Drug War

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.

NEXT: Brickbat: White Like Me

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  1. Like Communism, prohibition doesn’t work unless everyone does it. Just ask Chicago. They’re sure their gun violence is because surrounding territories won’t sign on to gun grabbing.

    It’s just common sense that if you stop everyone from doing something they want to do, then they’ll stop trying to do it and you’ve won. (And made a lot of money and gotten a lot of votes in the effort.)


    1. Makes sense to me dude. LOL.

  2. The problems going on in El Salvador, Guatemala, etc. have been going on since long before the war on drugs. The war on drugs here has doubtless exacerbated them, but ending the WOD will not end those problems.

    1. And, the flood of kids is new this past year – not since the WOD started. What a terrible argument from everyone who repeats this nonsense.

      1. They are just trying to deflect blame, but we all know it is Bush’s fault.

      2. Of course if our immigration laws respected freedom of movement and association more these kid’s parents would have came with and they could work here and take care of them

        1. That’s at least a more honest argument.

          If Obama hadn’t been playing word games and hinting at a massive amnesty through executive action, they would still be home with their parents.

          1. That’s reasonable, but I have to wonder how many of the parents keep up with such inside baseball US politics?

            1. I think it a more reasonable hypothesis that possible amnesty due to U.S. laws and Obama’s statement were the cause.

              Better than “suddenly, during the 5th of the War on Drugs, everyone decided to leave.”

              1. 5th decade.

                1. I liked it the 1st time, like the War on Drugs was the name of a month.

    2. Ending the stupid Prohibition wars WILL do a LOT to stop so much violence. The American market fuels the money river that fuels the brutal competition for it and provides for the demand by cartels for the services of the worst gangs in the world.

      My wife is from Honduras, I’ve been there. The Administration is cynically using this thing to distract Americans from the real problems but for the love of God and for the many peaceful and poor people of Honduras and Central America PLEASE END THE DRUG WARS!

      For the serfs of the Venezuelan fiefdom too!

  3. Repeal child labour laws so at least these kids will have something to do

    1. Maybe they could be put to work building the wall along the border?

      *ducks and flees room.

  4. Awwww, a picture of a cute kid. Try the guilt trip on someone else, just lame.

    1. Awwww, a picture of a cute kid. Try the guilt trip on someone else, just lame.

      Never underestimate the power of a picture of a cute kid. More screwy laws have been passed because of those than on sound arguments.

      1. Exporting the drug war through big stick diplomacy was based on a picture of a cute kid?

        Who knew?

        1. Exporting the drug war through big stick diplomacy was based on a picture of a cute kid?

          HM, not what I said. Maybe re-read what I posted. Would you agree that many laws have been passed on what has happened to cute kids (Jessica’s Law, MADD, Amber’s Law, etc). Even though this is a drug thread, I wasn’t really saying anything about the drug war. Sorry if it was implied.

          1. It was directed more toward VM and what he managed to grasp from Sullum’s article. I wholeheartedly agree with your thesis, however.

  5. Related: don’t know if this is come up before, but a book came out a couple of years back arguing that Mexico’s prohibition on marijuana in the early part of the 20th century came out of domestic politics and actually had some influence on the development of US policies on marijuana. Author does not defend the WOD but does argue that it wasn’t really forced on Mexico.

    Andrew Campos, Home Grown:


    1. Fuck dude – there’s a narrative here. Stop with your crazy “facts”.

    2. It is certainly incorrect to lay all the blame on the US WOD for sure. But it is quite stylish to claim and profitable for some others.

      Anyone who thinks Mexicans and South Americans don’t smoke pot and snort coke are ignorant.

      1. I haven’t read the book but I listened to an interview with the author. And it was really interesting to hear about the origins of Mexican prohibition. It was connected to a conflation of the French words for hashish & assassin. And so developed the idea that people who took marijuana often became violent.

  6. What “public institutions” in Central America, or anywhere else in the Spanish-speaking world of this hemisphere were ever destroyed? These so called institutions were NEVER institutions as we know them in the United States. They were always corrupt from the time they were invented by the Spanish in the 16th Century. This is an entirely different culture south of the U.S. Border, even in the best of times. I have been there and seen it long before the drug wars began.

    Libertarians take their cue from the left (which is really where they are on the spectrum anyway), and blame the deplorable situations in these countries on the U.S. Somehow, the fact that umpteen numbers of kiddies fleeing to our borders because their countries are cesspools and garbage dumps, is all the fault of us Gringos north of the border. This type of convoluted “logic” is never ending. So exactly what is it that we are supposed to do with all of these terrified children fleeing to Texas?

    1. How is blaming the problems of Latin America on the Spanish any better than blaming them on the Americans?

      Bonus points if you can explain yourself without anal or scatological references.

      1. I don’t have to explain anything to you, with or without anal references.

        However, perhaps you need to read my comment again. Apparently, you are yet another person (out of millions) who has reading comprehension problems. Think about a tutor for a remedial course in this area.

        My answer to you: Because the Spanish, and NOT the people of The United States of America were responsible for creating fucked up societies south of our border with Mexico. Fucked up in the sense that these countries are considerably more corrupt than anything north of the border.

        That’s why people from south of the border want to come here, because we (the U.S.) actually have clean water, and trash collection, and things like that. In other words, we are much less fucked up in a number of areas.

        Dear kbolino

        Nevertheless, we are not responsible for accommodating illegal immigrants just because they believe they have a right to be here. Let these kids wait in line (with their parents) at out legal Ports of Entry, instead of demanding that us mean old Gringos need to take care of them,

        That is my explanation without those anal references, although it does not excuse the fact that you are an asshole.

        1. You said:

          “They [the public ‘institutions’ of Central America] were always corrupt from the time they were invented by the Spanish in the 16th Century.”

          Do the Spanish not bear responsibility for the corrupt institutions they created?

          Also, I never said the failure of their institutions places a burden upon us to accommodate them. I am attacking a specific argument of yours, not supporting a particular alternate policy position.

          My point is that you are simply shifting the White Man’s Burden, not refuting it.

          1. kbolino

            You have problems with Reading Comprehension AND English Composition. What is your point? What is your premise?

            My premise is that we don’t owe these kids flocking to our border with Mexico, a damn thing. Nor do we owe a damn thing to anyone else that comes up to the border and thinks they have a right to be in the U.S. just because their countries are fucked up.

            The “White Man’s Burden” (Kipling) doesn’t have a fucking thing to do with my premise.

            1. You brought the Spanish into this. Do they or do they not bear responsibility for the ills of their former colonies?

  7. The WOD certainly sucks and has harmed these counties. But socialism has harmed them more. These kids are economic refugees. They would be coming regardless of the WOD. If we had open borders, their parents would be coming with them until the quality of life in the US worsened and the quality of life in El Salvador increased such that it no longer made sense for most to come here. That is what open borders actually means in practice; an equalization of quality of life and opportunities between the US and mostly Latin America but over the long term the world. Clearly they only reason why those currently living in the US and enjoying a better quality of life would only object to such an arrangement because they are the RACIST and hate freedom.

  8. “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.”

    Hi Jacob,

    I went onto the breitbart website (something I dare from time-to-time) to review the offending quote from comrade reich. his argument and the argument I’ve seen made here by various Reason writers is pretty indistinguishable. The latter person you mention is a right-wing scold. It’s nice that you throw in a progressive who has been a long-standing opponent of the drug war with a right winger and call them same-same. You guys are amazing writers. The pay must be great at Koch industries. Do you guys even take showers any more?

    1. You write well for being a self identified retard. There are few more effective ways of identifying yourself as a moron than calling yourself a socialist. The fact that someone with your disabilities can form complete sentences is quite remarkable.

    2. Oh no! Not the Koch brothers!!! NOT THE KOCH BROTHERS!!!! You’ve gone too far connecting this publication to The Two Satans!

    3. The US demand creates a market, no doubt about it.

      But the follow on question is, why is that market so much more lucrative for suppliers in Latin America than it is in the United States?

      I’m sure it has nothing to do with the complete destruction of capital and functioning markets that has taken place under socialist regimes in many South and Central American countries.

      Nothing. At. All.

  9. Hey Jacob… Here is a quote from Robert reich. You guys are fucking awesome!

    “The nation’s war on drugs has been a total failure. It hasn’t reduced the flow or use of drugs in America. Instead, it’s created a black market that’s fueled violent gangs and drug cartels throughout Mexico and Central America; caused a child refugee crisis along our southern border; and put tens of thousands of Americans, mostly poor and black or Latino, into U.S. prisons. The good news is the nation appears to be finally waking up: Washington state and Colorado have legalized marijuana sales, the District of Columbia has decriminalized possession of small amounts, and others states are considering similar measures.”

    1. Do you have a point?

    2. Robert Reich: “I think when the fed runs out of worthless assets to monetize we should start buying dime bags to get these drugs off the streets.It will stimulate employment with drug dealers and increase the velocity of money. Of course we should give amnesty to any illegals as they would help keep the medicare and SS ponzi schemes afloat”.

  10. Good to hear Reich is still a idiot.

  11. “White Man’s Burden” again, since cuddly “brown people” can’t run their own countries or make their own laws.

    “U.S. law enforcement officials have been finding “cheat sheets” along the border used by illegal immigrants to try to stay in the United States and not get deported after they’ve been caught.

    The notes, believed to be supplied by human trafficking groups, give pointers in Spanish on what immigrants should say when confronted by border authorities.”

  12. Prohibition has finally run its course; the lives and livelihoods of hundred’s of millions of people (users and non-users) worldwide have been destroyed or severely disrupted; many countries that were once shining beacons of liberty and prosperity have become toxic, repressive, smoldering heaps of hypocrisy and a gross affront to fundamental human decency. It is now the duty of every last one of us to insure that the people who are responsible for this shameful situation are not simply left in peace to enjoy the wealth and status that their despicable actions have, until now, afforded them. Former and present Prohibitionists should not be allowed to remain untainted or untouched by the unconscionable acts that they have viciously committed on their fellow human beings. They have provided us with neither safe communities nor safe streets. We will provide them with neither a safe haven to enjoy their ill-gotten gains nor the liberty to repeat such a similar atrocity.

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  15. We are not the World’s Foster Home.

  16. My wife and I were watching and reading reports about the kids coming north, and we both came to the same conclusion- That the US media is leaving out some important parts of this story. We sat there and were told, by a major US news outlet, that a FIVE YEAR OLD was dissatisfied with his future prospects, so he traveled on his own from Guatemala through Mexico, and snuck successfully into the US. On his own. Supposedly a three year old made the same trek. It just seems unlikely to me. I really do not know what is really going on down there, but it seems much more likely that the kids are accompanied to near the US border, then sent with a coyote to make the actual crossing, because the guardians of the children are under the impression that unaccompanied kids get automatic citizenship.
    We also noticed that although the people opposing letting the kids in are shamed relentlessly for their callous attitude towards the children, nobody ever asks the parents why they allegedly let a toddler make their own way across a continent. Here we arrest parents for letting their kids play in the park unsupervised.

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