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Nick Alexandrov Nick Alexandrov

Running for Their Lives: Migrant Children Are Victims of the US-Led Drug War

Over 50,000 children have crossed the US-Mexico border since October. The role of US policy in creating this tragedy must not be ignored.

6 Substance

Migrant children and women

Migrant children and young women apprehended at the US border Photo via

“My grandmother is the one who told me to leave,” Kevin, a 17-year-old Honduran, said, explaining why he chose to flee to the US. “She said, ‘If you don’t join, the gang will shoot you. If you do, the rival gang or the cops will shoot you. But if you leave, no one will shoot you.’”

Maritza, a 15-year-old from El Salvador, faced an equally stark scenario. “I am here because I was threatened by the gang,” she said. “In El Salvador they take young girls, rape them and throw them in plastic bags.” Like Kevin, she chose survival by escaping her homeland.

Jessica Sandoval, a young Honduran mother, had hoped to reach the US with her three children but had been stuck at a Mexican shelter for almost a week when she told the Los Angeles Times that “her region of Honduras had become a living hell because of gangs, drug traffickers, political violence and a lack of jobs after numerous factories shut down.”

These stories reflect a reality that tens of thousands of Central Americans, particularly the region’s young, are trying to leave behind. Over 52,000 children, mainly from the “Northern Triangle”—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—have crossed the US-Mexico border since last October. That number is twice as big as last year’s total, and 10 times larger than the 2009 figure. This unprecedented surge in migration intersects with a second growing trend, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). “Since 2009,” a recent report notes, “UNHCR has registered an increased number of asylum-seekers—both children and adults—from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala lodging claims in the Americas region,” chiefly in the US.

But suppose a migrant does survive the ride atop La Bestia (“The Beast”)—a train running north from Chiapas, at Mexico’s Guatemalan border, to Mexico City’s periphery (riders who fall to the tracks risk having a leg severed or being decapitated)—or the trek across northern Mexico’s deserts, where thousands have died of heatstroke, hallucinating in their final moments as their eyes’ blood vessels burst under the scorching sun. Reaching the US is no guarantee that the nightmares will cease.

“Five immigrant rights groups filed a complaint [last month] accusing US border officials of participating in the systemic abuse of unaccompanied migrant children detained near the southwest border, including physical and sexual abuse, painful shackling and denial of adequate food and water,” The Nation reported. One “17-year-old rape survivor who fled Guatemala said she was repeatedly harassed by [Customs and Border Protection] officials; one allegedly told her, ‘We’re going to put you on a plane, and I hope it explodes. That would be the happiest day of my life.’”

Current US law, implemented in 2008 with bipartisan congressional backing, results in apprehended Central American migrant children remaining in detention shelters for, on average, over a month, since they “cannot be deported immediately and must be given a court hearing before they are deported,” The New York Times reported. The available facilities became so crammed recently that arriving migrants are now housed on military bases, and “federal officials are searching the country for places to house them and have been forced to scrap some proposed shelter sites in California, Connecticut, Iowa, New York and other states because of widespread opposition from residents and local officials,” according to The New York Times. In the most infamous case, protesters in Murrieta, California, prevented buses carrying migrant children from reaching the border patrol’s processing center in town.

The crisis has proven no less contentious in Washington. “Obama is attempting to balance competing interests: reassure Americans that the migrants…will be sent home, while making clear to immigration advocates that the children will be given due process of law,” according to a Reuters article. Earlier this month the president requested $3.7 billion to these ends. Meanwhile his Republican opponents want to expedite the deportation process—that’s one of the core features of a bill Arizona’s two senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, are drafting.

But what’s missing from this debate—and therefore from public awareness—is the central role the US “drug war” plays in causing this exploding human tragedy. That fact is that US policies in Central America, the region of the world where Washington has operated largely unimpeded for well over a century, have promoted the deterioration of Northern Triangle societies, from which so many are now desperate to escape.

Consider last week’s charter flight from New Mexico to San Pedro Sula, Honduras, the city with the world’s highest murder rate. The plane, loaded with women and children, was intended to signal to Central Americans that they “will not be welcome to this country with open arms,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

But when marking this occasion, US officials said nothing about the June 2009 Honduran coup against elected President Manuel Zelaya. That overthrow was blatantly illegal, as its perpetrators and supporters acknowledged. Washington subsequently praised the nation’s flawed November 2009 presidential election, deeming it legitimate, and Obama hailed the restoration of Honduran democracy two years later. But in reality governmental repression has marked the years since the coup, as femicide and child murder escalate. And several observers have concluded that organized crime, which was one of the main beneficiaries of the Zelaya’s illicit ouster, is now in many cases currently indistinguishable from Honduran governmental institutions. El Heraldo, a Honduran newspaper, reported that the state’s law enforcement officials “have become allies of drug-traffickers and organized crime,” and pointed to “a long list of felonies committed by members of the national police.”

Protestors block buses of migrant children in Murrieta, Calif. Photo via

Protestors block buses of migrant children in Murrieta, Calif. Photo via (AP/The Press-Enterprise)

Three years ago, Marvin Ponce, vice president of the Honduran Congress, suggested that “up to 40% of [police] officers are involved in organized crime.” Similar problems plague El Salvador, where there’s speculation that the army is supplying the country’s gangs with M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles; just over a year ago, some 250 police “suspected of ties to drug trafficking” in the country were removed from their posts. And more than “300 community policing units in Guatemala operate illegally and some are engaged in the drug trade,” Marguerite Cawley wrote for InSight Crime, while reports reveal that criminal cash played a crucial role in influencing the 2011 Guatemalan election’s outcome.

The pervasiveness of drug traffickers in these Central American countries isn’t some feature of the natural landscape—to a great extent, it’s a legacy of US foreign policy. Over the past 15 years, for example, the US and Mexican governments have collaborated on measures allegedly intended to “break the power and impunity of criminal organizations.” The US provided $397 million to this end from 2000 to 2006 and $2.4 billion from 2008 to 2014. The result? Cocaine smuggling networks were displaced, not weakened. “Cocaine has been trafficked through Central America for decades, but the importance of the region to this flow increased dramatically after 2000 and again after 2006, due to an escalation in Mexican drug law enforcement,” a 2012 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) study concluded.

Like any powerful organization, the Mexican narcos don’t resign when a challenge confronts them. Instead, they adapt, and “traffickers have shifted their focus to new routes along the Guatemalan-Honduran border” as they battle for control of key routes through the region, UNODC noted.

The Sinaloa Cartel, for example, has an extensive worldwide presence, and “Central America was the first stop along [former leader “El Chapo”] Guzmán’s business plan for international expansion,” Samuel Logan wrote in a piece for West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. “It was a logical move to control relationships and territory in Guatemala and later Honduras that secured upstream access to one of his primary products: cocaine.” The Zetas, one of Sinaloa’s chief rivals, have also moved into the area, appearing in Guatemala in 2007 and, more recently, forging a partnership with MS-13, one of the major Salvadoran gangs.

These gangs are yet another product of repressive US foreign and domestic policies. Central Americans fleeing the region’s Washington-supported state terror campaigns in the 1980s, when tens of thousands of people were slaughtered by their own government, often fled to Los Angeles, where many formed gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13. President Clinton subsequently intensified US deportation programs targeting gang members, effectively exporting their violence to the Northern Triangle.

As in Mexico, the US promotes a militarized strategy—as opposed to, say, a public health approach—in the Northern Triangle via the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). One of the policy’s core goals is to “assist law enforcement and security forces to confront narcotics and arms trafficking, gangs, organized crime and border security deficiencies,” while breaking up trafficking networks. But supporting “security forces” against “organized crime” when there’s significant overlap between the two entities has proved a self-defeating strategy.

US policies have effectively empowered organized crime in Central America—both by pushing the cartels into new regions and by helping these organizations diversify their activities. President Bush’s post-9/11 militarization of the US-Mexico border, for example, drove up the crossing costs for migrants. Drug smugglers then pounced on the chance to reap new profits, using established drug traffickers to move humans over the international boundary and transforming informal migrant networks into a major business in the process. It’s believed that human trafficking brings in $15 to $20 billion annually for the cartels, making it their second-biggest funding source after illicit substances.

A recent article by Óscar Martínez, a Salvadoran journalist, quotes a “coyote”—someone migrants pay to guide them across the border—who ridicules the notion that tens of thousands of Central American children have arrived unaccompanied in the US. “It makes me laugh when the media says the children are alone. None of them go alone. The ‘polleros’—guides for undocumented US-bound migrants—bring all of them” over an international boundary dominated, on its southern side, by the cartels.

Migrant children warehoused in Nogales, Arizona Photo via

Migrant children warehoused in Nogales, Arizona Photo via

Organized criminal networks both funnel migrants north and fuel the displacement that causes the migration. They’re among the few winners in this tragedy developing on a staggering scale. Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “are experiencing the highest murder rates in the world today,” UNHCR explains. And the scope of Honduran carnage is almost unprecedented: Its “national murder rate in 2011 (92 per 100,000) is one of the highest recorded in modern times.” In Mexico, criminal elements drove 1.65 million people—roughly 2% of the country’s population—from their homes from 2006 to 2011. Violence uprooted the same proportion of the Salvadoran population in 2012.

Throughout the region, “organized crime and violence have overtaken armed conflict as the main causes of displacement,” according to a 2012 study by the International Center for Migrant Human Rights. Another report, by Vanderbilt University’s Latin America Public Opinion Project earlier this year, determined that “the increasing presence of drug trafficking organizations and the proliferation of street gangs” has effectively eliminated “citizen security in countries like Honduras and El Salvador”—a region where Washington exerts unparalleled influence.

But attention to the drug war as the cause of this cascade of calamities is almost entirely missing from current debates about the surge in Central American child migrants. Democrats and Republicans argue over whether the pace of deportation should be rapid or more drawn out, but there’s virtually no discussion of whether Washington should support militaristic policies in the region that create windfalls for criminal groups. Nor is there any talk about US economic policies, like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which devastated small farmers in Mexico, or its Central American counterpart, CAFTA-DR, which most experts agree “benefited local elites and global capital rather than the average citizens”—measures that have enabled the rise of drug trafficking economies.

Instead, US officials charter jets full of women and children to the world’s murder capital—a fitting encapsulation of Washington’s Central America policy, perhaps, but hardly a serious attempt to deal with the core issues the child migrant surge presents.

Nick Alexandrov is a PhD student in history at George Washington University. He writes regularly for CounterPunch and has contributed to The Asia Times. His previous article for Substance.com was about whether criminal prosecutions of bank execs would prevent banks from laundering money for drug cartels.