Most attentive parents today rarely allow their children to go unsupervised, particularly in public. It starts with the wireless baby monitor for the crib and ends with the ever-present cell phone at college graduation.
This is what makes reports from the US-Mexican border so perplexing to most Americans. It is hard to believe that parents would send their children, even young children, to travel many hundreds of miles, up to 1,600 miles without guardianship, or under the control of “mules” who guide the children with the hope of a safe voyage to the United States.
The journey is both harsh and dangerous. The northern regions of Central America (i.e., Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) and Mexico are some of the most dangerous areas of the world. The climate can be harsh, roads and travel conditions are mostly poor, and the children are subjected to robbers, kidnappers, rapists, government police and soldiers, drug cartel members, and bandits of all sorts.
As unbelievable as it seems, Central American parents are sending their children, or more often asking their children to join with them in the United States, in large numbers. In many cases the children flee on their own accord without any guardian.
A decade ago US Border Patrol agents apprehended only several hundred unaccompanied children per year. Over the last nine months they have caught nearly 50,000. Official estimates project the capture rate to reach 10,000 per month by this fall. Those numbers actually hide the enormity of the problem because historically the problem was largely restricted to Mexican children who could be immediately returned to Mexico. During the last couple of years, the majority of growth has come from children from Central American countries and these must be processed and turned over to the Office of Refugee Resettlement (part of HHS).
One suggested reason for the explosion of child immigrants from Central America is the perception and rumors that children from Central America who cross the border will receive a “proviso” which might suggest a permit to stay in the US legally. However, it seems that the proviso is really just a notice to appear in immigration court for deportation proceedings. Whether this gives the children more time in the US, or whether it increases the probability of them being allowed to stay in the US for humanitarian reasons is unclear. In one report, only 1 of 404 children specifically mentioned the possibility of benefiting from US immigration reform.
Even if the proviso rumor was having an impact, it does not explain why the children and their parents would risk such a dangerous journey in the first place.
The Role of the Drug War
The underlying cause for this mass dangerous migration is the US’s war on drugs. Central American countries have become the conduit by which illegal drugs move from South America across the US border. Unlike conventional media sources, who will sometimes vaguely mention violence and instability in Central America as a cause, The Economist  quite correctly found the source of the problem in America’s war on drugs:
Demand for cocaine in the United States (which, unlike that in Europe, is fed through Central America), combined with the ultimately futile war on drugs, has led to the upsurge in violence. It is American consumers who are financing the drug gangs and, to a large extent, American gun merchants who are arming them. So failing American policies help beget failed states in the neighbourhood.
The result has been that the drug cartels have a great deal of control over much of northern Central America. The cartels control the governments, judges, police forces, and even some prisons and some of the military through a combination of bribery, threats, and outright force.
As a consequence of this control drug gangs and cartels can operate in the open or they can operate deep within the jungle beyond the reach of the law. In turn, the drug cartels can act above the law and as a result they have created a culture of violence, building on the civil wars of previous decades.
The countries in the northern Central American region, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, have the highest murder rate of any region in the world. The region’s murder rate is 7.5 times the murder rate of the North American region.
Globally, the top murder rate in any given year since the 1990s has been Honduras or El Salvador. In 2012, nearly 1 out of every 1,000 citizens in Honduras was murdered. In addition to murder, there are high rates of other types of violence, crime, and intimidation. A very large percentage of the entire Salvadoran-born population has migrated, mostly to the United States.
In addition to violence, the war on drugs has been a disruptive force for the Central American economies. After reading about the region, is anyone likely to make travel plans to go there, or to consider opening a business there? Obviously, the war on drugs has been highly disruptive for job creation, commerce, and international investment outside the drug cartels themselves. Therefore it would be more correct to say that it is not so much the attraction of opportunities in the US, but the lack of and reduction in opportunities in Central America that are spurring emigration, and that this is directly linked to the war on drugs.
When you try to make sense of parents sending their children on such a dangerous undertaking, just remember it is just another despicable result of the war on drugs with few solutions.
The Economist recommends the repeal of the war on drugs and the legalization of drugs globally as the solution. Its second best solution is for the United States to finance an effort to rebuild the institutions (i.e., police, courts, prisons, etc.) and infrastructure (i.e., military, transportation, and education systems) in the countries of Central America:
Such schemes will not, however, solve the fundamental problem: that as long as drugs that people want to consume are prohibited, and therefore provided by criminals, driving the trade out of one bloodstained area will only push it into some other godforsaken place. But unless and until drugs are legalised, that is the best Central America can hope to do.
In other words, ending the war on drugs is the only solution.
 “The drug war hits Central America: Organised crime is moving south from Mexico into a bunch of small countries far too weak to deal with it,” The Economist, April 14, 2011.
Mark Thornton is a senior resident fellow at the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and is the book review editor for the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He is the author of The Economics of Prohibition, coauthor of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War, and the editor of The Quotable Mises, The Bastiat Collection, and An Essay on Economic Theory. Send him mail. See Mark Thornton’s article archives.
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