Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is the author of nine books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) and The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America (Cato Institute, 2012).
The surge of unaccompanied minors coming across America’s southern border has given rise to a humanitarian crisis, and with it, debates about immigration policy and border security. Lost in these discussions, however, is the role the American drug war has played in creating the crisis. And this is only the latest crisis. For decades, Washington’s crusade against illegal drugs has destroyed lives, destabilized civil society and generally wreaked havoc on Mexico and the countries of Central and South America.
Since October, more than 50,000 children and adolescents (mainly from Central America) have successfully made the trek through Mexico to reach the United States. Others have perished at the hands of the drug gangs that control the trafficking routes. Extortion, kidnapping and rape are all-too-common along these routes. Traffickers frequently force refugees passing through Mexico to become drug mules — they’re forced to smuggle small shipments of drugs as they make their way to the United States.
The refugees are fleeing not only grinding poverty but widespread carnage, inflicted mostly by powerful Mexican-based drug cartels and other criminal gangs. Journalists, politicians and pundits have had no qualms about connecting the refugee crisis to the drug cartels. Daily Beast columnist Caitlin Dickson is correct that drug traffickers have made those countries “virtually unlivable for its poorest citizens.” She’s also correct that this creates “an incentive to flee, thereby providing themselves with more clientele for their human smuggling business.” NBC correspondent Luke Russert blamed casual drug users, not just for this crisis but for the widespread devastation the illicit drug trade has inflicted on Latin America.
But as Honduran President Juan Hernandez told Reuters last week, the drug lords would not be able to cause so much chaos if it were not for Washington’s stubborn commitment to drug prohibition. That strategy greatly inflates the street price of drugs and fattens the profits of trafficking organizations. Economists estimate that about 90 percent of the retail price of illicit drugs is due to this “black market premium.” Predictably, when drugs are outlawed, only outlaws will sell drugs. Washington’s policy enriches and empowers the most ruthless traffickers — those willing to use violence, intimidation, and exploitation of the vulnerable to gain market share.
The result has been catastrophic for both Mexico and Central America. Responding to U.S. prodding, Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s president from December 2006 to December 2012, launched a military-led offensive against his country’s drug cartels. That strategy backfired badly. During the Calderón years, an estimated 60,000 Mexicans perished in the drug wars that convulsed across the country. Another 20,000 people went missing during that period. Many, if not most, were likely victims of the ensuing turf wars. Grisly decapitations became routine news stories. Ciudad Juárez, on Mexico’s border with the United States and astride one of the main trafficking routes, descended into a horrifying cauldron of chaos. It became so bad in Juárez that at one point a group of prominent business leaders asked the United Nations to send peacekeeping troops.
Corruption also proliferated, although it has often been difficult to determine if public officials have been corrupted by greed or threats of violence against them and their families. Appointed and elected officials, as well as police officers and soldiers tasked with bringing down the cartels, often face an ultimatum from the crime syndicates: plata o plomo? (silver or lead?) In other words, take a bribe or risk assassination. Too many officials who refuse to comply have paid for that decision with their lives—and sometimes with the lives of their family members. Others have understandably decided that assisting the cartels, or at least looking the other way, is the more prudent course.
While the pace of Mexico’s drug-related corruption and violence has eased slightly over the past two years, the situation in Central America has grown steadily worse. The leading Mexican cartels began to move operations into Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in 2008 as the pressure in Mexico mounted. It’s a game of “squeeze the balloon.” Put pressure on the drug cartels in one area, and the drug trade just pops up somewhere else.
The corruption and violence followed them as well. In April 2013, Honduran authorities uncovered a plot by drug gangs to assassinate a congressman, a prominent journalist, and a police chief. A high-level Guatemalan official recently told the Associated Press that the Zetas (perhaps the most violent of all the Mexican cartels) had gained control of nearly half of Guatemala’s territory. The Zetas and competing cartels also control major chunks of Honduras, El Salvador, and Belize.
Highlighting the financial resources of the drug cartels, In a 2011 interview with Agence France Presse, former Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom noted that authorities had seized almost $12 billion in property, drugs, and cash during his four-year term in office. The comparable figure for the previous eight years was approximately $1.1 billion. Twelve billion dollars, he emphasized, was equal to almost two years of the Guatemalan government’s budget.
One particularly outstanding trouble spot has been Colombia. The government in Bogota has for decades fought a violent civil war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC rebels, who get most of their funding from the black market trade in cocaine. The Clinton administration’s initiative, Plan Colombia, aimed to eliminate the drug trade by funding a campaign to spray tens of thousands of square kilometers of Colombia’s farm land with dangerous chemicals. This not only failed to ultimately reduce cocoa production, but it had detrimental effects on the environment as well as the local population, inflicting residents with a variety of dreadful skin, respiratory, and other ailments.
Another part of Plan Colombia, which has continued into the Bush and Obama eras, has been to undermine FARC insurgents by encouraging the Colombian government with billions in U.S. aid to militarize its approach. Over the years, atrocities perpetrated by Colombian para-military groups became common. According to a 2011 Human Rights Watch report, government- backed groups deployed to battle the FARC “regularly commit massacres, killings, forced displacement, rape, and extortion, and create a threatening atmosphere in the communities they control” often targeting “human rights defenders, trade unionists, victims of the paramilitaries who are seeking justice, and community members who do not follow their orders,” .
Instead of stabilizing the country, U.S. support for a hardline approach to the drug war in Colombia has exacerbated overall violence and human rights abuses. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, with millions more displaced. A 2013 report commissioned by the Colombian government documented “1,982 massacres between 1980 and 2012, attributing 1,166 to paramilitaries, 343 to rebels, 295 to government security forces and the remainder to unknown armed groups.”
In recent years, drug-related corruption and violence has hit Honduras especially hard. It is no coincidence that a large percentage of the unaccompanied minors making the perilous journey north now come from that country. Like much of Central America, Honduras has long suffered from a high homicide rate, but the drug cartels have made the bad situation there even worse. In 2007, before the Zetas and the other trafficking operations became entrenched in Honduras, the homicide rate was approximately 50 per 100,000 people. The rate soared to more than 90 per 100,000 in 2012, and the extent of the refugee flight indicates that the situation is not improving. The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula has the dubious distinction of being the murder capital of the world with a homicide rate of 187 killings per 100,000 inhabitants. For comparison, New York City’s murder rate is 5.1 per 100,000.
Yet U.S. officials continue to blithely argue that the drug war strategy in Mexico and Central America has been a success. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton exuded confidence in September 2013 when she said the money being spent on counter-narcotics efforts in Central America, nearly half a billion dollars over the previous four years, “has been money well spent.” Testifying before a House committee this past April, Luis Arreaga, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, stated that under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, the United States “is implementing a comprehensive and integrated approach to stem illegal trafficking.” Although he conceded that the effort might take some time to succeed, “we’re making progress.”
One wonders how Clinton and Arreaga define success—and at what cost. For the populations of Mexico and Central America, the toll in treasure and blood has been enormous.
Contrary to the confident assertions of U.S. officials, there is no evidence whatsoever that the cartels are weaker today than they were even a decade ago. And even if you accept the morally dubious premise that we should be willing to sacrifice Latin American lives to prevent Americans from ingesting drugs, these policies aren’t working. A study last year from the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy found that “despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply, illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990.” The study concluded that “expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing.”
An increasing number of Latin American leaders are recognizing that reality. Mexico’s former president, Vicente Fox, provided a succinct indictment to the Associated Press in 2010: “Radical prohibition strategies have never worked.” People should look at legalization, Fox argued, “as a strategy to strike at and break the economic structure that allows gangs to generate huge profits in their trade, which feeds corruption and increases their areas of power.”
Citing the bloodshed and collateral damage in their own countries, the leaders of Guatemala, Colombia, Costa Rica, and Bolivia have all called for an end to the aggressive, militaristic counter-narcotics tactics championed by the United States. In 2009, the a report authored by former Latin American presidents César Augusto Gaviria (Colombia), Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) came to the same conclusion. American officials have brushed them off. Current and former U.S. anti-drug officials responded to the 2009 report by stating that the deaths of thousands of Mexicans and Central Americans was a sign that the U.S. was winning, apparently oblivious to how that must sound to the citizens of those countries. Meanwhile, Argentina, Peru, and Mexico have begun decriminalizing small amounts of drugs, and Uruguay has legalized marijuana entirely.
A comprehensive report published in June 2011 by the Global Commission on Drug Policy reached a similar conclusion. “The global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world,” the report stated flatly. U.S. officials obviously disagree. But it’s far easier for American leaders to maintain a steely drug war resolve when it’s the citizens of other countries who are doing all of the dying.
The carnage visited on the populations of Mexico, Central America, and South America provides ample evidence that all of these current and former Latin American leaders are correct. The current child migrant crisis is only the latest human rights atrocity attributable to America’s drug war. How much more death, violence, and social upheaval must be inflicted on Latin America before U.S. officials concede that the current prohibition experiment has been a disaster?