In May 2011, 20,000 people took to the streets of San Cristóbal de Las Casas in Chiapas, Mexico. The Zapatista support movement had called for a ‘march of silence’ against the government’s so-called ‘war on drugs’. Women, children, and men walked in silence, holding up banners saying “no more blood” and “we are fed up” (“estamos hasta la madre”). Their clarity about the violence not only by so-called cartels, but also by state institutions, exposes what much state theory on the ‘war on drugs’ has lacked — an idea of the state’s role.
In my new book Selective Security in the War on Drugs, on security policies in the 2000s in Mexico and Colombia, I contribute to the emerging debate on the state in this so-called ‘war’, based on research done since 2009. “The terror has caused a social silence which cuts the ties of solidarity”, said activist Alejandro Cerezo when I interviewed him in 2012. Although the strategy seemed diffuse at the time, it is now documented that ‘security’ in Mexico, or rather, disciplining, contributed to reproducing power relations based on class and race.
Critique of the ‘war on drugs’ is not new; former presidents, policy advisors, NGOs and grassroots organisations have all repeatedly argued for more demand-oriented drug policies. I also build on a wealth of research on security in Latin America, some very critical of the state’s role. Still, there is a lack of perspectives that think political economy approaches to security in conjunction with coloniality, in the ‘war on drugs’. This is what the book aims to do. Ultimately, this book is a contribution to (postcolonial) state theory — it starts from a neo-Poulantzian, relational conceptualisation of the state – the state is a strategic terrain for dominant forces, but not only for them. Aníbal Quijano’s notion of the coloniality of state power then allows for a nuanced analysis of these social relations.
The challenges lie in carving out the actors and motives involved, the actual power relations in specific conjunctures, and the ways in which security policies are contested while they simultaneously complicate contestation. To what extent and for whom do states produce order and disorder, by devising security policies within the ‘war on drugs’? Which social forces support and drive change in security policy?
By zooming in on security policies in the 2000s, the book foregrounds the links between neoliberal accumulation and disciplining in Colombia and Mexico. I make three related arguments. First, security policies became the heart of state policies, and security apparatuses became protagonists within the state ensemble to an unprecedented extent. The two ‘security projects’ essentially transformed the state, beyond a single conjuncture. This prominence, however, and the violence against potential criminals that this entailed, were also integral to a rollout of neoliberal policies. In both contexts, these ranged from the flexibilisation of the job market to the radical privileging of private property over communal property and strategic economic sectors such as coal and oil extraction and agro-industrial exports over alternative economic projects. The core issue of security rallied a range of social forces behind these policies and at times obscured them.
Second, security and state coercion were organised in disperse ways. State/non-state relations were flexibly institutionalised and informalised at the height of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ in both Colombia and Mexico. Almost paradoxically, state-crime collusion and the cooperation between the state, para-political, and openly irregular forces have become enmeshed in the arguments for mano dura policies, the military solutions to social and public health problems, and strengthened anti-democratic political imaginaries. In short, the disciplining around the specific, export commodities-led economic project turned criminal, through neglect, lack of action, and direct activities by state institutions and other, more or less autonomous forces.
And third, the security projects in both contexts entailed a highly selective provision of security with brutal material effects. Different social forces enjoy differentiated access to the state, and influence the state discourse on crime to very different extent. Selectively, security policies targeted activists as dangerous, and brushed away the distinction between civilian victims and ‘criminals’ deemed unworthy of rights. I speak of “selective security” to account for how police and military forces routinely killed those constructed as criminals, lower-class and/or racially inferior. This “security” entailed protecting private property to the detriment of communal and collective property, the latter represented as inferior and hindering progress. Racial hierarchies in the representation of property translated into hierarchies of protection. More than securitization (as in the discursive framing of all sorts of things as security-related), this is about the material bases and effects of such practices, their actual modes of governance. In tendency, these selective practices enabled capital accumulation.
That ‘war’ is a response not only to new polarizations resulting from the commodity super-cycle of the 2000s (new demand for land, growing social inequality in one of the most unequal regions in the world, and further shifts in social stratification), but also advanced that wave of demand for investment opportunities.
From a “failure” in 2000, Colombia quickly turned into what was perceived as a “rising star” or even, a “coming of age”, after President Uribe took office in 2002 and pushed economic growth and direct investments to new heights. But this at the same time meant excessive, unthinkable violence made state policy, based on payments for soldiers based body count tactics. Mexico, in 2006, was enmeshed in a political crisis. Whether there really was a mandate for Felipe Calderón as president, was contested. When after the start of his military campaign “against drugs”, homicide rates rose rapidly — they had consistently fallen to a historic low in 2006 —, interpretations similar to those in Colombia, were quick to appear. Mexico was “losing control”.
Despite the different trajectories and perceptions of success, the authoritarian coercion integral to both security projects is dispersed. It seems disorganised and messy. A range of actors exercise coercion, to advance personal power, to claim territories for certain groups, or as outsourcing from the state. I use the term dispersion to nuance what the actual coercive practices of an authoritarian neoliberal state can look like. This builds on Liliana Franco Restrepo’s binary-defying work on the continuous, active outsourcing and reintegration of the exercise of coercion. Like any concept in social science, the notion of a state monopoly of coercion is context-bound, and arose in specific European discursive contexts of the ninteteenth-century.
What may seem two distinct, national security projects, were in fact also shaped in relation to and in temporal overlap to another. Instead of a classical comparison of two national cases, I read them in relation to each other and to an hemispheric frame. Concepts were transferred from Colombia to Mexico for instance, as Colombian police and military served as consultants in Mexico. Both governments legitimised the increased military presence with the increase in violence, which they in part actively brought about.