On the final stretch of the U.S. presidential campaign, Democratic nominee Joe Biden acknowledged the harmful effects the war on drugs has had on racial minorities in the country, due to incarceration and police violence. He even suggested that decriminalizing cocaine for personal use could be a solution.
But when the debate turned to immigration, both candidates followed familiar lines. Mr. Biden focused on the innocent children separated from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Meanwhile, incumbent Donald Trump focused on the “coyotes” — illegally migrant smugglers — and drug cartels.
Neither made the link between immigration and the drug war, despite the substantial impact the U.S.-led campaign to reduce drug trafficking has had on the lives of people in Latin America.
Increasingly, people are crossing the U.S.-Mexico border to escape a cycle of violence to which Washington continues to contribute. Immigration is just the tip of the iceberg.
Murder rates in Latin America have skyrocketed since the 1980s and are still among the highest in the world. This, because Latin America has been the biggest battleground for the war on drugs.
American crackdown on drugs
Over the last 50 years, the U.S. government has pushed for increasingly restrictive international treaties on drugs, which paradoxically increased the profitability of cocaine.
In the 1980s, while Americans were locking up their fellow citizens for drug offenses, the U.S. government decided to eradicate the production of coca plants and the sale of cocaine abroad. The U.S. provided political, military, and financial support for Latin American governments to eradicate coca production, spraying the lands of peasant farmers, supporting police and militia violence against guerrilla movements, and cracking down on drug businesses in urban centers.
The U.S. gave loans to Latin American countries on the condition that they enforced tough anti-drug policies. These measures disproportionately affected marginalized populations, such as Peruvian peasant farmers, black Brazilians living in favelas, and tattooed Salvadoran youths.
U.S. support for violence in Latin America is not new, as the country supported military coups and civil wars in the region throughout the Cold War. Once democracy returned to Central and South America, the war on drugs became a legitimate excuse for continued state violence.
In short, the war on drugs has not worked. Drug prohibition — combined with continued consumption — has shifted but not dismantled the drug business. The U.S. remains the largest consumer market.
When Peruvian coca production was reduced, production shifted to Colombia. When Colombian drug cartels were dismantled, Mexican gangs stepped in. Once the largest cartels were weakened, smaller splinter organizations filled the void. In Brazil, for instance, the overcrowded, underfunded, violent, and corrupt prisons became headquarters and training grounds for drug traffickers.
As the war on drugs continued, criminal and police violence rose in Latin America, with the lines between the two becoming increasingly blurred. Organized crime gangs moved to create their own justice systems, giving them influence over the population like never before.
In areas where gangs are most active, reporting crime to the police is futile. These criminal organizations prefer to act as their own police force, in order to avoid attracting law enforcement to their territories.
Furthermore, at all levels of the chain, drug dealing creates opportunities for corruption, often involving police officers, government bureaucrats, and high-level politicians. It is not unheard of across Latin America for politicians to enlist criminal gangs and crooked police officers to further their own causes.
A vicious cycle
Combined with the war on drugs, tough-on-crime policies and restrictive immigration in the U.S. generate a vicious cycle of displacement and violence on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Greater enforcement along the U.S.’s southern frontier means that more immigrants have to depend on migrant smuggling organizations and pass through territories controlled by drug traffickers in order to make their crossing.
Furthermore, as explained by cultural anthropologist Elana Zilberg in her book Space of Detention, the first wave of Salvadoran refugees to the U.S. were escaping the American-backed civil war and political repression of the 1980s.
Some of these refugees’ adult children joined youth gangs, and were imprisoned and deported from the U.S. due to toughening anti-drug and immigration policies. As they arrived in their parents’ country — one they barely knew — they influenced local youth culture, symbols, and gang affiliations, creating transnational youth gangs known as maras.
Maras were then violently repressed by Salvadoran policies that were modelled on measures employed in the U.S., including persecuting young adults if they had tattoos.
Police and criminal violence has generated more insecurity, leading some Salvadoran youths to seek refuge in Mexico and the U.S.
Conservatives in the U.S. cite criminal violence in Latin America as a justification for denying asylum to migrants fleeing that same violence, and as an excuse to enforce draconian immigration, policing, and deportation policies, which in turn exacerbate the same problems they are ostensibly aimed at solving.
Whether these immigrants are members of gangs, are carrying drugs, have learned how to be violent, or are innocent victims is beside the point. The point is that the American public should no longer pretend that the violence only goes from south to north, and that the U.S. hasn’t played a critical role in creating and fuelling it.