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DRUGS - February 2018

Art to Deglamorize the War on Drugs

Text by Valeria Posada Villada

Take time to reflect on the imagery in the artworks before moving on to the description.

When it comes to the illegal drug trade, nothing is as it appears. Criminal power is maintained through hidden codes, rules, symbols, and double messages designed to deceive those outside of the network, leaving the facts suspended between fantasy and reality. The lives of those directly affected by the drugs industry and the artists, who, in their attempts to go beyond the mirage, reflect upon this issue, and present an alternative to the sensationalist newspaper clips of shootings, and international pop culture products glamorizing and exoticizing gang members, assassins, and cartels. The goal of witnesses and artists is to portray the disruptive effects produced by the mirage of the drug trafficking business and point out the absences and contradictions it generates within their societies.

For this article I have chosen three Latin American artists, from countries which are part of the drug supply chain, particularly cocaine, who have lived through successive waves of violence as a result of the disastrous attempts to eradicate the illegal drugs business through hard knuckle policies; their countries are Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico. While the list of artists from this region who have produced and are producing audiovisual reflections on the subject keeps on growing, I have decided to present these particular artworks because their approach responds to or exposes the murky character of drug violence. They explore the themes and symbols which reveal its overlooked individual and social consequences, giving importance to the account of those individuals who are usually portrayed as secondary characters in a script routinely belonging to the powerful: politicians, policemen, and narcos.

Mexico

Huellas de la Memoria (Traces of Memory)

Alfredo López Casanova

2016

The first shoes that form part of Huellas de la Memoria belong to Irma Leticia Hidalgo. This woman from the state of Nuevo León has been looking for her son, Roy Hidalgo, since January 11, 2011, a teenager abducted from his house by individuals in bulletproof police jackets, who, like other Mexicans, became a victim of the complicity between members of the State and drug trafficking organizations. While assisting in some of the search rounds organized by women like Leticia, which traveled to different ministries and locations in the search for their loved ones, the sculptor was inspired by their shoes. For him, their worn out appearance was both an expression of their love and of the hardships of their journey. López decided to set up an open call for relatives to donate their footgear and, by engraving the names of the disappeared in their heels, transformed these objects into uncomfortable pieces of art whose political statement confronts the official neglect on the topic of the over 32,000 disappearance cases registered since 2007. Joined together, the shoes are a collective embodiment of the absences produced by drug-related violence, and a visual stamp which emphasizes the lack of justice. Exhibited at the Museo Casa de la Memoria Indómita (Memory House of Indomitable Memory) and other cultural centers in Europe, the shoes are not arranged chronologically, translating the relatives’ inability to establish a dividing line between past, present or future while the disappeared cannot be claimed. Until the whereabouts of the abducted are known, their lives, like the shoes, will be left hanging in the air.

Honduras

Celda #16 (Prison Cell #16)

Alma Leiva

2009

Like López, Alma Leiva is a collector of the mundane objects that speak of the individual and collective effects of drug-related violence many Centro Americans flee from when emigrating  to the U.S. The pieces are later used to construct site-specific installations, which stand as allegories of criminal acts or locations, and depict the immigrants’ feeling of estrangement from that which used to be intimate. Beds, sofas and kitchens stand alongside football courts, playgrounds and graveyards, displaying the overlap between the private and public sphere as a direct consequence of the shattered sense of security many immigrants cannot escape from and which continues to weigh upon them. In this sense, Celda #16 represents the memory of a criminal act responsible for transforming a familiar space into an emotional prison. The photograph refers to the 2013 massacre which occurred in San Pedro Sula’s preschool Mi Segundo Hogar (My Second Home). This violent event took the lives of five adults (David E. Rivera, Delmi R. Rivera, Helen A. Rivera, Carmen Valdivieso) and one child (Daniela A. Martínez), at the hands of Barrio 18 members, one of the biggest transnational gangs, or maras, of Central and North America. Newspaper reports cover the walls of the classroom but their contents are whitewashed, since the motivations for the attack remain unknown. Instead, the dripping wall paint serves to highlight the icon of xibalba which surrounds the room, and which is associated with the  Mayan “place of fear” or underworld. Victims reveal themselves not only through their photographs but through the messages written on the blackboard, leaving traces of their presence by replacing the phrases “El colegio es tu seguridad/school is your safety” and “Do not leave the house. You’ll stay at school” with a persistent “No.” 

Colombia

 

El Bloc del Narco #9 (The Narco’s Bloc #9)

Camillo Restrepo

2016

At first glance, Restrepo’s work may seem to stand in stark contrast to López and Leiva’s, since it does not approach the subject from the victims’ viewpoint or deal with the psychological aftermath of violence. However, this series shows the impact of the illegal drug trade on the nation through what the artist has called the ‘narcotization’ of social life. That is, the infiltration of terms, objects, and events in the daily life of Colombians, which are connected to this problem but whose influence remains hidden in plain sight because they are codified through the use of aliases, acronyms, and words with double meanings. By compiling a list of all the quotations that have appeared in the daily El Tiempo newspaper referring to this issue, and displaying them alongside mocking headlines, Restrepo makes evident pervasive reach of the War on Drugs and the social phenomena that have appeared as a consequence of its presence. For example, in Issue #9, the black headline advertises narco-shirts that have been used to smuggle liquid cocaine as ‘the latest trend in Italy’ while, at the same time, pasting newspaper tags that refer to recent corruption ‘carrusels’ (Carruseles de contratación), Express Kidnappings (paseos millonarios), and Social Cleansings (limpieza social). Restrepo’s childish drawings render Colombia’s social reality even more outlandish, in a similar way to Leiva’s naive but alienating installations, and expose  a world in which individuals such as ‘Winny’ and ‘The Justice League’ have enough power to rule over the fate of many, and controversial figures such as George W. Bush or Don Berma (AUC paramilitary and leader of Envigado), are regarded as exemplary figures quoted in the “narco-comment section”.  Without doubt, the artist’s’ poignant humor overturns criminals’ cryptic vocabulary, transforming his artwork into a confrontational act through which truths are disclosed. Therefore, it is no surprise that his piece was published under the name of ‘Bloc’, alluding to a military denomination used to classify paramilitary groups, one of the armed actors with strong historical ties to the illegal drug trade in Colombia.

Conclusion

These three artists expand the vantage point through which the War on Drugs is portrayed by helping viewers understand, tangibly and emotionally, the individual and social phenomena produced by this campaign that remain abstract to many. Objects, spaces, and vocabularies become imprints translating phenomena associated with criminal power, such as disappearance, displacement, and corruption, in a skillful yet raw manner, without resorting to voyeurism or overexposure. Borrowing Leiva’s exhibition title, these artworks stand as ‘counter-archives’, not only because they distance themselves from the criminal figures or melodramatic tabloids by focusing on the ‘renegades’, but primarily because the agency of those who live alongside violence is made present. Victims and witnesses do not passively react to violence, they protest, resist, disturb and mock. Their life experiences and opinions expose the paradoxes generated by a campaign that aims to end violence through the same means it supposedly stands against, leading audiences to reevaluate their position towards the images and stories that the media disseminates about this topic, which transform Latin American geographies and populations into a contemporary Wild West scenario in need of assistance and foreign military intervention. It is never too late to start wondering whether the consumption of these products should not be considered part of the reason why the War on Drugs continues to be seen as a feasible option, despite its evident failure to reduce both drug production and consumption.

Nike Vrettos POLITICAL UTOPIAS - March 2018

A New Line of Legality

Written by Nike Vrettos

This article is Part 2 of a series on cocaine in Columbia. Read Part 1 here.

The war on drugs. The war against weed, cocaine, heroin and every other recreational drug. Conservative, white governments have the power to shape our reality, and they have a clear idea of how it should look. And no surprises, mind-altering drugs don’t fit in the picture.

A handful of countries have successfully experimented with decriminalizing drugs for the most part. But I would argue for a more radical solution: legalization. It could save billions of dollars.

Drug cartels are the key problem in the struggle with illicit drugs, and the way to deal with that problem is to pull the rug from under their feet. Decriminalization keeps most of this underground system in place, it alleviates the pressure on drug consumers, but leaves the rest of the drug trade in place. If implemented in a thought out manner, legalization is the way to completely eradicate the horrendous situation of the criminal underworld.

100 billion dollars, roughly the amount at stake, is a lot of money. That’s the annual amount of money invested to fight the war against drugs worldwide. That is more money than annually spent on foreign aid. Furthermore, there are around 1,4 million convictions every year for drug-related crimes in the US, while Saudi Arabia and Iran have increased executions significantly. Those are lives ruined for no greater purpose.

Those billions of dollars are spent sending soldiers overseas, destroying coca harvests, and tearing apart the lives of individuals who are somewhat involved in the sale or production of drugs. The ones being punished in relation to drugs are usually not the ones that pull the strings. People imprisoned for drug offenses are usually convicted for bagatelle delicts, smuggling, or growing coca; individuals who are only one element in a bigger structural problem. Incarcerating those people won’t solve any problems. Mostly people convicted and sentenced to imprisonment aren’t given any chance to turn their lives around.

The bigger players are smart, they find new routes and new ways of setting up production. As it stands, any current attempt to weaken their power is easily overcome. Legalizing and regulating production would hit them where it hurts.

In Colombia for example, legalizing cocaine production would have tremendous advantages from a political and economic perspective. It’s estimated that over 410 metric tons of cocaine were produced there in 2010, which is about twice the weight of a blue whale.  Revenue from the US would top 36 billion dollars. That money could be used for the benefit of the people currently disadvantaged by the drug industry.

During the 2008 financial crisis,profits from criminal organizations were the only liquid assets available to allow some banks to avoid failure […].” The financial system was paralyzed until drug cartels came to the rescue. “A large part of the 352 billion drug dollars—the estimated annual revenues from drug trafficking—was thus absorbed into the legal economic system. Yet no one seemed scandalized by this declaration, which should have truly alarmed any Western government.” So it’s fine to use drug money, as long as it’s for the rich.

Valeria Posada Villada, a Master’s student in Amsterdam who has been studying the impact of drugs in her home country of Colombia, explained the economic opportunities as a circular movement: International legalization could create a source of income for the government, which in turn could be used to fund investments into development, and counteract the need for illegal cartels. Farmers would receive a decent payment for coca production and also be able to grow other crops as the security threat posed by rebel groups would diminish.

Photo by Nike Vrettos

Agonizing violence would decrease, coca farmers would have protection from the blackmail, kidnapping, and murder linked to illegal drug-dealing. As Valeria continued:

“The areas which are currently used to produce cocaine… there is no proper infrastructure. The government has no real influence in those parts of the country. Barely any roads or facilities for farmers to do much else than obey the groups that make them grow coca. Besides most of those farmers simply produce coca to survive. They trade coca leaves for food.”

There are examples of successful drug policies. Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Argentina have legalized the production of coca leaves for traditional uses, and last year the sale of government-produced marijuana started in Uruguay. These moves have resonated positively. Already in Colombia, the constitutional court decided to decriminalize the possession of 1 gram of cocaine and 20 grams of Marijuana for personal use in a recent ruling. To add the cherry on top, people caught with cocaine are offered psychological help by the police. These measures will hopefully serve as a role model for other countries in Latin America and beyond.

This momentum has created space to move forward after the failed prohibition policies imposed by the U.S. “Today, what the United States says has never mattered less,” said Eduardo Blasina, the founder of the Montevideo Cannabis Museum in Uruguay. “We don’t see its president as a reasonable individual whose opinion is worth anything.”

The Colombian government taking over the cocaine industry would have benefits for the rest of the world too. Ever considered what’s in that white line?

You might know that gasoline is used in its production, but what’s less known are the even more toxic substances added by the dealers and producers. Up to 80% of the cocaine on the street will contain other added substances such as Phenacetin, a painkiller banned in the US since 1983 for causing cancer and kidney problems. Then there’s Levamisole, a parasite purge for livestock that reportedly caused the flesh of heavy cocaine users to rot off their bones. An analysis last year of 103 random cocaine samples from around the world, conducted by the Energy Control drug testing service, found that the average concentration was 11%. But it also increases your high!

In Switzerland a report found that “throughout the 8 years the researchers examined, the purity remained stable at around 40%, meaning that less than half of the ‘cocaine’ bought is actually cocaine.

Those concerned about addiction should know that addiction depends on many factors, such as the personal gene code, your environment, etc. In an experiment, rats were either isolated in cells, or placed in a happy rat pack and were given both water and water with cocaine. Alone, rats always chose the drug water. However, in the pack with places to mate and be in a group, they didn’t touch the drug water. People who feel without purpose or are socially isolated are also more likely to end up addicted, whether it’s alcohol or cocaine.

Sluggish reliance on outdated ethical considerations are not going to solve the drug issue, and is disdainful to all the victims that living in hardship. Public discourse is needed to put the legalization on the agenda. We can put a plaster on the wound caused by drugs with haughty condemnation but that won’t cure anything.

Colombia’s decriminalization of the ownership of one gram of cocaine is a break in the clouds. A step towards a world where the cocaine business is not by default a bloody, dehumanizing war but an effective means to development and peace. It is a quagmire, the UN has just recently agreed to continue funding the war on drugs, underlining the unwillingness to accept it is a failure. For me, the world needs legalization included in the public debate.

DRUGS - February 2018 Podcast

The Pandemic Podcast: Episode 1

Welcome to the first Pandemic Podcast!

We hereby introduce our hosts, Darius Jokubauskas and Sebastian van Eerten. The guest speakers are two of our very own writers, Chloe Gregg and Nike Vrettos.

Interested in getting a deeper insight into study drugs, or the impact of cocaine in Colombia? Ever wondered about the consequences of drug legalization? Are drugs really that bad as your parents told you? Together with your hosts, we’re going to discuss drugs on a societal level, zooming out from our usual individualistic perspective.

Stay tuned until next month for our episode on political utopias!

Download

Length: 46 minutes 6 seconds

Music: Down Homey by DATAMONKEY


To read more about the topics from this episode, check out the following articles:

Addiction: The View From Rat Park (Bruce K. Alexander)

Portugal’s radical drugs policy is working. Why hasn’t the world copied it? (The Guardian)

A Comparison of Harmful Drugs (Rijksinstituut voor Volkgezonheid en Milieu)

The UN’s war on drugs is a failure. Is it time for a different approach? (The Guardian)

Post-Vietnam heroin use and injection by returning US veterans: clues to preventing injections today (US National Library of Medicine)

Contributing Writers DRUGS - February 2018

How Drawing Stoned Enriched Me

Our final submission for this February’s Drug issue comes from Miriam Schröer who shares with us her some weed inspired art and the story behind it.  
 

Written by Miriam Schröer

I remember I liked drawing a lot as a teenager. However, I gave up on drawing sometime during my last years of school. I didn’t notice the practice of drawing vanishing from my life. Yet, if reflecting back on it now, I think at that time I was much too focused on delivering only the best of me. I’ve always been a person who likes control (or the illusionist feeling of being in control of things). I only would have continued drawing if I had expected to become an excellent artist. Drawing would have demanded a lot of time and energy, and I would have needed to invest a lot of discipline and practice. But my life plans didn’t paint me as a painter.

Today, I feel confused about the extent to which I fell victim to a notion of optimizing my life, and accordingly my activities. When I moved to Amsterdam and got into the habit of smoking weed occasionally, I noticed how my mind could liberate itself from this notion of perfection.

I have stuck to keeping a diary pretty much all my life. When I smoked joints, I started making little sketches in my diary again. It came naturally. I let go of my perfectionist expectations. To just draw and see where it went felt like a rediscovery of knowledge I had when I was younger, but that got lost somewhere along the way.

It was an unexpected reconnection to the act of enjoying just doing stuff without expecting a specific outcome. I could find great sense in the act of drawing in my diary and wasn’t bothered by the fact that I didn’t find the drawings particularly meaningful – or even beautiful – when looking at them again the next day.

This picture is a visualization of what the joint does to my mind. I tend to feel free from my linear self-critical thinking and societal expectations about what to do with my life and how to behave. The joint gives me ideas that feel closer to my most genuine conscience.

I don’t think smoking joints every day would be a good idea for me, but adding ideas that I have when stoned to my sober ideas has been an enriching practice for me. When a joint makes me feel at ease making sketches in my diary, my sober self can tolerate doing fun stuff like that more easily.

So thank you, weed, for letting me embrace the pleasure of taking it easy.

Contributing Writers DRUGS - February 2018

The Epidemic in Tijuana

As we near the close of this month’s issue, it’s worth remembering that every drug statistic is an aggregate of individual lives. In the following poem, Dinora Escobar shares the story of a young woman living with drug addiction far from home.


Written by Dinora Escobar

Tijuana, a famous city on

the border of Mexico and California, USA.

An area known as Zona Norte, by the Tijuana Arch.

The Arch is well known. At the entrance of Tijuana, right in the heart of Zona Norte.

It’s like a little Vegas”, as many tourist say, but much more poor and dangerous a place; full of drugs,

prostitution, crime, poverty. A place where everything has a price, even your freedom.

Law enforcement is corrupted, a place where many come to fulfill their fantasies, and go home like nothing

ever happened. But what about those that this is their reality. A fast lane life, a place that, to many is a fun,

tourist place and to others this is home. A place to survive.

A place to easily get caught up and lost, where many end up like Ieesha Shiann.

Ieesha Shiann, is a female aged 24, born in mid east of the United States.

She resides in the “zona norte”

located at 1st and coahuila.

Ieesha, living life day by day.

To support her drug habit and to get by she is also a worker of the streets, prostitution. She uses heroin and crystal methamphetamine, also known as “criko”or ice” on the streets.

Ieesha has a story that no one knows. A lot of people wonder, but don’t understand her due to the language barrier, and that she’s mostly in her own world of hallucinations. It is hard to get a full story or even a full sentence without distractions.

I asked Ieesha if I could interview her. She seemed a little scared, uncomfortable with the idea of it, but then she agrees.

Ieesha where were you born?

In Minnesota with the snow and where I lost my babies.

You have kids?

Yes two and I lost them.

How did you lose your kids?

The system took them from me and put them with another family and I don’t know where they are.

Why and how did you start doing drugs?

I lost my kids, don’t know where they are.

How did you end up here?

If you’re not from here?

He left me here.

Who?

A men we got high. I was so high on drugs I can’t remember, but we were here together getting high. High, for a couple of weeks and one day he left, I couldn’t find him I didn’t know what to do.

How long you been here?

I think three years

Where’s your family?

Don’t know I need to contact them, someone to let them know where I’m at.

What do you consume and how do you get by as far as financially?

You want sex?” That’s all I say to get “globo”.

Globo means balloon in English. A word that is used for the little plastic containing the drug.

Where do you sleep? Shower?

If I have money motels sometime, or a client will pay for a room all night and if not I sleep like the” dogs and cats”.

What does that mean?

Wherever I can lay down on the streets. If is cold or rains I can use boxes to shield myself from the cold.

Ieesha has asked me in the past if their are any Rehabilitation Centers here in Tijuana.

Yes there are but as private organizations. So there’s a fee.

At times I just wonder about Ieesha. She comes in sayshi”, she stares around. and she cries. Cries and she only speaks of what I believe is a constant memory to her, in her head. What she can still remember and acknowledge; her kids that she lost and a man that left her here.

Why don’t you cross the border if you’re a USA Citizen?

I never go to border or cross. Nope never cross.

Why? You can get help out there.

Is too late. Where do I go?

Like many others Ieesha randomly sleeps in the streets and hopes for shelter.

She goes around to the local stores at times to ask for food, including my work place.

Many people that know her will hand out clothes to her. They say she wasn’t like this at first.

She was a normal, healthy, young girl,

but drugs have made her lose herself to the streets.

Ieesha