Drug War Refugees

Thousands of Central American children are fleeing prohibition-related violence.


As thousands of children fleeing violence in Central America seek refuge in the United States, some commentators are blaming American drug users. "If there weren't a lot of Americans seeking marijuana and heroin and cocaine," says former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, "there would not be a drug war."

Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O'Grady seems to agree. "This crisis was born of American self-indulgence," she writes.

If so, it was not the self-indulgence of people who consume arbitrarily proscribed intoxicants. It was the self-indulgence of prohibitionists who insist on exporting their disastrous policy to other countries.

Although O'Grady mentions "rethinking prohibition" as one possible response to the flood of refugees, she clouds the issue by saying "the demand for drugs…fuels criminality." In truth, the government's response to that demand fuels criminality by creating a black market in which thugs violently vie for artificially high profits.

That policy is one of the main factors driving the recent surge in unaccompanied minors making their way to Texas from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The number of such children apprehended by U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) more than doubled in fiscal year 2012, from 4,059 to 10,443, then doubled again in fiscal year 2013, to 21,537. The Obama administration expects the number to be about 90,000 this fiscal year.

In a 2013 survey by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 66 percent of children from El Salvador, 44 percent of children from Honduras, and 20 percent of children from Guatemala mentioned "violence by organized armed criminal actors" as a reason for leaving home. CBP notes that Salvadoran and Honduran children "come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of traveling alone to the US preferable to remaining at home."

In a recent Military Times essay, Gen. John F. Kelly, who runs the U.S. Southern Command, estimates that "perhaps 80 percent" of the violence behind "the mass migration of children we are all of a sudden struggling with" is tied to the illegal drug trade. That sort of violence has intensified in Central America partly because of crackdowns on drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia, which Honduran President Juan Hernandez identifies as "the root cause" of his country's astonishing homicide rate: 90 per 100,000 people, by far the highest in the world.

"Drug cartels and associated street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala…have left near-broken societies in their wake," Kelly writes. "Profits earned via the illicit drug trade have corrupted and destroyed public institutions in these countries and facilitated a culture of impunity…that delegitimizes the state and erodes its sovereignty."

The ills that Kelly cites—violence, illicit profits, corruption, loss of respect for the rule of law—are entirely predictable consequences of prohibition. Yet his solution to the problems caused by prohibition is more enforcement of prohibition—specifically, more money for interdiction, which he claims has been "wildly successful in a relative sense."

Really? "With few exceptions and despite increasing investments in enforcement-based supply reduction efforts aimed at disrupting global drug supply," a 2013 study published by BMJ Open concluded, "illegal drug prices have generally decreased while drug purity has generally increased since 1990. These findings suggest that expanding efforts at controlling the global illegal drug market through law enforcement are failing." 

Intensified enforcement is not just futile but positively harmful, fostering violence by destabilizing the black market. In fact, drug warriors argue that violence of the sort that killed some 60,000 people after Mexico's crackdown began in 2006 means prohibition is working.

"If the drug effort were failing," an unnamed "senior U.S. official" told The Wall Street Journal in 2009, "there would be no violence." That official may have been Michele Leonhart, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, who two years later argued that "the unfortunate level of violence is a sign of success in the fight against drugs." Tell that to the terrified children streaming toward Texas.