The Positive Spill-Over of Mexico’s Prohibition on Migrant Family Detention

As the United States begins to figure out how to reunify migrant children it separated from their families during the Trump administration, they need to take a lesson from Mexico. Mexico is now implementing a new law that prohibits the detention of migrant children and families.

The law was passed in November of last year. Implementation has been uneven, which is not surprising as it requires changes in infrastructure and bureaucracy.

While execution is imperfect, Mexico is implementing the right idea. For years experts have been saying that detaining children, just because they are migrants, is not in the best interest of the child. Unnecessary detention hurts kids.

According to an article by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, “Detaining children harms their physical and psychological well-being. It has adverse effects on their development; might aggravate trauma experienced before arriving in the transit or destination country; and the constant control and surveillance they are subjected to may be very disturbing for them, increasing already high levels of mental distress.”

According to François Crépeau, UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, “Detention is never ever in the best interest of a child.”

In the policy advocacy profession, it is recognized that changing policy in one jurisdiction can produce a positive spill-over effect in another. We are starting to see this law impact the United States.

Under a rationale supposedly aimed at stopping people with Covid-19 from entering the United States, migrants and asylum seekers are blocked from entering the US and pushed back into Mexico. Implemented during the Trump Administration, but so far not reversed by the Biden Administration, this policy is an easy excuse to just say no.

Since the new Mexican law does not allow for the detention of children and families, Mexico has started pushing back on the United States. In the US, Covid-19 restrictions have limited detention capacity, so when Mexico refuses to take people back, there is a greater chance that the US. will have to release migrants pending their court dates. The result of Mexico’s new law is limiting the detention of migrant families in the US.

Immigrant advocates in the US. have been pushing for this country to use a case management strategy for released migrant families as an alternative to detention. Pilot projects have proven that these strategies can be effective and that migrants keep their court dates.

The implementation of Mexico’s law stopping the detention of migrant children and families is a great example of how respectful humanitarian migration policies in one country can have a positive impact on its neighbors. Let’s hope that’s the US takes Mexico’s lead and makes more humane approaches to migration the policy of the United States.

Originally published in La Reforma’s MexicoToday.com 2/15/21.

Something Good for the US-Mexico Border

In a piece of good news, the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act came out Congress and was signed into law on December 31, 2020. This bill, introduced by a wildly bi-partisan group of Senators — Republicans Cornyn of Texas, Tillis of North Carolina and Democrats (now Vice-President) Harris of California and Udall of New Mexico – is a step toward reuniting families with their loved ones whose lives were lost crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The plight of families of the disappeared is a familiar topic in Mexico. Less well known is the plight of families whose loved ones cross the border, never to be heard from again. The problem has existed for decades. When I lived in Honduras in the mid-1980s I knew a local carpenter who decided to make the journey north to the United States never to be heard from again. I can only assume that he was lost in the U.S. desert, or somewhere in Mexico.

Since the Clinton administration and its policy of “protection through deterrence,” the US has steadily tightened border security. As a result, migrants have sought more and more remote areas in which to cross. The remains of missing migrants are regularly found in remote parts of Arizona and South Texas.  

Since 2001, over 3,000 remains have been found in Pima County, Arizona. 227 migrant deaths were recorded there just last year, the highest number in the past decade. Using geospatial technology, the county Medical Examiner’s office in collaboration with a non-profit called Humane Borders, has produced a map pinpointing where each migrant was found along the Arizona border. If you don’t think that migrant deaths are a significant problem, take a look at the map. The density of the red identification dots is shocking.  

Not only is this tragic, it is hard to address. There are technical challenges to identification and then difficulty in linking remains with their families, most of whom are from Mexico or Central America. If families know where their loved one crossed the border, and if they can figure out how to get in touch with the Medical Examiner’s office or one of the local non-governmental organizations working on reunification, they have made it past the first hurdle.  Successful reunification is harder than you would think.

The obstacles to making identifications are complex. There is no international database facilitating this process. The U.S. DNA database – CODIS – is a criminal database, so undocumented families have been hesitant to store their information there. States also have their own databases. The responsibility for processing remains falls to the local authorities in the jurisdictions where the bodies are located. In Pima county, Arizona the local Medical Examiner has made downright heroic efforts, working with the Colibrí Center to identify remains and reunite families. 

In Texas, many of the remains have been found around the small town of Falfurrias, in Brooks county, one of the poorest in the nation. Texas has a completely different chain of responsibility for identifying and processing remains, which adds another level of complexity to the identification and reunification process. The Brooks County Sherriff’s office and the local South Texas Human Rights Center who do this work should be heralded. 

Universities and non-governmental organizations have stepped in and tried to wrangle this complex set of problems. A team of Argentine forensic anthropologists (EAAF) have also played a key role.  

The whole process is expensive and much of the cost falls on local communities. A study produced by the University of Texas at Austin found that it costs $13,100 to collect and process a single body in Texas. That doesn’t include the effort to reunite the remains with the family.

All of the above is context for the Missing Persons and Unidentified Remains Act. This bill makes certain government grants available for the processing of unidentified migrants. It makes clear that the DNA information from the families of missing migrants, run through CODIS to make identifications, cannot be used by law enforcement authorities to pursue undocumented families. This removes a big obstacle to identifications. Additionally, in an attempt to prevent migrant deaths, the bill provides funding for 170 rescue beacons. These are 9-1-1 signals which will be placed in remote areas and can be activated by lost migrants. The migrants will be detained if they use the beacons, but they won’t die, because border officials will respond to the rescue signals.

This bill has been discussed for about a decade. It is shameful that it has taken so long for it to become law. Nonetheless, it is an important accomplishment. And it only happened because of the persistence of local officials and non-governmental organizations like the Southern Border Communities Coalition who have advocated for practical solutions to this chronic tragedy. Thank you to these unsung heroes.  

First published in La Reforma’s MexicoToday.com 2/1/21.

Washingtonians and the Aftermath of Insurrection

“In these trying times” has been so often repeated over the last year that it has lost meaning. Take a look at Washington, DC these days and you’ll get a sense of what it means for those of us who call DC home. The storming of the Capitol and its aftermath are making us rethink our own exceptionalism and what democracy means.

Those who live in DC, like those who live in Mexico City are accustomed to a certain amount of disturbance as the norm. Protests are normal, motorcades block traffic and streets are closed for special events. We adjust. We consider ourselves hardy and these inconveniences the cost of calling the nation’s capital is our home. At the same time, Washingtonians resent the fact that we don’t get much respect. We don’t have voting representation in the House or Senate. Congress overrules decisions we make about local governance. Mexico City is far ahead of us on the issue of representation.

I’m going to take the liberty to speak for my neighbors in DC. The attack on the Capitol and subsequent militarization of Washington in preparation for the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Joseph Biden, has shaken us. There is a palpable sense of fear that the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters was not the end of violent protest, but that more will come.

Large swaths of downtown and Capitol Hill are blocked off by barricades. Much of the subway system is temporarily shut down. Every police force imaginable seems to be in the city. We even have sections of the city designated as “red” and “green” zones, leading locals to compare our existence to those living in Iraq. We say this half in jest and half in dread.  

Our sense of exceptionalism is being challenged at its core. We didn’t see this coming, even though we had plenty of warning about right-wing militia groups. We did not imagine that the Capitol could be overtaken, especially those of us who have spent a good deal of our lives waiting to pass through metal detectors to enter government buildings. These things happen in other countries, not here.

Since the storming of the Capitol, with Congress returning to business and some of those who took part in the riotous mob being arrested, I’ve heard analysts saying that “This is a sign that democracy is working.” Really?!! These people can’t live in DC. Militarizing the city for days to ensure a safe transfer of presidents is not what successful democracy looks like.  

Washingtonians also ponder what new restrictions on freedoms and movement will become normalized moving forward. Long-time residents remember when you could drive up and park in front of the White House and the Capitol. Then came the Oklahoma City bombing and the security parameters around federal buildings were expanded, no more parking close by. Then came 9/11, after which metal detectors became the norm and registration or pre-clearance were required for many buildings.

We don’t want the presence of the military in DC streets to become the new normal. The loss of freedoms, even militarization can happen slowly, event-by-event. Figuring out what our democracy will look and how we will protect an open society is the challenge before us. Instead of discounting the voice and vote of the locals, national policymakers should pay attention to those of us who live here. While disenfranchised, this is our city.

Originally published in La Reforma’s Mexicotoday.com 1/18/21. Photo by Adam Isacson.

Covid-19 and Kids

This has not been a fun year for anyone. I know that I have struggled. Let’s take the year’s end to reflect on what 2020 has meant for children on both sides of the border and what we can do to make this year a little less lost. 

Dealing with Covid-19 and the restrictions needed to protect our communities from the disease have hit kids particularly hard. Experts report that children have experienced: lost education, trauma, loss, grief, hunger, homelessness, depression and anxiety.  

When I’m having a hard day, I can remind myself that this won’t last forever. Kids don’t have years of experience to use as a reference. Adults have the advantage of viewing the pandemic losses in the context of lifelong experience and perspective whereas kids have little context to make them optimistic that things will be different.  

Reports of child abuse have actually gone down during the pandemic. That sounds odd.  Stressors that contribute to abuse, like unemployment and homelessness have increased.  

But think about it. Child abuse is often reported by adults in frequent contact with children who are trained to detect signs of abuse or neglect and required to report them – teachers, coaches and healthcare professionals. During the pandemic, many U.S. children only receive online education. In Mexico, public schools have suspended all in classroom learning. Many medical visits have also gone virtual. So, the adults most likely to report abuse, are not in regular contact with kids. 

Experts believe that child abuse has increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, it just isn’t getting reported. Countering the lack of official reporting of child abuse, UNICEF in Mexico reports an increase in 9-1-1 calls reporting family based violence.  CEPAL (the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) and UNICEF have raised the alarm that steps need to be taken to protect those at risk of violence during Covid-19.    

This is just the tip of the Covid iceberg in terms of impact on kids.  Many studies have shown that childhood adversity translates into problems later in life. The impact of 2020 will live with us for years to come. We will need to counter the negative impact with a multitude of solutions at the personal, local, state, federal and international levels. 

Rather than simply lamenting this lost year, here a few things you can do:

  1. Commit to do something to make a difference in a child’s life. Make a decision and follow through. There are plenty of opportunities around you. Seek them out.
  2. Abused and neglected children need adults who will step up on their behalf. Consider becoming a foster parent to kids in need. Foster parents are needed in both countries.
  3. If foster parenting is too much of a stretch, think about being a child advocate in the US court system. Every state has a program that is either called Guardian Ad Litem or Casa that trains volunteers to help the court determine what is in “the best interest” of an individual child when there is concern about abuse or neglect.
  4. Become a tutor. Almost every child has lost academic ground this year. Call your neighborhood school. 
  5. Support those working to help children. One organization in Mexico that needs your help is Adolesencia Feliz Evitando Callejerzación Infantil A.C. It works to prevent childhood and teenage homelessness.  One U.S. organization doing similarly good work is Covenant House. Make a donation.

The enormity of the problem is dispiriting. Don’t let the weight of the Covid year keep you from acting. Pick one thing to help a child that is in your power. Then do it. Who knows where it might lead.

Originally published in La Reforma’s MexicoToday.com 12/21/20.

The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission and the need for an intermestic approach to reform

In an effort to promote a rethink of US drug policy, Congress mandated a Commission to “conduct a comprehensive review of United States foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere to reduce the illicit drug supply and drug abuse and reduce the damage associated with illicit drug markets and trafficking.” The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission (WHDPC) report was released on December 1st.  What it says and what it doesn’t say are equally instructive.

First, what it says. The report makes a number of important recommendations that could put US drug policy formation on more constructive path.  They include:

  • Ending the drug certification and designation process, by which the US annually judges the drug control efforts of other nation. Understandably, this process is a regular source of irritation to the countries being judged by the largest drug consumer in the world.
  • In place of certification, working with countries to develop a “compact” that would identify mutual goals and responsibilities for both countries and provide a multi-year plan.
  • Moving the coordination of international drug policy to the Department of State instead of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP);
  • Changing ONDCP’s role to one of providing data analysis for international drug control efforts; and
  • Strengthening the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) so that it can better contribute to successful criminal prosecutions.

All of these things would be a step in the right direction toward US drug policy reform. If you want to learn more here is the link to the House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the report.  

Now, what the report doesn’t say – anything about domestic/US drug policy. Drug policy is a transnational issue if ever there was one. The damage created by illicit drugs runs the gamut from environmental destruction in production areas, corruption in transit areas, the personal impact of addiction and violence created at each stage of illicit commerce.  

Limiting the scope of the study is a missed opportunity. This was clearly a political rather than a policy decision. Those in Congress promoting this long-needed review of drug policy felt that if they made it truly a Western Hemisphere study (including the United States), that they wouldn’t be able to get the study approved by Congress.  It took them years to get approval for this study. Adding the US would have gotten it bogged down in too many congressional committees. Sadly, they were probably right.  

So let’s be clear.  This isn’t a study about illicit drugs in the Western Hemisphere, it is a study about illicit drugs south of the Mexico/US border. This is a very limited way to think about the problem. Consumption drives production. Considering that most of the drugs produced in the Western Hemisphere are headed for the United States, you can’t solve the problem in the south without addressing it north of the border.

Policy makers are well aware that the problems associated with illicit drugs have to be dealt with holistically but no one can seem to figure out how to make that happen. During the hearing the Commissioners kept talking about the need for a “whole of government” approach, which is US policy wonk speak for getting all agencies of the US government to work together. But, how can you have a whole of government approach on the international side when you aren’t dealing with drug consumption, trafficking or corruption in the United States.  

Many years ago, the ONDCP was established with the intention of making it the coordination point for drug policy.  It hasn’t worked.  The WHDPC recommends moving the international side of drug policy into the State Department, making it the coordinator of all things drug related on the international side. That might not be a bad idea, but it doesn’t solve the problem. We have to figure out how to think about drug issues in an “intermestic” way, as both an international and domestic problem. 

Implementation of this report is a step in the right direction, but we need to sprint toward a new transitional/intermestic approach to the damage caused by illicit drugs.

Originally published in La Reforma’s MexicoToday.com 12/7/20.

This is where AMLO pushes back?!

In mid-November the US Justice Department dropped previously filed drug charges against former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, paving the way for his return to Mexico.  My first thought upon reading this was, “So this is where AMLO chooses to push back against the United States?

There is no question that the Trump Administration has repeatedly bullied Mexico and that Mexico has implemented policies that got Trump off its back. But this latest role reversal, with Mexico apparently demanding that Cienfuegos be returned is both unusual and jarring.

There is a lot to unpack here and reasons for concern by the citizens of both our countries:

  1. Just a few weeks ago US prosecutors believed they had enough evidence to indict and arrest the former Defense Minister. That should be a matter of concern to both countries. If Cienfuegos is guilty, then we were running our counterdrug efforts with an institution whose leader was in cahoots with the traffickers. This should outrage us all because of how many lives have been lost in both countries to the drug war and to drug consumption.  
  2. How is it possible that Cienfuegos’s case was important enough for US prosecutors to avoid extradition and go straight to detaining the General as he passed through a US airport one month, and then unimportant enough to drop the charges the next.  Clearly, pressure was exerted on the US justice system. It is reported that none other than US Attorney General Barr made the decision to drop the charges. This is not how the U.S. justice system is supposed to work. 
  3. What does it mean for “justice” with respect to the specific charges brought against Cienfuegos? When the case was dropped in US,  it was done in such a way that Mexico “may” pursue charges against the General.  In US legal documents, you always have to watch out for the word “may.” They may. They may not. It is yet to be seen if the Mexican government will attempt to prosecute Cienfuegos.
  4. Why did AMLO decide that the US bullying should stop here? The Mexican president described the General’s arrest as a violation of sovereignty. So, returning a General accused of drug offenses is where Mexico draws the line on national sovereignty? It wasn’t on trade; it wasn’t on the wall; it wasn’t on water; and it certainly wasn’t to help Central American migrants. It was to protect the reputation of the Mexican military.
  5. All of the above points to the power of the military in Mexico and the United States. The prosecution of an accused drug trafficker became a matter of the highest level of national interest. The institution of the Mexican military was not going to be undermined by the United States. And, as I mentioned in a previous column about the arrest of Cienfuegos, the US/Mexico military-to-military relationship is both relatively new and extremely important to the US military.  The relationship itself is something that the US worked hard to establish and does not want undermined. 

Where one chooses to pick battles says a lot about their priorities. AMLO picked drug charges against a General as his line in the sand, and the Trump Administration sent the General home in what looks like an effort to prioritize the bilateral military relationship. 

The citizens of both countries have something to worry about when it comes to civil/military relations.

Previously published by MexicoToday.com 11/23/20.

The Need for Shared Values

We’ve all seen the street celebrations in the United States. Personally, I’m still waiting for the euphoria that comes with a win. Don’t get me wrong, I’m relieved that the election has been called for president-elect Joe Biden. But I still have this underlying sense of dread. Much of the turmoil that has gripped our nation in recent years, and especially this year, is roiling just beneath the surface in this country.

If this election has taught us anything, it is that the United States is a mess. We are horribly divided. The presidency has been called, but the legal challenges will continue. There is still a pandemic that is daily infecting record numbers of people. Racial frustrations cannot be ignored. And, almost half of U.S. voters think that it is okay for the president to lie about issues big and small.

Four years ago, when Trump won, I felt like I no longer understood the political context in my own country. I wasn’t alone. Dozens of books have been written attempting to explain what’s happening. I did a deep dive into the literature. It has covered the urban/rural divide, disaffected white men, identity politics, the loss of manufacturing jobs, etc.

I’ve gathered a lot of insights from this reading, but I’m not sure that I understand my country any better.

One thing I learned was that in trying to communicate across ideological differences, it doesn’t help to tell, or document for people, how wrong they are. Not surprisingly, “Science is on my side and you are an idiot,” doesn’t get us very far. For people to hear another’s perspective they need to connect at a values level. Once shared values are recognized, people can hear each other.

So, here’s my problem. Half of my fellow Americans support President Trump, who lies constantly and says horrible things about other people. Things that I wouldn’t tolerate coming from a five-year-old.

But let’s give the Trump supporters the benefit of the doubt; maybe they don’t think that lying is okay. Maybe they think that other things matter more – like the economy or ending abortion.

Either way, there is a value gap here that I struggle to surmount.

It is hard for me to imagine that Trump supporters are at home teaching their kids that lying is okay, that they should talk smack about others, and if they lose in sports that they should take their ball and go home, or better yet, contest the loss.

I think that we need to re-establish a sense of shared values. I don’t really know how to do that, but how about this? In 1990, Robert Fulghum wrote a book called, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Here are his top ten (some of which seem useful in a pandemic as well):

1. Share everything

2. Play fair

3. Don’t hit people

4. Put things back where you found them

5. Clean up your own mess

6. Don’t take things that aren’t yours

7. Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody

8. Wash your hands before you eat

9. Flush.

10. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you…”

As we embark on a new administration and winner takes all politics swing to the Democrats, let’s start each day with this list in mind.

First published in MexicoToday.com 11/9/20

What to Glean from an Arrest

Former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda was arrested at the Los Angeles International airport (LAX) on October 15th on drug and money laundering charges. This arrest concerns me on three levels. 

The most obvious concern, expressed by many, is that a former Minister of Defense is charged with being in cahoots with a drug cartel. The military has been considered the Mexican security body that was the cleanest. They were the go-to institution, the ones you could trust.  

I’ve always questioned this assumption of cleanliness. Think about it. The Mexican military has been eradicating poppies the same parts of the State of Guerrero for the past 50 years. Either eradication is not a constructive strategy, or there is serious corruption going on.  I suspect that both are true.  Anecdotally, I’ve also heard too many stories of corruption and human rights violations in the context of Mexican military counterdrug operations to believe that this institution is purer than the driven snow.

Second, if the former defense minister is guilty of drug charges, how untouchable must he have felt to risk traveling to the United States? He would understand better than most the extensive surveillance efforts that are part of U.S. counterdrug operations. So, either he is: not guilty or thought he was untouchable.  

Why might a defense minister think that he is untouchable in the United States? My guess would be because of the importance to the U.S. of its relationship with the Mexican military. For decades, the U.S. had little contact with the Mexican military.  While the U.S. had military assistance and training programs throughout the hemisphere, it had none with Mexico. That changed under President Ernesto Zedillo, when national interests aligned as he declared drug trafficking to be Mexico’s number one national security concern.

The US/Mexico military relationship is critically important to the United States. I recall a visit to the Northern Command in the years after the establishment of cooperation.  The US personnel I interviewed were almost giddy about the collaboration. For them, it was (and I think still is) critically important to have a close relationship with the armed forces of bordering nations. My view at the time was that the relationship itself became an end in itself, and not a means to an end.  

I don’t know what happened in the case of Cienfuegos, but if guilty, it is not hard to imagine that he felt he had a special relationship with the United States. 

Lastly, why did the Mexican government not seem to know that this arrest was coming? Instead of presenting whatever damning information the U.S. had to the Mexican government and ask them to prosecute, or request extradition, U.S. authorities laid-in-wait for him at LAX. In this case, and a few other recent cases, it seems that that the AMLO administration was not notified that an arrest was coming. One can draw two conclusions. Either the U.S. did not believe that the evidence would be held in confidence, or they did not believe that the government would pursue prosecution. 

I suspect that level of trust between our two nations leaves something to be desired. One of the great tensions in the bi-national pursuit of counterdrug operations has always been information sharing. Information sharing requires trust.

My take-aways from the Cienfuegos arrest are this. If he is guilty: 1) we need to get over the idea that the Mexican military is institutionally clean; 2) there is tremendous arrogance in corruption and idea of a special relationship can be problematic; and 3) whether he is guilty or not: trust between our countries is on the rocks.

First published in MexicoToday.com 10/27/20

What Does Mexico Want?

As the US presidential election draws near, I keep wondering, “What does Mexico want out of its relationship with the United States?”

Since the beginning of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration, the results are consistent. When conflict arises between the two countries, Mexico agrees to what the US demands. Victory is declared by both sides and we all move on.  

This has happened on migration, trade and most recently water.  

It begs the question, what does Mexico want? Or better yet, how does the AMLO government define national interest in the bilateral relationship? The one message that has been clear is that Mexico doesn’t want conflict with the United States – at least not during a Donald Trump administration. Conflict avoidance is not a policy.

God only knows who will win the US presidential election. Pollsters tell us that it is likely to be former Vice President Joe Biden. I’m leery of betting the farm on polling after the 2016 election. Furthermore, there are too many possible scenarios for legal challenges to the election results. Add to that President Trump’s statements already calling into question the results before the election has even happened.

Now I have to take a deep calming breath.

Clearly there is a great deal of uncertainty about the political future of the United States.  That is exactly why Mexico should be laying out its priorities for the US/Mexico relationship. The conflict avoidance policy pursued by the AMLO administration has brought Mexico into alignment with the Trump Administration. This has not gone unnoticed by those in the Biden camp. They see this practice as outlandish, and found AMLO’s trip to Washington in July, mid-pandemic, to be the offensive icing on the cake.

It is one thing to appear coerced into being non-confrontational with Trump, because Mexico has bigger domestic fish to fry and doesn’t need the burden of a confrontation with the United States. It is another thing to have an in-person press event, during both a pandemic and US election season, in which you praise the sitting President, even if it is around the signing of a trade agreement.  

What are Mexico’s priorities for a new administration or a second Trump administration?  Does Mexico want an immigration policy like that defined at the beginning of the AMLO administration, based on respect and opportunity for migrants in Mexican territory? Is Mexico satisfied with being a proxy for US border security? What about the rights of Mexican workers in the United States?  Will Mexico push the US to take serious action against US arms trafficking into Mexico? 

In foreign policy terms, the US election is a challenge for the AMLO administration. It might need to rethink its strategy. A Biden presidency could create the space for Mexico to embrace a set of policies more closely based on Mexico’s national interest, but that interest needs definition. Soon we will see if Mexico forges its own path, or if AMLO’s foreign policy goes down in history as “go along to get along.”

Published in MexicoToday.com 10/12/20

The Majors List or the Pot Calling the Kettle Black

The US has a hypocritical and downright offensive practice that is part of its national drug policy.  It is called the “Majors List.” Required by law, each year the Administration must publish a list of major drug producing and transiting countries, and then determine whether or not countries are making substantial progress in improving their counter drug efforts. 

The annual presidential determination on the Major’s List was published in mid-September. Twenty-two countries were determined to be major producers or transit countries.  Of those, 17 are in Latin America or the Caribbean. The determination has ten paragraphs addressing specific countries, half of which are dedicated to Mexico. The Mexico section concludes with this warning, “Unless the Mexican government demonstrates substantial progress in the coming year backed by verifiable data, Mexico will be at serious risk of being found to have failed demonstrably to uphold its international drug control commitments.”

If countries are judged not to be trying hard enough, the US must cut off aid to that country, unless the continuation of aid is in the US national security interest. 

Who is trying hard enough is always a political question. This year, Venezuela and Bolivia were found to be wanting, but both were given the national security waiver.  Since the US has recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, they would technically have been cutting off aid, to his government, not the Maduro Administration, which actually controls drug policy. In practical terms that makes no sense. For years the government of Evo Morales in Bolivia rejected US assistance and developed its own rationale for control of coca leaf production as it is traditionally chewed as a mild stimulant, like coffee.  But Morales is no longer president, clearing the way for a Bolivian drug strategy more consistent with the US vision. Not found to be wanting this year is Honduras whose President, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been credibly linked to drug trafficking and whose brother was convicted in the US of drug trafficking just last year.

Furthermore, this process is the pot (the US) calling the kettle (other Latin American countries) black.

The title of World’s Biggest User is difficult to calculate because it depends on: the drug; the calculation method (per capita or total); the regularity of use (casual vs. lifetime user), etc.  There is no escaping that the United States is high (pun intended) on the list and has a serious illicit drug problem. 

If the US had fewer consumers, production and trafficking in other countries would be reduced. 

What’s the US’s responsibility to countries impacted by its consumption?  How often do we hear about the illicit drug trafficking that happens throughout the United States? It isn’t like all of our users wait at the ports of entry to pick up their drugs. 

Then there is marijuana. While we judge the “progress” other countries are making to stop the trafficking of marijuana, medical marijuana is legal, in some form, in 47 of the US 50 states.  Recreational marijuana is legal in 11 states and another 16 have decriminalized its use.  

If we are going to look rationally at the illicit global drug problem we need to be a lot more honest about the problem and how the illicit businesses constructed around it work. 

For example, how dangerous is the consumption of cannabis compared to legal drugs like alcohol or tobacco?  Should we focus on the drugs causing the most harm? At the moment in the US that would be fentanyl. What about the impact of violence and corruption that accompany illicit businesses?

The Major’s List, based on a theory of change that sees the public shaming and threating and aid cut-off, doesn’t work. It creates diplomatic annoyance and hostility around a problem that can only be addressed through international cooperation. 

If the US keeps the Majors List, I would like to see the countries of Latin America, like Mexico, who are currently being called out, start their own annual evaluation of how successful the United States is in dealing with its own illicit drug problem. That would be fair.

First published in MexicoToday.com 9/28/20