On July 14, Mark Thornton’s Mises Daily article explored how Drug War violence in Central America was a major factor in creating the child refugee crisis on the southern US border. On July 20, The Wall Street Journal published “What Really Drove the Children North” which contended that “Our appetite for drugs caused the violence that made life unbearable in much of Central America.”
Those skeptical of this thesis claimed that the theory does not explain why the refugee crisis is a new issue. In typical nationalistic fashion, many right-wing commentators assumed that Central America has always been pretty much the same, and that it’s all their fault anyway. The WSJ article addresses such claims directly:
[Marine Corps. General John Kelly] has spent time studying the issue and is speaking up. Conservatives may not like his conclusions, in which the U.S. bears significant responsibility, but it is hard to accuse a four-star of a “blame America first” attitude.
To make the “Obama did it” hypothesis work, it is necessary to defeat the claim that the migrants are fleeing intolerable violence. This has given rise to the oft-repeated line that “those countries” have always been very violent.
That is patently untrue. Central America is significantly more dangerous than it was before it became a magnet for rich and powerful drug capos. Back in the early 1990s, drugs from South America flowed through the Caribbean to the U.S.
But when a U.S. interdiction strategy in the Caribbean raised costs, trafficking shifted to land routes up the Central American isthmus and through Mexico. With Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war on the cartels, launched in 2007, the underworld gradually slithered toward the poorer, weaker neighboring countries. Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez, began facilitating the movement of cocaine from producing countries in the Andes to the U.S., also via Central America.
In a July 8 essay in the Military Times headlined “Central America Drug War a Dire Threat to U.S. National Security,” Gen. Kelly explains that he has spent 19 months “observing the transnational organized crime networks” in the region. His conclusion: “Drug cartels and associated street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s number one, four and five highest homicide rates, have left near-broken societies in their wake.” He notes that while he works on this problem throughout the region, these three countries, also known as the Northern Triangle, are “far and away the worst off.”
With a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 in Honduras, and 40 per 100,000 in Guatemala, life in the region is decidedly rougher than “declared combat zones” like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the general says the rate is 28 per 100,000.
How did the region become a killing field? His diagnosis is that big profits from the illicit drug trade have been used to corrupt public institutions in these fragile democracies, thereby destroying the rule of law. In a “culture of impunity” the state loses its legitimacy and sovereignty is undermined. Criminals have the financial power to overwhelm the law “due to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, particularly cocaine, heroin and now methamphetamines, all produced in Latin America and smuggled into the U.S.”
So, there is any easy explanation for “why now.” US policy caused drug war violence to shift from the Caribbean to Central America, greatly increasing violence during the 1990s, and culminating in the present crisis. For many Americans, however, who can’t tell the difference between Guatemala and Chile, and who are committed to the perpetuation of stereotypes about foreigners, such facts are no doubt difficult to comprehend, and not worth repeating. Nonetheless, the whole affair is an excellent case study in unintended consequences and the futility of government prohibitions.