Blood Ganja

The most enlightened cannabis connoisseurs—those who still have a link back to the values that defined the hippie culture—tend to be conscious consumers when it comes to food or computers or whatnot. They may buy organic tomatoes, boycott Taco Bell to support exploited farm workers in Florida, and petition Apple about the brutal conditions in their Chinese assembly plants. But do they pay as much attention to the source of their preferred smoking herb? 

Is there blood on your ganja?

Cannabis is mixed up with warfare in much of the world. Because it is illegal, its production and distribution networks are frequently under the same criminal cartels that control other illicit substances—heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and contraband weapons. And in much of the world, supposed "enforcement" efforts get co-opted into a violent struggle to control contraband networks. Invariably, it is the little folks in the system—peasant cannabis growers, "mules" (the expendable cogs who actually carry the stuff across borders), and mere bystanders—who bear the brunt of the violence.
Mexico: slave-labor cannabis and the cartel wars
Severed heads in Michoacán, urban warfare in Matamoros, mass graves along the south bank of the Río Grande, mutilated bodies left hanging from highway overpasses in Ciudad Juárez—the grisly war being waged just across our southern border in Mexico ratchets up new atrocities every day. Just since 2006, when President Felipe Calderón took power and sent the army in aggressively to fight the cartels, an estimated 50,000 people have been killed, as Mexico's "drug war" has become a real war. The goad of this war is the lucre from cocaine trafficked up from South America—and from heroin and cannabis produced within Mexico. This stuff is almost all bound for the US market; Mexico is by far the biggest source for imported cannabis in the US.
Cannabis was how the cartels got started, two generations ago. They brokered exports for independent small campesino (peasant) growers in Michoacán, taking the lion’s share of the profits. But they soon consolidated control, forcing the independent growers almost entirely off the export market. The new heartland of cannabis cultivation became the "Golden Triangle" in the remote, rugged back-country of the Sierra Madre Occidental—where the states of Chihuahua, Durango and Sinaloa come together. This territory is virtually colonized by the cartels, the Tarahumara and Huichol Indians forced to grow opium and cannabis for the syndicates in order to survive. They are given the usual choice—plata o plomo, silver or lead. What this means for the Indian peasants is: either enough money to feed their families, or a gruesome death. Yet, having to grow the stuff makes indigenous communities vulnerable to police raids and even the aerial spraying of their lands with defoliants like paraquat.
Worse still are the conditions on the giant plantations under direct control of the cartels' local bosses, known as caciques. These are up on the flat lands on the mesa-tops, rather than little plots hidden away deep in the canyons. These plantations actually employ slave labor—they are the probable destination for farm workers kidnapped elsewhere in Mexico. Instead of making ten dollars a day picking vegetables, they make nothing tending cannabis, threatened with extermination of their families if they try to flee.
The big cartels first emerged in the '80s along the border cities, controlling the key entrepots into the US. For a while, the big three were the  Juárez Cartel, Tijuana Cartel and Gulf Cartel (in Matamoros). Then the middle-level syndicates in Mexico's interior began to revolt, demanding a bigger share of the pie. The most successful was the Sinaloa Cartel, which started out as a satellite organization of the Tijuana Cartel, but soon eclipsed it. When the Sinaloa Cartel started to move in on the Gulf Cartel's turf some 10 years ago, the Matamoros crime machine launched a paramilitary force called Los Zetas. Made up of Mexican army veterans and even a few men from the feared elite counter-insurgency units of the Guatemalan military, the Zetas jacked up the level of violence beyond anything Mexico has seen since the Revolution of 1910-19.  
Today the Zetas fight with grenades and rocket-launchers as well as assault rifles, and are even producing their own armored vehicles in clandestine workshops in the border towns of Tamaulipas state. And they too have turned on their former masters, waging war against the Gulf and Sinaloa cartels alike in a bid for supremacy—at first just over Mexico’s northeast, but now of the entire country, taking the war to Sinaloa itself and several other states. In their home turf along the border in Tamaulipas, the Zetas have more than once kidnapped entire busloads of Central American migrants headed for the US, offering them the choice of becoming mules or death. Their mass graves have been unearthed by authorities on Zeta-controlled ranches along the borderlands.
By popular conspiracy theory, the Mexican government of Calderón (who has just left office after six years) was in bed with the Sinaloa Cartel—which now controls the largest share of the country’s narco trade. Observers point out that the big gains the government has boasted of have all been against the Sinaloa Cartel's rivals. And while several middle-level Sinaloa bosses have been busted, the cartel's maximum jefe remains at large—believed to be hiding somewhere in the Sierra Madre Occidental. This is Joaquín Guzmán AKA "El Chapo" (Shorty)—who already escaped once from a "maximum security" prison in 2001, and is believed to control a fortune of at least $1 billion.
Meanwhile, new mafias keep emerging from old ones, each fighting for a bigger piece of the high-stakes action. Most recently, the cultish Michoacán Family (the ones with the fetish for leaving severed heads around as a warning to their enemies) is faced with a revolt by its former satellite syndicate, the Knights Templar. The killing seems unstoppable.
Your tax-dollars kill in Colombia —and your ganja dollars too?
Colombia's cartels have generally supplied the cocaine that the Mexicans fight and die over—and the Colombians have been fighting and dying in even greater numbers. Colombia has been at war since 1948, when a guerilla movement first emerged in the mountains and jungles. But now the war is really over control of the narco trade.
The Colombian cartels also first emerged as marijuana syndicates in the '70s. In the '80s, these marijuana syndicates morphed into the cocaine cartels, and ever more of the countryside turned to coca cultivation—and, later, opium too. But Colombia still grows loads of cannabis, both for export and internal consumption, and it is still under control of ultra-violent mafias and armies.
The guerillas of the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC) and their deadly enemies in the right-wing paramilitaries have long been locked in a struggle for control of the country's drug trade. The United Colombian Self-Defense Forces (AUC)—the rightist paramilitary coalition—has commited countless massacres of campesinos suspected of supporting the guerillas. Human rights groups like Amnesty International have documented how the AUC has collaborated with the same Colombian "official" armed forces that have received billions of dollars in US Drug War aid over the past decade.
The AUC was a direct evolution of the old cartels of the '80s and '90s. The para network's late founding patriach, Carlos Castaño, started out as an enforcer for Pablo Escobar's Medellín Cartel in the ‘80s. At that time, Colombia's drug trade was still dominated by the two giant cartels of Medellín and Cali.
The cartels long collaborated with the paramilitaries against the guerillas—basically because the FARC imposed taxes on coca grown in their areas of control. The cartels wanted a free-trade zone under their exclusive control. When Colombia's National Police and the DEA jointly crushed the cartels in the '90s, this merely set off a new, bloody scramble for mastery over the country's dope trade—this time between the AUC and FARC. Both have massacred peasants who sold coca leaf to the other side.
The supposed "demobilization" of the AUC under an amnesty law passed in 2005 has not meant the end of the paramilitary movement. A new network known as the Black Eagles is stepping into the role of the AUC as national coordinator of regional paramilitaries. And the Black Eagles seem to operate with the collaboration of the army as surely as the AUC ever did.
And even as the government battles "narcoterrorists" (as the FARC are now called in official parlance), terrorizing campesino communities and spraying coca and opium fields with US-supplied glyphopsate (poisoning lands and waters), there is increasing talk of a new "Bogotá Cartel" around corrupt elements of the army and National Police.
Cannabis—while now in third place to coca and opium—remains a goad of the war. In February 2008, some 20 FARC guerillas were killed in clashes with the army at the village of Chaparral, in mountainous Tolima department. High casualties were reportedly due to aerial bombardment of rebel positions by Colombian warplanes. National Police also announced the confiscation of 5.2 tons of cannabis that had allegedly belonged to the local FARC column. In other words, it looks like the Colombian air force was bombing marijuana growers, who (willingly or not) had been dealing with the FARC.
Central America: echoes of the genocide
Central America, situated between Colombia and Mexico, is inevitably being drawn into the narco wars. In May of last year, 27 farm workers were massacred at a ranch in Guatemala's jungle region of Petén. Many of the bodies were mutilated and dismembered in the spectacularly gruesome style of Mexico's Zetas, and authorities said a local Zeta cell called "Z-200" was responsible for the atrocity.
Ironically, some of the Zetas may have been veterans of Guatemala's counterinsurgency war in the ‘80s, which saw many such massacres of defenseless villages. A UN Truth Commission has now documented that a genocide took place in Guatemala in those years, so mass killings like that at Los Cocos ranch last May stir grim memories in a traumatized nation.
And again cannabis is part of the goad. Guatemalan police forces, together with army troops and DEA agents, have been finding more and more cannabis and opium plantations in recent years—especially in zones along the Mexican border.
Afghanistan: are you smoking Taliban hash?
Another place where cannabis is mixed up in a real shooting war is Afghanistan—its production ebbing and flowing with the tides of war for a generation now.
Afghanistan hasn't known peace since 1979, when a Soviet-backed coup d'etat turned the country into a Cold War battleground. The US began backing the Mujahedeen rebels in the '80s—despite the fact that they massively turned to the heroin and hashish trade to augment their war-chest. Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, the Mujahedeen factions started fighting amongst themselves, and the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban exploited the chaos, taking power in 1996. The old Mujahedeen reorganized as the Northern Alliance—and again turned to smack and hash to fund their new insurgency. The puritanical Taliban banned opium and cannabis cultivation while in power, ironically winning accolades from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime for doing so. But now the tables are turned. The Taliban, overthrown in the US invasion of 2001, are in insurgency—and turning to the dope trade to fund their war, Islamic prohibitions notwithstanding.  
A vigorous eradication campaign overseen by US and NATO troops is making some headway against opium, but lots of farmers are just switching to cannabis, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports. The farmers themselves may not be Taliban supporters, and there are doubtless corrupt elements of the regime that also have a hand in the dope trade. But any illegal crop in a war zone will be seized upon as a clandestine means of raising money for guns. And illegality itself drives up the price, making it an irresistible lure for dirt-poor peasants struggling to survive. Afghan hashish is mostly available in Europe, but some makes it to US markets as well.
Lebanon, West Africa, the Philippines...
Afghanistan, Colombia and Mexico are extreme cases, but it is the same basic situation around the world. In the confused, multi-sided war in Lebanon in the '80s, all factions turned to the hashish and heroin trade to raise funds. The country's fertile Bekaa Valley was carved up into a patchwork of enclaves, each controlled by one of the warring militias that colonized the local fellaheen peasants to grow opium and cannabis for them. They also controlled clandestine ports on the Mediterranean coast where the finished heroin and hashish was exported. Eradication campaigns in the Bekaa—and, more importantly, the return of peace to Lebanon—have cut back on the drug trade greatly. But the current Middle East crisis has brought Lebanon back to the bring of war. The Syrian regime, the patron of Hezbollah and other Lebanese factions, is now faced with destabilization—and the violence is spilling over into Lebanon. Not surprisingly, European authorities report growing seizures of Lebanese hash in recent months.
It was the horrific conflict in West Africa in the '90s that gave the world the phrase "blood diamonds"—as the especially brutal rebels in Liberia and Sierra Leone turned to contraband diamonds to fund their wars. Charles Taylor, the Liberian leader who also backed the rebel movement in neighboring Sierra Leone, was just sentenced to 50 years for war crimes by a special UN tribunal—including the use of child soldiers. But cannabis was at issue here too—the region was growing plenty, and Sierra Leone's Revolutionary United Front (RUF) guerillas used jamba (cannabis) as well as amphetamines to disorient and indoctrinate abducted kids and turn them into killers.
West Africa is now a key trans-shipment point for South American cocaine en route to Europe. This year's latest coup d'etat in Guinea-Bissau is being linked by Western diplomats to the international drug trade. Ousted President Raimundo Pereira apparently ran afoul of the military by promising to end a lucrative arrangement with drug traffickers.
The southern Philippine island of Mindanao is a major regional cannabis producer—and a war zone, where the government (backed by US Special Forces troops) is waging a counterinsurgency against Islamist militants. The government claims cannabis is grown by the Abu Sayyaf militant group, and those busted for cultivation fall under suspicion of terrorism as well. Probably a lot of innocent peasant cannabis growers are being targeted. Just as likely, Abu Sayyaf has a hand in the cannabis trade, to augment the money they make from ransom kidnappings.
Fight terrorism—Buy domestic!
There are some glimmers of hope out there. Colombia has actually decriminalized personal possession of drugs, and is considering a bill to decriminalize cultivation of coca, cannabis and opium. Several other governments in South America have passed or are weighing such legislation—Uruguay's administration has introduced a law that would actually legalize cannabis under a government monopoly so as to undercut criminal networks.
But, as the governments of Colombia and Mexico have repeatedly pointed out, the real problem is in the United States. The US government provides "Drug War" military aid and presses regional governments for hardline policies. US-based arms traffickers provide weapons and ammo to the Mexican cartels, and even the Colombian paramilitaries. And it is US consumers of cocaine, heroin and (yes) cannabis whose demand drives the whole killing machine.
There is a slogan that begins to address the problem: "Fight terrorism—Buy domestic!" But even this isn't the whole solution. As with organic food, locally and ethically produced cannabis is a lot more expensive. Condensed bricks of cartel cannabis go for a fraction of the price of domestic bud. Additionally, Mexican and Russian cartels are starting to move into domestic production in the US—especially in Northern California.
Ultimately, it is the prohibitionist policies that need to change in order to de-escalate the global narco wars, and that is going to take a lot of public pressure. Meanwhile, it all begins with awareness. The next time you take a toke—think about where your ganja comes from, and what route it took to end up in your joint, pipe, blunt or bong.
Bill Weinberg produces the websites Global Ganja Report and World War 4 Report

A slightly different edit of this article first appeared in the November issue of High Times
Photo of DEA Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Team (FAST) in Honduras courtesy of the DEA.


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