Review- “Drug War Zone”

Posted: April 12, 2012 in Book Reviews

In Drug War Zone, Howard Campbell breaks new ground with an anthropological study of drug trafficking and anti-drug law enforcement efforts along the U.S.-Mexico border. He coins the term “drug war zone” to refer to the cultural world of drug cartels and law enforcement agents who combat drug trafficking. The “DWZ” encompasses a transnational, fluid cultural space in which contending forces battle over the meaning, value, and control of drugs.[1]Zeroing in upon Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Campbell interviews a range of subjects on both sides of the border whose lives are intimately affected by recent drug violence including addicts, low-level drug runners, gang members, a drug kingpin, journalists, police officers, and DEA agents. He consciously avoids the term “War on Drugs,” contending instead that the DWZ is more akin to the shifting terrain where military and intelligence forces pursue terrorists or guerrilla groups. Drug traffickers, although well-organized, are generally covert actors, embedded in the civilian population, disappearing and eternally reemerging, global in scale, and constantly evolving and transforming their operations and identities.[2] In the age of NAFTA, maquiladoras, and free trade, Campbell argues that drug trafficking has become almost impossible to regulate. Most important, he underscores the mutually parasitic relationship between the drug traffickers who profit from the illegal status of drugs like marijuana, cocaine, and heroin, and the “drug warriors,” bureaucracies, and prison-industrial complexes that justify their existence by reference to the “scourge” of drug traffickers.[3]

 Drug War Zone is a landmark study of anthropology and ethnography. Campbell  elucidates the nebulous, abstract, and shadowy cultures of drug trafficking and anti-narcotics law enforcement with meticulous primary research and deeply moving interviews with individuals affected by consumption in one place and violence in another. Drug War Zone speaks to a number of recent works completed by journalists and academics, including Elijah Wood’s Narcocorrido, Michael Kenney’s From Pablo to Osama, Gary Webb’s Dark Alliance, and Curtis Marez’s Drug Wars: The Political Economy of Narcotics. Like these works, Campbell underscores the capitalist nature of narcotrafficking, describing it as “a caricatured celebration of consumerism and wealth- narco-mansions, big trucks, expensive and tasteless clothing, gaudy jewelry- facilitated by neoliberalism and collusion with elements of the state.[4] Although traffickers certainly resist and defy law enforcement and bourgeois society, Campbell reveals how drug trade serves a critical component of the U.S. and Mexican economies.

Drug War Zone is a must read for those interested in current events on the U.S.-Mexico border, narcotrafficking, and the U.S. “War on Drugs.” Accessible, clearly argued, and thought provoking, Howard Campbell offers a balanced and deeply empathetic portrayal of the men, women, and children who are intimately affected by the drug trade. The book’s most significant contribution is its analysis of law enforcement strategies. Campbell explores the dual strategy of interdiction and deterrence, underscoring the Sisyphean challenge of simultaneously preventing illegal commerce while not impeding the legal flow of people and goods across borders. He explains how forces of NAFTA, global free trade, and the increased transnational movement of people and products enormously complicate the work of antidrug agents, who must systematically separate from these vast flows those substances and people deemed illegal or engaged in illegal activities.[5] Campbell’s book is a call to action for students of history, government, and political scientists. It urges academics, students, and citizens to rethink diplomacy and devise bold strategies for confronting drug trafficking that not only keep citizens on both sides of the border safe, but that also hold elected officials, military, police, and bureaucrats accountable to the public they represent and defend. It demands a shift away from interdiction, and toward curbing demand in the United States. Finally, it urges the rehabilitation and treatment of addicts instead of three-strike-laws that perpetuate criminality, abuse, and violence.


[1] Howard Campbell, Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juárez (Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2009), 6.

[2] Ibid, 7.

[3] Ibid, 10.

[4] Campbell, 9.

[5] Ibid, 174.

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