President Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann, the former foreign minister of Nicaragua, and even Jewish observers have described these actions as genocide.
Chomsky and Pappe assert that this has been possible because of U.S. military and diplomatic support. Since 1949 the U.S. has given Israel more than $100 billion in grants and $10 billion in special loans. Over 20 years $5.5 billion was given to Israel for military purchases.
The authors assert that U.S. support for Israel rests on three tiers: the powerful lobby AIPAC; the military industrial complex; and Christian Zionists. The U.S. arms industry benefits from the testing of new weapons in attacks on civilians from the air, sea, and land. The U.S. sells or gives the most sophisticated arms to Israel and less lethal weapons to others. A New America Foundation report said that, “U.S arms and military training played a role in 20 of the world’s 27 major wars in 2007.”
Christian Zionists also support Israel unconditionally on Biblical grounds. They believe that the Jews should settle in the Holy Land so that the Messiah will come and convert them to Christianity, by force if necessary, and that will lead the world to redemption. But support for Israel is falling rapidly among American Jews, especially the young.
Chomsky and Pappe feel that as the Internet and social media bring out the truth in the Middle East, world opinion will turn even more against Israel and the U.S.—perhaps in the U.S. itself. How this will work out is not clear. Probably Israel will have no choice but to give Palestinians equal rights in Israel and their basic rights in the Israeli-occupied territories. That could bring Israel to a one-state solution in which Palestinians will again become a majority in their own country.
This is a depressing but thoughtful book written by two of the world’s eminent thinkers. It should be read widely by those who believe in human rights, equality, dignity, justice and peace for all human being.
Azhar Ali Khan is a freelance writer and activist.