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Despite the ideological differences professed by the regimes that have clung to power in Nicaragua and Honduras since the late 2000s, both governments have addressed drug commerce within their jurisdictions in remarkably similar ways: with mass incarceration in the countries’ hegemonic “mestizo” regions, and military occupation in the Afro-Indigenous Caribbean region of Moskitia. In both countries, however, state officials across the branches and strata of the police and the armed forces habitually enmesh themselves in drug commerce, giving shape to Janus-faced governmental interventions that the practitioners themselves often struggle to understand. Based on participant-observation research among soldiers and local residents in recently occupied Afro-Indigenous Miskitu villages, this talk conceptualizes graft not as a byproduct of Central American security regimes, but as a structuring part of them. At the local level, soldiers’ practices of extortion, collusion, and inaction vis-à-vis drug commerce are typically justified on two grounds: 1) their difference from punitive prohibitionism; and 2) their customary and habitual character. Graft, then, may be most accurately conceptualized not as an aspect of “martial law” or as a practice of exceptional “extralegality,” but as a form of “military custom.” Law here is neither doctrine nor fiction: it is leverage. Graft is not “lawfare,” as Eyal Weizman refers to the battle over legal definitions in the US and Israeli “war on terror” that have gradually stretched international law in order to establish the geopolitical legality of drone warfare and targeted assassination. Nicaraguan and Honduran soldiers’ actions in the Moskitia, on the other hand, make manifest the “customfare” of geopolitically subordinate states that cannot aspire, in Weizman’s words, to “develop international law through its violation.”
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- Fellow Fernando Montero Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology and the Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race Columbia University
- Chair Gareth Williams Violin Family Professor of Classics Columbia University