“This crisis [Central American children] was born of American self-indulgence.” Mary Anastasia O’Grady
“Venezuela, under Hugo Chavez, began facilitating the movement of cocaine from producing countries in the Andes to the U.S., also via Central America.” Ibid
Some of these are talking heads of conservative punditry who seem to know zip about the region and show no interest in learning. They wing it, presumably because they believe their viewers and listeners will never know the truth and don’t care. What matters is proving that the large number of unaccompanied minors piling up at the border is President Obama’s fault for somehow signaling that they would not be turned back. The origins of the problem are deemed unimportant and the fate of the children gets even less attention.
Thank heaven for four-star Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly, who knows something about war and failed states and now heads the U.S. military’s Southern Command, which keeps an eye on the region. He has spent time studying the issue and is speaking up. Conservatives may not like his conclusions, in which the U.S. bears significant responsibility, but it is hard to accuse a four-star of a “blame America first” attitude.
To make the “Obama did it” hypothesis work, it is necessary to defeat the claim that the migrants are fleeing intolerable violence. This has given rise to the oft-repeated line that “those countries” have always been very violent.
That is patently untrue. Central America is significantly more dangerous than it was before it became a magnet for rich and powerful drug capos. Back in the early 1990s, drugs from South America flowed through the Caribbean to the U.S.
But when a U.S. interdiction strategy in the Caribbean raised costs, trafficking shifted to land routes up the Central American isthmus and through Mexico. With Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s war on the cartels, launched in 2007, the underworld gradually slithered toward the poorer, weaker neighboring countries. Venezuela, under Hugo Chávez, began facilitating the movement of cocaine from producing countries in the Andes to the U.S., also via Central America.
In a July 8 essay in the Military Times headlined “Central America Drug War a Dire Threat to U.S. National Security,” Gen. Kelly explains that he has spent 19 months “observing the transnational organized crime networks” in the region. His conclusion: “Drug cartels and associated street gang activity in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which respectively have the world’s number one, four and five highest homicide rates, have left near-broken societies in their wake.” He notes that while he works on this problem throughout the region, these three countries, also known as the Northern Triangle, are “far and away the worst off.”
With a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 in Honduras, and 40 per 100,000 in Guatemala, life in the region is decidedly rougher than “declared combat zones” like Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the general says the rate is 28 per 100,000.
How did the region become a killing field? His diagnosis is that big profits from the illicit drug trade have been used to corrupt public institutions in these fragile democracies, thereby destroying the rule of law. In a “culture of impunity” the state loses its legitimacy and sovereignty is undermined. Criminals have the financial power to overwhelm the law “due to the insatiable U.S. demand for drugs, particularly cocaine, heroin and now methamphetamines, all produced in Latin America and smuggled into the U.S.”
Gen. Kelly agrees that not all violence in the region is linked to the drug trade with the U.S., but “perhaps 80% of it is.” That’s because of the insidiousness of the vast resources of kingpins. It’s “the malignant effects of immense drug trafficking through these non-consumer nations that is responsible for accelerating the breakdown in their national institutions . . . and eventually their entire society as evidenced today by the flow of children north and out of the conflictive transit zone.”
That migrant children are drawn to the U.S. when they decide to flee may very well have to do with the fact that they believe they will be able to stay because of an asylum law for children passed in 2008 during the presidency of George W. Bush. But refugees from the Northern Triangle are seeking other havens as well. According to Marc Rosenblum of the Migration Policy Institute in Washington, from 2008-13 Honduran, Guatemalan and Salvadoran applications for asylum in neighboring countries—mostly Mexico and Costa Rica—are up 712%.
Gen. Kelly writes that the children are “a leading indicator of the negative second- and third-order impacts on our national interests.” Whether the problem can be solved by working harder to bottle up supply, as the general suggests, or requires rethinking prohibition, this crisis was born of American self-indulgence. Solving it starts with taking responsibility for the demand for drugs that fuels criminality.
Write to O’Grady@wsj.com