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How the US Props Up Criminals and Murderers All in the Name of Our Catastrophic Drug War

The US appears to be repeating its historically catastrophic strategy of propping up human rights abusers and simplistically relying on militarization to root out social problems.

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Rosa was 10 years old at the time. When her family returned to El Salvador five years later the government attempted to kill her mother, and in the process shot her brother.

Since that time Rosa has worked as a human rights activist in El Salvador’s notorious prison system–an explicit target of CARSI funding–reaching out to incarcerated gang members. While she credits the Funes administration for its efforts to stabilize the country, she feels the government is working to treat symptoms rather than an illness, “emphasis in the aid is not being put towards those type of programs that will help young people or anybody that’s involved in violence to [...] get out of that cycle.” She agrees work must be done to improve the rampant impunity plaguing El Salvador, but argues increased focus should be put on long-term, sustainable programs that provide young people with an education and create jobs. According to Anaya, a dearth of opportunity is robbing the region of hope, “It’s very hard for people to actually relate to positive things that they can do with their lives. People have no hope within the communities. Their hope is to be able to leave this country and get some money. And that’s not building society.”

Indeed, the absence of innovative, long-term strategies for peace is a primary concern among those who hope to see a better future for Central America. At its core, funding for security in the Northern Triangle fails to address the driving force behind instability in the region; the United States’ deeply-flawed, zero tolerance drug policy. Political leaders in the United States have consistently resisted conversations on the potential benefits of harm reduction strategies, increased treatment funding and decriminalization. As John Lindsay-Poland puts it, “I think there is an acute lack of imagination in the political class of the United States and its allies...They’re afraid to experiment, to try new things.” Instead the United States appears to be repeating its historically catastrophic strategy of propping up human rights abusers and simplistically relying on militarization to root out deep-seated social problems.

When asked why the United States continues to back this approach, Lindsay-Poland replied, “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

It’s time the U.S. pick up some new tools.

There is an overwhelming call among those who study the Northern Triangle, those who report on its challenges and those who live within its borders for radical changes in U.S. and international drug policy. Prohibition has failed. It drives the incentive for drug trafficking organizations seeking profit and stigmatizes those with addiction issues as criminals. The United States must seriously consider the wide range of policy options advocated by groups like the Global Commission On Drug Policy; a delegation of world leaders including the former presidents of Mexico and Colombia who are calling for new approaches to international drug policy. The so-called war on drugs is a war on poor people worldwide. It rewards only the most repugnant elements of civil society, and in the case of a Central America–a region as culturally precious as it is institutionally fragile–it represents an existential threat that is rapidly worsening.