Drug War, Migration Prohibition Force Children Into the Shadows

EspañolEver since the early 1990s, when US allies in Colombia hunted and assassinated Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug empire has crumbled.

With increased demand for illicit drugs in the United States, Mexican drug cartels flourished. For several years, the trafficking business was bullish. Mexican cartels were the main providers of illegal drugs to the United States through the 1990s and early 2000s, commanding 90 percent of the cocaine trade in North America by 2007. But soon enough, the Mexican military began interfering with local operations.

In 2006, the Mexican government launched an operation to dismantle drug cartels with the goal of reducing violence. Since trade of illegal drugs is not recognized, regulated, or even decriminalized under Mexican or US federal law, powerful drug cartels hold regional monopolies over the production of drugs such as cocaine. It’s in these cartels’ best interests to sustain the prohibition, with select enforcement, and ensure that most of the drug entering the United States remains under their control.

It was the heavier, military-style pressure from the Mexican federal government that then led drug-trafficking organizations to flee south. Many felt the need to cross the border into Guatemala, where their considerable financial clout would help them to remain in control.

Drug Cartels in the Business of Child Trafficking

By 2009, some of the most powerful drug-trafficking organizations had expanded their operations south or simply picked up and moved to Guatemala. In many cases, these powerful drug cartels stay in control through ties with corrupt governments, while exerting their influence over locals through violence.

Áreas de influencia de los cárteles mexicanos. (Stratfor)
Mexican drug cartels are moving southward. (Stratfor)

Most of what cartels do in regions under their domination in places like Guatemala, Honduras, and Mexico, doesn’t get picked up by local press due to fears of persecution.

Los Zetas, one of the most powerful and brutal cartels, operates in Guatemala near the border with Mexico and has made Alta Verapaz an especially violent province. According to Costa Rica’s former Vice President Kevin Casas-Zamora, Los Zetas surrounded the region and blocked access to the province. By 2010, Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom claimed the province had been besieged.

The presence of cartels across Guatemala and Mexico is especially hard on children who are often picked as child soldiers, or simply caught up in the cartels’ trafficking crossfire.

Seeing an opportunity to expand their tentacles into what they consider one of the hottest trading markets in Central America, second only to drug smuggling, the cartels decided to also run the trafficking of kids across the border to the United States. In too many stances, traffickers simply abandon the children they are paid to smuggle, leaving them to their own luck.

Parents or relatives who pay smugglers (coyotes) to bring their children to the United States are left with no recourse. If their children never make it across the border, there’s no authority they can refer to in order to reclaim their lost children.

The illegal trade of children, similar to the illegal trade of drugs, puts the lives of everyone involved in severe risk.

Forcing Children Into the Shadows

Children from Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico accounted for 98 percent of the thousands of unaccompanied children that flocked to the United States borders in the first half of 2012.

Local Los Zetas leader Gabriel Valverde, “Comandante Verde,” captured this June in Alta Verapaz, Guatemala. (@PNCdeGuatemala)

Whether unaccompanied or brought in by smugglers, children are taking some of the longest routes to reach the United States in fear of being caught by border patrol agents or other authorities across the way. This makes their trip incredibly arduous and oftentimes futile.

According to Juanita Molina, the executive director of the Arizona-based humanitarian groups Border Action Network and Humane Borders, we are forcing these children “into the shadows.”

The criminalization of drugs feeds and keeps powerful cartels in control of the illicit drugs market in the United States. Combine that with the criminalization of human beings attempting to flee their violence-ridden homelands, and these policies have been putting many children in unnecessary danger.

The surge in the number of children crossing the border illegally is, in itself, one of the most brutal effects of drug prohibition. This is not only an issue to Central American children because drugs are illegal in their countries of origin. Rather, the drug war in the United States has pushed the production and distribution of several drugs into the shadows, beyond her borders.

The US federal government, to this day, fails to admit its prohibitionist drug laws are being disproportionally harsh towards minorities. Similarly, the US officials fail to acknowledge that the very humanitarian crisis at the borders is also a consequence of their prohibitionist policies.

By insisting in maintaining such policies, unintended consequences have become the norm.

The Root of the Problem

Acknowledging the root of this problem might eventually make it easier for future administrations to deal with the matter in a more productive fashion.

An understanding of the US role in creating the demand for the illegal trade of drugs might help future leaders to promote policies toward a less prohibitionist, more liberty-oriented solution. That would effectively trade the shadows for the light, and put an end to the unreasonable and disproportionate results of the war on drugs.

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