What would you risk for a better life?
That’s a question Central Americans have been grappling with for decades. Most have two choices. They can head north in search of that better life in the U.S. Or they can seek economic opportunity in the only industries thriving in the region—organized crime and narcotics trafficking.
U.S. policies are largely to blame for this dysfunction. For over a century, the U.S. government has supported Central American neocolonial dictatorships, whose rampant corruption has destroyed local economies. For example, the U.S. last year sent more than $162 million in aid to Honduras, whose dubiously elected President the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York has connected to drug trafficking.
The good news is that better U.S. policy—one that more directly engages our Central American neighbors—can help solve these crises.
Consider the dramatic uptick in the number of adults and children, particularly from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, seeking asylum at our southwestern border. People from these three countries accounted for more than seven of every 10 apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border in fiscal year 2019.
Some Americans perceive these migrants as threats to national security. But as we have learned over the past two years while traversing Central America to film our new documentary, Blood on the Wall, nothing could be further from the truth.
The individuals we met didn’t leave the only homes they’d ever known by choice. They fled to avoid rape, injury, or death at the hands of violent gangs, in hopes of finding better economic opportunities and safety in the U.S.
This was certainly true for Ludy, a 17-year-old young woman from Honduras who made the trek north with her boyfriend. It was true for Sara, too, who traveled on foot from Guatemala to the U.S. with her grandchildren and her daughter Charol.
Much of the violence they’re fleeing stems from the international drug trade. Mexico is the leading source of heroin and methamphetamine for the American market. It’s also the chief distributor of cocaine—much of which is produced in South and Central America—and the top foreign source of marijuana.
Drug cartels and street gangs have supplanted the government in some regions. Their frequent clashes with one another—as well as rampant government corruption—have destroyed any semblance of justice across large swaths of Latin America.
We spent days with drug traffickers and gunmen like Rafa, a hit man for the Sinaloa Cartel. He and his colleagues aren’t sociopaths. They’re people born into impossible circumstances. The drug trade is one of the only realistic ways to support their families and put food on the table.
American policies have failed people on both sides of the border. Stricter border enforcement, such as the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants, has only compounded the suffering of those fleeing Central America.
And the decades-long war on drugs has done little to curb Americans’ insatiable demand for illicit substances. Almost 71,000 Americans died from overdoses last year. Nor has it diminished the power or ruthlessness of the cartels. There were 34,500 murders in Mexico last year—the highest total on record. The vast majority are drug-related and go unsolved.
Legalizing drugs or liberalizing U.S. immigration policy wouldn’t sufficiently address the drug and migrant crises. Legalization may create a demand bubble before tax and regulatory policies, along with health services, can catch up. Relaxing U.S. immigration policy could incentivize human smugglers to step up their operations, in a bid to maintain profits, as penalties—and per capita fees—decrease.
The only way to sustainably solve these crises is to improve living conditions in Central America and Mexico, so people don’t feel compelled to flee or join the drug trade in the first place. That will require nothing short of a Mexican and Central American Marshall Plan, not unlike the American effort to rebuild Europe in the wake of World War II, and a sincere effort to eliminate corruption by kleptocratic politicians.
No child dreams of fleeing north in a migrant caravan, growing up to become a cartel hit man, or collecting “rent” for a street gang. People take these desperate actions only when they have no other options.
American policy helped create this tragic situation. It’s time we commit the resources to end it.
Sebastian Junger is an Academy Award–nominated director, bestselling author, and journalist.
Nick Quested is an Emmy Award–winning filmmaker and DuPont Award winner.
Their documentary Blood on the Wall will premiere on National Geographic on Sept. 30.