Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Generals, Guerrillas, Drugs, and Third World War-Making

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Generals, Guerrillas, Drugs, and Third World War-Making

Article excerpt

For much of the past fifty years a sizable share of the world was locked in a geopolitical battle that pitted the United States and its clients against the Soviet Union and its satellites. The most violent events in this political battle often were set in the developing world, where the superpowers spent billions of dollars on aid and armaments to support governments or to back opposing or insurgent forces (Nietschmann and LeBon 1987). Countries in which the superpowers supported opposing groups included but were hardly limited to Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique, Cuba, Korea, and Afghanistan. In many an instance, internal policies of the governments or revolutionary groups relating to such matters as human rights or education and to the welfare of their citizens factored not at all into their receiving or being denied support. The defining factor was alignment: the stance of a movement or government toward the United States or the Soviet Union.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, one of the two primary sources of funding and weaponry vanished, leaving many revolutionary groups and governments without a powerful sponsor. As the familiar glow of Soviet influence faded from the international landscape, many a former political proxy was forced to alter strategies and policies, the better to adjust to the "new world order." No longer could a country claim to be anticapitalist and routinely receive Soviet aid, as Cuba learned to its considerable dismay and fiduciary disarray. Nor did claiming to be anticommunist guarantee a deluge of financial, political, and military support from the United States. Numerous civil wars thus came to an end, elections were held in many countries, and former hard-line Soviet allies reached out with grasping hands to the West for recognition and financial support. Nicaragua, Vietnam, and numerous Eastern European states come to mind as examples.

However, termination of the cold war did not end all of the military ventures in the developing world. Conflicts continue in countries such as Colombia, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, and the Congo; and low-intensity, sporadic outbreaks of political violence persist in such sites as Myanmar, Lebanon, and Mexico. Without the support of superpowers, participants in military conflicts have been forced to seek financial aid from alternative sources.

In this note I discuss the implications of a particularly insidious funding source: the production and export of illegal narcotics. [1] What are known in Spanish as narcotraficantes have become a new financial "superpower" employed to prop up--or, in some cases, becoming--unsavory governments and revolutionary groups. A raffish relationship has been consummated, and the offspring threatens to be of insalubrious character and demeanor.


Current conflicts in Colombia and Myanmar demonstrate the relationship between narcotics production and revolutionary movements or rogue governments. The connection between them is anything but recent: Historical examples include British control of and profit from opium sales in China in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's covert support of opium production among ethnic-minority hill tribes in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, and Nicaraguan Contra leaders profiting from cocaine shipments through their territory in the 1980s (McCoy 1991; Cox 1996).

For the most part, the geographical and financial scope is larger than it was in the past. Revolutionary movements and governments control vast amounts of territory and command thousands of combatants, and all derive a majority of their financing--and power--from the production of narcotics (Robinson 1998; McCoy 1999). Unlike past examples, some current political groups and governments are completely dependent on narcotrafficking to further their agendas. Also, with the increasing ease of travel to and from once-remote lands, drug smugglers can send greater quantities of their product almost directly to the streets of the developed world. …

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