The thousands of Central American children being apprehended along our southern border are the refugees from our own War on Drugs, fleeing grotesque violence that is the direct product of our failed policy of interdiction. Until we alter our drug strategy, we can expect more murder and mayhem south of our border -- and greater numbers of immigrants fleeing north for safety.
A decade ago, Los Angeles Times reporter Sonia Nozario won the Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles and a book, "Enrique's Journey," about the Honduran children who flee to the United States atop northbound Central American freight trains -- "el tren de la muerte," or "the train of death" where homicide, rape and vicious assault are common.
In those days, Nozario documented, the journey was an economic one, brought on by crushing poverty at home and a desire to join parents who had fled north years before. Today, however, the 10-year-olds who flee Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are fleeing a vicious war that is being waged in their schoolyards and on their streets.
In testimony last month before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Nozario described her first visit in 10 years to the Nueva Suyapa neighborhood of Tegucigalpa, Honduras:
"I saw a huge change in why children are migrating north to the U.S., a level of violence directed at them that honestly astounded me. I have lived through Argentina's dirty war and ridden on top of seven freight trains controlled by gangs through most of Mexico. I am not easily spooked. But after a week, I thanked God that I got out ... in one piece."
Like the child soldiers of Sudan, children as young as 10 are being forced into service by the narco-cartels. The consequences are real: children are routinely being kidnapped, decapitated, hacked apart and skinned alive.
There is a direct relationship between decades of failed U.S. drug interdiction, the spread of drug-related violence in Mexico and Central America, and the thousands of children now being detained along the border. The children being held at detention facilities along the border and being shuffled off to sponsors throughout the U.S. are America's drug war chickens come home to roost.
Throughout the 50-year history of the drug war, the policy of interdiction has taught us one thing: as the U.S. applies pressure to stop the flow of drugs in one place, ferocious brutality and corruption emerge somewhere else, as rival cartels battle for new distribution routes.
The U.S. spent billions to disrupt the Colombia-to-Florida narcotics trade, only to see the cartels move transit routes inland , through Central America and Mexico, accompanied by appalling levels of violence.
Total civilian casualties from the drug war in Mexico alone since the 2005 Mérida Initiative have averaged between 11,000 and 18,000 each year. To put those numbers into perspective, consider that even the lower figure represents more innocent civilians killed than compelled NATO to intervene in Kosovo in 1999 or Libya in 2011.
Meanwhile, the United States looked increasingly tempting to Mexicans and Central Americans under siege.
The number of Mexicans entering the United States more than doubled in the first 10 years of the drug war, from 760,000 in 1970 to 2.2 million in 1980; by last year, the numbers of Mexicans immigrating to the United States topped 11.5 million, along with 1.2 million Salvadorans and 800,000 Guatemalans.
Yet American policy-makers blindly cling to their quixotic belief that, with more money and heavier artillery, they can "win" the drug war.
In recent testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, General John F. Kelly, head of the U.S. Southern Command, sought an additional 16 ships to launch additional helicopters to patrol the Caribbean. Even with the billions of dollars that have already been spent on interdiction of narcotics from Colombia, Gen. Kelly said, the military is only able to interdict about 20 percent of the drugs leaving Colombia for the U.S., while the rest gets through.
The goal, General Kelly said, is to reduce drug supply from Latin America by 40 percent, which officials believe would be sufficient to cut into the profits of the cartels and perhaps turn them against one another -- likely setting in motion even more violence.
It's time to stop the insanity. As we are already beginning to see with marijuana, our best hope to collapse the power and influence of the drug gangs is to take control of the market ourselves by legalizing and regulating drugs, and to treat the problem of abuse as a public health matter, not a criminal one.
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