A Drug Policy Activist’s Crash Course in Decoloniality (Part 2)

A Drug Policy Activist’s Crash Course in Decoloniality (Part 2)

Decoloniality, also referred to as decolonialism, is a term principally used by Latin American activists which focuses on unlinking modern society from colonial influences that have been ingrained in the region for the past 500 years. This two-part series by Arturo Lua Castillo, SSDP’s Latin America Policy Intern, will examine how decoloniality is a crucial component to reforming drug policies in Latin America. 

Read part 1 here.

As we discussed in the last segment, colonialism has played a key role in the disenfranchisement of indigenous populations across the American continent. However, colonialism has not been met with idle supplication; Across the Americas, resistance has sprung up in groups and movements that recognize the damages that forced eurocentrism has had on the people of the continents. These groups and movements attempt to shed light on the subaltern (a term used to describe something outside of the colonial power structure) voices that have been silenced for over half a millennium. Through understanding their struggles, SSDP could also better situate itself as a movement in alignment with the struggle for indigenous rights. Yes, we are an organization fighting drug prohibition, but by doing so we can also indirectly be a force of decolonization.

The Zapatistas: Invoking the Power of Solidarity

Immediately after the signing of NAFTA in 1994 the Zapatistas, an indigenous group residing in the mountainous valleys of the state of Chiapas, Mexico, declared open rebellion against the Mexican government. NAFTA, with its promises of free trade across the North American continent, offered these rural farmers no benefits as foreign goods from the United States would outcompete what they could produce, effectively leaving them without livelihoods. The Zapatistas saw this deal as outrageous. Through signing NAFTA, the Mexican government had essentially told them that trade deals and economic growth for the country would come at the expense of their way of life which they had managed to preserve for centuries. While government officials reaped economic rewards and stuffed their pockets the people of Chiapas would be left destitute. Literacy rates were already low among the population and they did not adequately receive the social benefits that government is meant to provide for its citizens, such as education, employment, and security. They were, in a sense, deeply subaltern.

The group named itself after Emiliano Zapata, who was the general of the People’s Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution. He too was an indigenous farmer who saw his lands and those of his neighbors sold off to foreign companies and then forced to work those same ancestral lands from sunrise to sunset for below subsistence wages. It was this sort of cycle that the Zapatistas intended to end. Although armed, they never fired a shot or attempted to kill anyone; they realized that their rebellion had to be different, and by using force to invoke their rights, they were using the same methods of their oppressors. So as time went on, the Zapatistas changed their approach to fighting the long night (what the Zapatistas use to describe colonialism). They quickly abandoned their armed approaches and instead sought solidarity. They managed to capture cities not through the use of force but by sharing their ideas and using their words to articulate their struggle. Becoming savvy to the power of the internet, they used it to send invitations of solidarity to other marginalized groups around the world. They understood that they alone as a small group could not defeat the forces of colonialism. Instead, they would need to create a movement. Below is an excerpt from their Sixth Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle:


Our fight has been to make ourselves heard, and the bad government screams arrogance
and closes its ears with its cannons.
Our fight is caused by hunger, and the gifts of the bad government are lead
and paper for the stomachs of our children.
Our fight is for a roof over our heads which has dignity, and the bad
government destroys our homes and our history.
Our fight is for knowledge, and the bad government distributes ignorance and
Our fight is for the land, and the bad government gives us cemeteries.
Our fight is for a job which is just and dignified, and the bad government buys
and sells our bodies and our shames.
Our fight is for life, and the bad government offers death as our future.
Our fight is for respect for our right to sovereignty and self-government, and
the bad government imposes laws of the few on the many.
Our fight is for liberty of thought and walk, and the bad government builds
jails and graves.
Our fight is for justice, and the bad government consists of criminals and
Our fight is for history and the bad government proposes to erase history.
Our fight is for the homeland, and the bad government dreams with the flag
and the language of foreigners….

As is clear from the excerpt above, the Zapatistas recognize the damages of colonialism and decry what the government has done, or not done, to assess its’ damages.

Today the Zapatistas operate through their own system of governance in their established autonomous zones in Chiapas where they maintain their fight against Colonialism. You can learn more about how they are attempting to implement decolonial education, women’s empowerment, sustainable agriculture, and indigenous dignity here.

Change From Within and Outward

While the Zapatistas have created their own network of resistance, other advances towards decolonialism have been made by effectively changing the government itself. For this, we will examine the case of the Bolivian president, Evo Morales. Originally a leader in the Cocoa-growers union, Evo has changed the tide of Bolivian leadership to one that intentionally and consistently attempts to represent the will of indigenous communities, which in Bolivia makes up the majority of the population. Apart from his policies which include nationalizing the country’s oil reserves and using the funds gained from them to fight poverty in the country, which he reduced to 25%, Evo has also taken measures to decolonize the very identity of leadership in his country.

Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, sporting traditional textiles.

His wardrobe, although an aesthetic detail, speaks to the scope of decolonization he has engaged in. Rarely seen in a tie, Morales has attended meetings among other world leaders while wearing more casual clothing, representing the attire of the common Bolivian or bearing indigenous designs. While at first some European newspapers and writers downplayed his casual attire as unprofessional, the Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago pointed this criticism out as “stupid pride of civilized countries”. His point also speaks to the fact that the world itself is not keen on what exactly decolonialsm is or what it would look like. Furthermore, Evo’s causality does more to dignify the image of the commoner in a region where most of the people are brown-skinned but those on TV and in government are not and offers a glimpse of what the responses to this change in mindset might look like from around the world.


This brings us back to the very fundamentals of colonialism and decolonialism and what it means to us as activists. Something that is decolonized does not stand as an example or an attempt to emulate the standards set forth by the Eurocentric mentality instead it is unapologetically itself. If we as activists are to be effective in Latin America we cannot demonstrate this “stupid pride” Saramago speaks of. This must also translate in the way we approach drug policy. Eurocentrism is rampant in the world to the point where leaders of the Global South are expected to wear European attire to be respectable. Drug policy in Latin America must not be a simple repeat of the policies we see in Europe and the United States; it must instead abide by its own standards. Latin America has a very different history with drug policy and the issues that have existed in the continent are intertwined and traceable to colonialism. By learning and educating ourselves we can better our activism and safeguard against accidentally enforcing more of the same mentality that has disempowered and disenfranchised communities and prevent the sort of “White Savior” aid that causes more harm than good. SSDP will not exist in a vacuum in Latin America. It will represent itself as one of the many social movements attempting to undo centuries of damages. Through a nuanced approach seeking solidarity with the other struggles faced by the people of Latin America, we can find strength in unity, much the same way the Zapatistas did.