Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

End the Drug War, Save the Children

The surge in child border crossings is only the latest fallout from a failed prohibition policy.
child border crossing

The American audience sure loves its drug porn—from Scarface to the more recent binge-worthy popularity of the Grammy-winning series, “Breaking Bad.” There is nothing more intoxicating than the illicit, albeit vicarious, score.

But these drugs have to come from somewhere, and when we see the pictures of youth squeezed into concrete detention cells, or hear stories about the scabies, lice, and other ailments they brought in with them on the arduous journey from Central America, suddenly nothing seems very sexy.

What does one have to do with the other? A growing number of voices are trying to make it clear, despite the political clamor over the waves of unaccompanied children attempting to get through the southern border, that it’s all about the drugs. America’s drug problem, specifically, which goes beyond the cheap titillation of movies and film. It’s a $100 billion annual illicit drug industry, with some 23.9 million current users over the age of 12 (that’s more than 9 percent of the population 12 years and older).

In other words, America’s demand for drugs is driving children like Cristian Omar Reyes, an 11-year-old terrorized by gangs in Honduras, or Carlita, a 13-year-old Salvadoran, also fleeing gang violence, to the U.S-Mexico border. If you don’t want these children—an estimated 70,000 to 90,000 by the end of 2014—then the drug war must end.

“Of course there is a direct line between the drug war and the migration you are seeing today,” Terry Nelson, a retired U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, who now works with LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), told TAC. The only way to stop it is, “if you were to end the drug war today and begin to legalize all drugs.”

The idea is a dramatic and provocative one, but not at all novel. The notion that prohibition has created a $300 billion global black market that has only allowed the worst parasitical crime and corruption that goes with it to flourish is not new. Legalization advocates have been using the example of the Volstead Act, which outlawed alcohol consumption in the U.S. from 1920 to 1933 as the most salient example of prohibition’s violent, if not directly intended, repercussions, for years.

But it is not only our own lives as Americans, critics say, but the lives of millions of people in already poor, badly governed, and war-pocked countries that are paying the consequences for the drug war, and yes, our love affair with drugs. While opinion might differ on whether it should be called a “crisis” the waves of children bearing stories of dead parents and classmates and fear for their lives, are the best reminder we have that the war has been lost.

“The [right-wing conservative] view … it is overly simplistic and erroneous, that [children] are coming here illegally, that it is an invasion of our territory and we must deport them immediately. You are not taking responsibility for contributing to the problems yourself,” said Marco Careces, an editor and contributor for the Honduran Weekly and aerospace analyst for a Virginia-based technology firm who shuttles often between the Washington D.C. area and Central America.

“As long as you keep the drugs illegal, you will keep the revenues growing for the cartels,” he said in an interview with TAC. “Marijuana, and cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines—unless you’re willing to legalize all of them, there is always going to be a market for something.”

No surprise that Central American leaders have been saying this in greater numbers over the last several years. They see the writing on the wall. The drug war in our hemisphere has been an exercise in whack-a-mole, or as Cato’s Ted Galen Carpenter noted recently, a game of squeeze the balloon: “put pressure on the drug cartels in one area, and the drug trade just pops up somewhere else.”

Over the last four decades, the U.S. taxpayer has funded some $1 trillion for this war, which has only been successful in driving the illicit industry from Columbia (leaving environmental and economic devastation behind) to the Caribbean and Mexico (the scene of the worst cartel violence in modern times), down to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, where we see our handiwork flourish today. In 2012, when TAC reported on this angle of the war, the U.S. military and DEA had just abruptly halted an Iraq counterinsurgency-inspired operation with local police that left a string of civilians dead, including four killings that are unsolved two years later. At the time, according to the U.S. military involved, 84 percent of the U.S.-bound cocaine was crossing this Central American region.

“For them, the violence is terrible. People here just can’t imagine,” said Nelson, who worked for 30 years in federal border enforcement and customs, mostly in drug trafficking in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. At one point he led a team that seized 230 pounds of cocaine from smugglers in five years. When he retired in 2005, he looked around and saw that despite year after year of high profile seizures, the price of so-called blow on Main Street hadn’t budged.

“It’s a no-win situation,” he said. “I know what’s working and what is not. I was one of the one of the guys fighting the war.” He saw other retired law enforcement officers take up the banner of ending it. “These aren’t a bunch of long-haired hippies. These are serious guys who want to right a wrong,” he said of LEAP. “I am a conservative and I think this is a very conservative issue—crime and violence.”

The gangs work for the cartels, the cartels have helped to corrupt governments. They all make life miserable for the people who live in urban centers and the outskirts of these towns where the criminal enterprises have boiled life down to two choices: either cooperate (by joining or paying up), or hide, and hope the next bullet or swing of the machete doesn’t find you. Then there is the decision to flee to the U.S. where relatives already await, many of whom pay for the so-called coyotes to smuggle their loved ones through. There is promise there, or so they believe—jobs, education—and a chance to live.

According to author and Los Angeles Times writer Sonia Nazario, some 6,800 children were detained at the U.S. border three years ago. This year, they expect that number to reach upwards of 90,000. She said the gang members deported from L.A. back to Central America have joined up with homegrown groups flourishing from the recently redirected drug trade. As she writes in a recent New York Times profile of the children, whom she calls refugees, from Honduras: 

Gangs arrived in force in Honduras in the 1990s, as 18th Street and Mara Salvatrucha members were deported in large numbers from Los Angeles to Central America, joining homegrown groups like Los Puchos. But the dominance in the past few years of foreign drug cartels in Honduras, especially ones from Mexico, has increased the reach and viciousness of the violence…

Nazario describes how narco gangs actively recruit in schools, the relentless pressure to do the drugs and to join, the exposure to brutal crimes most Americans only witness—safe, in the comfort of their own homes—on Netflix and HBO. “I want to avoid drugs and death,” 14-year-old Carlos Baquedero Sanchez, told the author about his willingness to risk the dangers of flight to the north. His story mirrors others, some of whom have made the journey more than once, and will try again until they make it.

It all goes back to demand, however. There has been unprecedented movement toward decriminalization of drugs, even legalization, among Latin American, West African, Caribbean countries, and North American states. There has also been a push, which LEAP is involved in, toward transforming existing United Nations treaties on drug prohibition from criminal policy to that of a public heath and treatment posture in hopes of weakening the global black market, which, as we know, funds the world’s most dangerous terror organizations, too.

Yet it is clear that nothing will truly help until the U.S. government takes the first step. Being careful to save some blame for his own Central American presidential cohorts, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez nonetheless told TIME magazine that, “This is a problem they (Americans) generate, I repeat, because of the connection between the drugs they consume in enormous quantities in the United States that are produced in the south and pass through Central America, generating violence, generating this migratory flow.”

Skeptics say the gangs would shift to another enterprise if drugs suddenly became legal—extortion, prostitution, human trafficking, etc. Perhaps so, says Caceres, but drugs are lucrative, easy to move, and have allowed these gangs and cartels incredible amounts of capital to invest in weapons and other material trappings of their power.

“Drug revenues are easy money. Making people pay through extortion when they don’t have anything to give it is hard. Controlling human beings (prostitution, trafficking) is a lot harder than selling drugs to American consumers,” Caceres insists. “If you dry up the revenues for the drugs from the States it will be easier for Honduras to get out of paying extortions. These cartels and gangs will get weaker. It will diminish in the long term.”

U.S. politicians, however are no closer to facing the bitter fruits of the failed drug war than they are to dealing with the thousands of unaccompanied minors currently sitting in federal detention centers awaiting their fate. Before it broke for summer vacation, the House passed two immigration measures, both emphasizing deportation over everything else. The bills, pushed by the right wing of the Republican Party, are unlikely to be signed—but they’re great November election optics.

“If you deport these kids back to where they came from, you’re actually making the problem worse. They are either going to be killed or recruited by the gangs and it will make the gangs more powerful,” said Caceres. “They will keep trying to get back in … a wall won’t stop the wave if people are desperate enough.”

Marijuana is now legal in two U.S. states. That is a long way from ending the prohibition of all drugs, something that seems nearly impossible today. But let the children be a reminder of a different path, Nelson suggested. “Drugs are too dangerous to be left in the control of cartels and drug gangs.”

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor. Follow her on Twitter.



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