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The Youngest Victims of the Drug War at Home and Abroad

Perhaps the terrible truth of drug war violence will finally be addressed as all of America bore witness this summer to the horror of some 52,000 unaccompanied children who were fleeing devastating violence that had erupted in Central America.  Alone, they had braved the treacherous crossing of the border that divides America from Mexico and most of us first encountered them when we saw the smallest of children, terrified, and being held in cages.  Those images put before our national consciousness the most heart-wrenching cost of the American taxpayer funded drug war: how it displaces and disassembles the lives of defenseless children.  But the truth children have always been casualties of this failed war, both in Central and Latin America, and here in the U.S.

In Latin America, the core of this crisis faced by children in vulnerable communities is directly linked to the longstanding drug prohibition policies, which are as failed and dangerous today as they were in Chicago during alcohol’s prohibition during the 1920s. Yet, the United States employs tactics as wrongheaded and deadly now as they were then. As we did then, we are engaged in a hyperbolically militarized law and order campaign to combat drug trafficking.  Now, like then, it’s an utter failure.  Most people did not stop drinking if they were inclined to drink then, and today, those inclined to get high, do. But more lives than we may ever be able to count have been destroyed.  Murder rates and the numbers of those disappeared have left a terrible haunting that hangs like a heavy tarp across the future of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters who want only to something other than despair.  And major regions of Central America are destabilized now, along with the opportunities for creating viable livelihoods.  This is what leaves parents so desperate that they send their children on the perilous journey to the U.S. in search of refuge and safety.  They only want their babies to live, to have a chance.

Just like us.

Here in America, where drug war monies have disrupted primarily African American communities, Black parents clamor and pray for opportunities not afforded their precious young ones.  Instead of African American communities being provided with jobs, resourced schools, sports and arts programs and other stabilizing institutions, they’ve gotten excessive and biased policing.  Despite roughly equal drug use across the races. African Americans are subjected far out of proportion to incarceration and criminalization.  Theirs has been the experience of a criminal justice system on steroids; indeed the U.S. incarcerates more people for drug law offenses than Western Europe incarcerates for all offenses combined, and African Americans represent over 40 percent of those numbers despite being 13 percent of the population.  And here, among the forgotten many who bear the burden of these policies, are the children, who are often displaced from their homes and separated from a beloved parent who perhaps—and only perhaps—needed a public health intervention, not a criminal one.  Every night in America, 2.7 million children are growing up in a home in which one or more parents are incarcerated, two-thirds of which are for nonviolent offenses – including a substantial proportion who are behind bars for a drug law violation.

We hope that this terrible moment before us – with children sleeping on floors in cages at the border, and children going to bed without their mothers and fathers in what is widely acknowledged now a new system of Jim Crow – that we can finally stand together as one nation, setting aside the disingenuous politics of fear and stigma and demonstrate a real commitment to family values by putting the most vulnerable among us – our beloved children – at the center of our policies on drugs, incarceration and immigration.

Asha Bandele is the director of the advocacy grants program at the Drug Policy Alliance and the best-selling author of the Prisoner’s Wife
Jerónimo Saldaña is coordinator with the Drug Policy Alliance’s movement building team.

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