What would you do to keep gang members away from your children?
Do you try to keep your children safe from kidnappers and molesters?
Would you willingly part with your children knowing you might never see them again?
Parents in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are taking extreme measures to protect their children. They are willing to part with them to keep them safe and give them a chance for a better life. Their home countries are among the poorest in the world, giving them few opportunities to improve life on their own. Unless people are willing to work for the drug cartels many remain unemployed. Their governments are too weak to control drug related violence ravaging the entire region.
The surge in immigrant children crossing America’s southern border recently grabbed headlines although Central American immigrants have been increasing notably since at least 2008. Hence their appearance in the three countries from where the immigrant children are coming. All of these problems have been building for years. As the Mexican government stepped up its attacks on the cartels, drug kingpins began moving their operations into Central America as early as 2008.
Increased drug trade correlates with the spike in violent deaths. El Salvador’s murder rate, already one of the higher ones in the world, jumped 37 percent in 2009. That increase was due almost entirely to wars among drug-trafficking organizations moving to the region. El Salvador’s defense minister, David Munguía Payés, states bluntly, “The more pressure there is in Mexico, the more the drug cartels will come to Central America looking for a safe haven.”
Los Zetas, a drug gang turned cartel, is believed to have expanded from Mexico to 11 Latin American countries. In December 2010 Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom had declared a “state of siege” in Alta Verapaz, an especially violent province near the border with Mexico, contending that the Zetas had overrun that province. They continue to take hold in other Guatamalan states. The more established Gulf Cartel and Los Zetos are having bloody turf battles, adding to the cruelty and loss of life.
It is not any better in Honduras. San Pedro Sula in Honduras has a murder rate of 187 per 100,000 people. “Honduras is actually the murder capital of the world,” says Mark Lopez from the Pew Research Center. By contrast the murder rate in the United States, for example is about 4.2 per 100,000.
The United States estimated in 2012 that 75 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights departing South America first land in Honduras. The Caribbean coastal region of Honduras is a primary landing zone for drug-carrying flights and maritime traffic. The region is vulnerable to narcotics trafficking due to its remoteness, limited infrastructure, lack of government presence, and weak law enforcement institutions.
Country Report: Honduras, Bureau of International Narcotics And Law Enforcement Affairs, 2014 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR)
This is not to say the U.S. has ignored the region’s need for support in fighting the drug trade. Through the Central American Regional Security Initiative it has invested financial support, with much of it paying to provide gear and training for its Central American partners. The Central American Regional Security Initiative funds counter-drug units, or TAG (Transnational Anti-Gang) teams comprised of agents from the FBI and the Drug Enforcement Administration, who partner up with local police to investigate drug trafficking, weapons smuggling and money laundering.
Whether the U.S. should provide this aid to fight the cartels does not change the effect they are having today.
One by one desperate families are dealing with the threats to their children in one of the few ways available to people who are already living in poverty. They are sending their children north toward the U.S. Mexican border. They pay human smugglers, known as “coyotes,” to transport children by bus toward the border. U.S. authorities claim that human smugglers are at the heart of the current border crisis because they have facilitated the travels of the 57,000 unaccompanied immigrant children who’ve been apprehended in South Texas since October. The coyotes will even help smaller children manage their inner tubes when they cross the Rio Grande so they won’t drown.
One coyote who calls himself El Lobo (the wolf) revealed to one reporter that they take care of the children to maintain a good reputation so parents will entrust them with their children. He can charge $2,500 per child. In fact, not only are coyotes moving the children away from the risky lives in Central America, they pay a fee to Los Zetos or the Gulf Cartel to allow them safe passage.
Drug trafficking is a global enterprise. It also happens in our own backyards, whether we live in inner cities or suburbs. We have been spending billions every year for decades for our “war on drugs.” Americans grieve for mothers, fathers, sons and daughters who grow dependent on drugs. Should we really be so outraged that parents are sending their children here?
The public is appropriately appalled when we learn an American child has been abused and tortured. We search our souls when the stories come out, wondering how we didn’t know it was happening in the house next door.
Well, it is happening next door. The children have crossed a street hundreds of miles wide to escape it. We can do better than treat them like miniature criminals masterminding an invasion into America. What does it say about us when the coyotes take better care of their charges than we will?