Last month, Marco Antonio Munoz, a 39-year-old Honduran asylum seeker died alone of suicide in his cell. The inescapable violence in Honduras — a substantial portion of which is related to the drug trade — and the urge to keep his family alive forced Munoz and his family to cross hundreds of dangerous miles, foreign countries and eventually El Rio Grande in search of asylum in the United States.
After surviving the journey to get to the U.S., Munoz was separated from his son and wife; he suffered a panic attack and was placed in solitary confinement 40 miles away from where he was detained, where he eventually died.
To understand the displacement and migration of people from Latin America, it is crucial to examine the damage inflicted by U.S. drug policies on these countries and recognize that the drug war has utterly failed to reduce the demand for illicit drugs coming from within the U.S.’s own borders.
Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, the U.S. has engaged in international drug control efforts including providing financial assistance to countries, particularly in Latin America, to curb drug trafficking. These policies have, in many cases, facilitated the militarization of Latin American law enforcement agencies to carry out counter-narcotics efforts against their own people. In Mexico, the U.S.’s Merida Initiative, aimed at countering “drug fueled violence,” coincided with a dramatic escalation in violence in the country, much of it carried out by Mexican security forces, though there have been instances where the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has also been implicated. Within its own borders, the U.S. criminalizes those who use drugs, instead of providing them with a comprehensive system of care.
Despite the U.S. investment of billions of dollars into counternarcotics initiatives in Latin America, drug production and trafficking show no sign of abating. Meanwhile, violence in Latin America is only getting worse. In Mexico, 2017 was the deadliest year on record, with 25,339 homicides linked to drug related crime, a jump of 23% from 2016 and the highest since 1997. While Latin America holds 8% of the world’s population, the region accounts for almost 33 percent of all the murders on earth. While certainly not all of these homicides are drug-related, some of the worst violence is happening in countries in which the U.S. also funds anti-drug trafficking efforts.
The U.S. has a long and troubling history in Honduras, the home country of the Munoz family. In Honduras, like in Mexico, U.S. Drug Enforcement anti-drug operations have caused the deaths of innocent civilians, and agents act with little oversight and accountability. Honduras continues to be a country with one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world, which should lead us to the question: Is U.S. assistance helping to quell drug war violence, or further fueling it?
Even if U.S. involvement in these countries is not directly feeding into violence, drug prohibition and criminalization of the drug trade — the drug policies that the U.S. has pushed for decades — are a major factor fueling organized crime. Driven by a desire to control profitable illicit drug markets and intimidate rivals, organized criminal groups often engage in extreme violence. Such groups also corrupt authorities to secure their impunity, wreaking havoc on state institutions. In turn, that violence and lack of accountability drive many people to flee their countries in terror.
The Munoz’s journey from Honduras to the U.S. is not an isolated case. Last month, hundreds of people, many from Honduras, traveled across Latin America fleeing persecution, only to be incarcerated and separated from their children at their arrival in the U.S, “the land of the free.” The U.S. must recognize that for thousands of families, the dangerous trip to the U.S. is their last resort; they are escaping war-like conditions that are at least in part fueled by U.S. drug war policies.
“They encourage people, frankly, to walk through Mexico and go into the United States because they’re drug traffickers,” said Trump of immigrants migrating to the U.S. The reality is that the vast majority of the people coming to the U.S. border are the victims of organized crime, not members of it.
Americans need to reflect on the role of the U.S. drug war in fueling migration to the United States. Instead of dehumanizing immigrants and asylum seekers and further compounding the trauma they’ve experienced by locking them up and separating families, we need to get at the root causes that are leading them to migrate — including the war on drugs.
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Eunisses Hernandez is a policy coordinator with the Los Angeles office of the Drug Policy Alliance, and Norma A. Palacios is the Administrative Associate with the Los Angeles office of the Drug Policy Alliance.