Our War on Drugs is Driving Family Migration

We are torn by images of children being ripped from their parents at the border with Mexico, but few are asking why parents are so desperate to escape their own countries that they are willing to risk everything — including family separation.

A recent NY Times article explored that question. Many parents had concluded that the risk of losing their children outweighed the near certainty of death for those children at home — due to gang and cartel violence.

Source: The Associated Press

People are not fleeing some Act of God — drought or hurricanes — that could not be anticipated or prevented. Rather, they are fleeing violence and governmental failure stemming in large part from the War on Drugs driven by failed U.S. policies.

When something people want is declared illegal, the inevitable and predictable consequence is violence. Alcohol Prohibition (1920–1933) led to government corruption in U.S. cities as the unabated demand for alcohol required traffickers to pay bribes to police and politicians. Criminal gangs killed bystanders while battling over turf. With no product regulation, cutting quality to inflate profits resulted in death from adulterated alcohol (like heroin cut with Fentanyl). The alcohol trade was also a business, and businesses require contract and sales territory enforcement and dispute resolution. With no access to the courts, fighting it out using private enforcement — think Al Capone — filled the vacuum. Private enforcement is necessarily violent — there being few options between “please” and beating or shooting.

During Prohibition, we did not try to force the rest of the world to join in our crusade. All the costs in violence and corruption stayed home to roost, which is probably why it took us only 13 years to realize that the downsides of this policy outweighed whatever benefits there might be. With repeal, violence in cities subsided. Beer distributors went back to suing each other. Quality control was legally enforced. Unfortunately, organized crime, now entrenched, moved on to other ways to profit — prostitution, drugs, and extortion.

I suspect that the War on Drugs has lasted as long as it has (since Nixon declared war in 1971), because the costs at home have appeared minimal; there is relatively little U.S. drug-related governmental corruption, and turf wars mostly occur in places like the West Side of Chicago, out of view of most voters. However, the recent rise in opioid addiction may finally be shifting our cost-benefit analysis.

We have largely offloaded the costs in violence onto the producer and transit countries. Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Central American nations have been forced to man the front lines of our War on Drugs regardless of the resulting corruption of their politicians, police, and military. If headless and burned bodies were found outside Washington, D.C. instead of Mexico City, we would have changed course a long time ago. We complain about “failures of governance” in these countries, yet our actions have systematically undercut democracy. Latin American governments aren’t accountable to their own citizens when the U.S. uses loss of foreign aid as leverage to keep these countries fighting our unwinnable war against drugs.

We have played a major role in creating the problems driving desperate people to our borders and we have the power to change the dynamic. Legalize and responsibly regulate drugs in the U.S. — as we have done with alcohol and tobacco. Stop foisting our drug war upon vulnerable South and Central American countries.

Preventing family separation at the border is only addressing a symptom. The migrant flow will continue until the pressures driving migration are addressed.

Inge Fryklund is a former Assistant State’s Attorney with Cook County, Illinois, and a former policy advisor to Afghanistan. She’s now an executive board member for the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP), a nonprofit group of prosecutors, judges, police, and others who use their expertise to advance public safety solutions.

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