Children are Harmed, Not Helped, by Unwinnable Drug War

After forty years and a trillion dollars, supporters of the drug war still claim that any discussion of legalization sends the “wrong message” to children.  

The truth, as seen in news from Mexico ever day, is that the drug war itself is killing children. And the message we send by not discussing alternatives is one of cruel indifference.

According to reports by The Washington Post and Associated Press, at least 1,000 boys and girls have been murdered since Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office and unleashed the army against drug traffickers – with the ready support of the United States. Tens of thousands more have been orphaned; so many in Chihuahua that the state government has set up a special fund to care for them.

Including these young victims, over 37,000 people have been killed since late 2006 in violence caused by drug prohibition in Mexico – similar to what the U.S. experienced during alcohol Prohibition, but far more deadly. Many have been migrants, like those found in mass graves which, as I write, continue to be unearthed in Tamaulipas and Durango; most have been young men and women just entering adulthood.

There’s another way the drug war is ruining the lives of Mexico’s young people: the emergence of something akin to the phenomenon of child-soldiers in other conflict-stricken countries.  Children as young as 14 are being forced or recruited into criminal activities ranging from serving as lookouts to hit men (“hit boys” to be precise).  Kids are also being recruited by paramilitary organizations and private security companies.  This tragic development is fueled by a lack of economic and educational opportunities in many Mexican communities, where live some 7 million youth who are referred to as ni-ni’s” (short for the Spanish phrase “ni estudian ni trabajan”, or hopeless youngsters that can “neither work nor go to school”). So-called ni-ni’s are easy recruits for jobs in the drug trade, as long as prohibition ensures such dangerous employment pays far more than the few other available options.

The trauma created by this violence is so pervasive that, in a drawing contest in Michoacán to celebrate Mexico’s bicentennial, 90% of children’s submissions instead were depictions of brutal killings and atrocities.

In the face of these child murders – or, for survivors, this death of innocence – the U.S. and Mexican governments remain unapologetic and unashamed in keeping their destructive course.  New DEA head Michele Leonhart, echoing Presidents Obama and Calderon, even has the audacity to claim these murders are a “sign of success.”

Her hollow words pay insult to those who have lost sons and daughters. Javier Sicilia, whose son, Juan Francisco, was murdered along with six other young people on March 28, described his family’s suffering in heartrending terms. “The pain…has no name, because it is fruit of something that does not belong in nature – the death of a child is always unnatural and that’s why it has no name: I don’t know if it is orphan or widow…it is simply and painfully nothing.”

In an open letter to the criminals who murdered his son, as well as the politicians of Mexico, Mr. Sicilia demanded an end to this unwinnable war and a respect for innocent lives.  His courage has catalyzed a protest movement across Mexico that is only growing stronger, with massive national marches against the drug war planned for May 8. U.S. citizens of conscience should express their support.

But Mr. Sicilia pleaded with us for more than that.  He called for the legalization of drugs to stop the violence that is devouring Mexico’s youth, writing, “We have to subject them to the ferocious laws of the market and treat their consumption as a public health matter.”

 We must heed his call – or at least have the courage and respect to discuss it.  Drug prohibition has claimed an unacceptable number of our southern neighbors—and now their children. A major first step would be to legalize marijuana, which is the leading source of profit for cartels that prey on Mexican children and terrorize Mexican society.

Because the real “wrong message” is letting children die and communities be destroyed by refusing to put all options on the table. 

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