New book challenges mainstream understandings of violence in Latin America

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Cerrejón mine in columbia

Take a moment to reflect on how violence in Latin America is most commonly interpreted for us through mainstream media, official statements and popular culture.

The war on drugs would likely be central to that.

If I were to mention Colombia, you might think of cocaine, or the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, whose Medellín Cartel at one time supplied an estimated 80 per cent of the cocaine that was smuggled into the United States.

Mexico might bring to mind the recent trial of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán on charges of drug trafficking that involved millions of dollars in illegal profits, overconsumption, gruesome killings and extreme violence.

In this narrative, the governments of those countries and the United States -- including the police, military and special forces -- are engaged in a difficult, costly and regrettably murky battle for law and order. The governments are the good guys, so to speak.

One might also add into that a vague notion of a post-Cold War legacy of banana republics and military dictatorships that have evolved into democracies -- countries which may not now fully address inequality, but at the very least prove scenic tourist destinations for visitors from Canada and the U.S.

Journalist Dawn Paley and academic Simon Granovsky-Larsen challenge those assumptions in their compellingly told new book Organized Violence: Capitalist Warfare in Latin America.

Their central thesis, and those of the 15 contributors to this 12 chapter book, is that "discourses centred on the so-called wars on drugs and crime serve corporate and state interests, depoliticizing violence that often appears to have more to do with extraction, production, finance, or social control that it does with cocaine or gangs."

If the violence that we hear about in Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Paraguay, the countries focused on in Organized Violence, were therefore politicized, or understood in a political context, how might that change our perception of what is happening?

What if the violence by cartels, paramilitary forces, private security guards, and other non-state armed actors actually serve the interests of the state and the expansion of transnational capital?

How would that play out in a tangible way to help us understand this thesis?

Capitalist corporations reap profits from the operation of open-pit mines, the construction of tourist villages, the building of hydro-electric dams, the extraction of oil and gas, and the expansion of agribusiness growing soya and avocado crops for export.

This "development" most commonly involves the dispossession of people from their lands, the exploitation of their labour, the violation of Indigenous rights, and harm to their farming land, drinking water and natural (even sacred) environment.

When communities resist the violence that is about to be done to their land and lives, those people (peasants, Indigenous peoples, activists, human rights defenders) are also subject to criminalization and violence themselves.

That’s the "violence organized in its relationship to capitalism," including neo-liberalism, economic expansion, and militarization that can be perpetrated by organized groups such as "drug cartels, guerillas and soldiers, or paramilitaries and police."

That organized violence can also be committed by youth gangs, local death squads, sicario hit men, company thugs and private security companies. As the book argues, this violence "reinforces state power and corporate power"  and "appears to mimic a subcontracting" relationship, rather than undermining that power.

The editors emphasize that "in some senses, who applies violence is of less importance in the current stage of capital expansion than to what end it is applied."

The violence against the people comes from various armed actors, but Paley and Granvosky-Larsen argue that it gets separated from politics, then lumped together and lost in the narrative of the necessary fight against criminal activity.

In fact, there also appears to be a pattern in which governments claim that the killing of prominent activists is unrelated to their political work. This claim is undermined by the fact that people outside of this region are primed -- by the media and by political discourse -- to believe that these countries are inherently violent.

The individual chapters on Colombia, Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala and Paraguay by authors including Toronto-based Humber College professor Tyler Shipley and Arturo Ezquerro-Cañete, a PhD candidate at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, help to build and explore this thesis.

Organized Violence is rigorous in its research, scholarly while still being accessible, hard-hitting, emotionally powerful at times, and, if acted on, an important tool not just for understanding the world, but changing it.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Brent Patterson is a political activist and writer. He has worked in solidarity with revolutionary Nicaragua, advocated for the rights of prisoners in jails and federal prisons, taken part in civil disobedience actions in Toronto's financial district and at the Ontario Legislature, and participated in street protests at the Battle of Seattle and at UN climate summits. He supported cross-country activism at The Council of Canadians for almost 20 years. Brent has a BA in Political Science from the University of Saskatchewan and an MA in International Relations from York University. He lives in Ottawa on the traditional, unceded and unsurrendered territories of the Algonquin nation.

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