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The US's drug war has devastated Latin America. Univision's Democratic debate ignored it.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at Univision's Democratic debate.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at Univision's Democratic debate.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Democratic debate on Wednesday, hosted by the Spanish-speaking network Univision, offered a unique time to ask candidates about US policies and how they affect the country's Hispanic population. The debate largely lived up to that, fielding questions about immigration, Cuba, and Puerto Rico.

But there was one big issue missing from the debate, as it has been from the rest of the 2016 campaign: the US-led war on drugs. Specifically, no one asked Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders one of the biggest questions facing Latin America today: How have US drug policies contributed to violence in the region, and what steps would you take to change that?

Crime and violence are big issues in Latin America. Clinton, Sanders, and the moderators brought it up at different points. This violence has contributed to mass migrations to the US, including the child migrant crisis in 2014. And a 2016 study links Mexico's war on drugs, which the US has financially and materially supported, with the halting — and, for men, partial reversal — of the country's six-decade rise in life expectancy.

It is not unfair to say that America's policies have directly contributed to this horrible statistic. In fact, US drug policies are essentially built to ask Mexico, Colombia, and other developing countries to make enormous sacrifices to stop US drug consumption.

In a 2014 paper, economists Daniel Mejia and Pascual Restrepo explained:

Suppose for a moment that all cocaine consumption in the US disappears and goes to Canada. Would the US authorities be willing to confront drug trafficking networks at the cost of seeing the homicide rate in cities such as Seattle go up from its current level of about five homicides per 100,000 individuals to a level close to 150 in order to prevent cocaine shipments from reaching Vancouver? If your answer to this question is 'perhaps not,' well… this is exactly what Colombia, Mexico and other Latin American countries have been doing over the last 20 years: implementing supply-reduction policies so that drugs don't reach consumer countries at the cost of very pronounced cycles of violence and political corruption, with the consequent losses of legitimacy of state institutions.

The way the drug war works is that developing nations, such as Colombia and Mexico, act as manufacturing and transshipment countries for drugs, while the US and other wealthy countries make up the great majority of demand for these illicit substances. So criminal groups will produce cocaine in Colombia and ship it to Mexico, and the drug is smuggled into the US from there.

It's not that Colombians or Mexicans don't use drugs, but demand in the US — where people are generally wealthier and can thus better afford an expensive drug habit — is much higher. This becomes clear in national drug surveys: They show that about 1.5 percent of Mexicans ages 12 to 65 in 2011 used illicit drugs in the previous year, while about 8.7 percent of all Americans 12 and older in the previous month did in 2011. (The age and timespan differences are due to differing methodologies in national surveys, but they nonetheless show that way more Americans use drugs than Mexicans.)

In theory, the Mexican government and those in other developing nations should be able to stop drug violence within their borders, and crack down on drug trafficking groups to suppress crime just as well as the US and other developed nations have. The problem is Mexico and other developing countries don't have the incredibly powerful political, economic, and criminal justice institutions that developed nations have. Drug trafficking organizations can exploit these weaknesses, build up huge operations, and effectively wage war within developing countries.

What's worse, the drug war makes it harder for developing countries to build up these institutions. For one, the threat of violence is generally destructive and makes it tough for any of these countries to see the kind of meaningful economic growth that is necessary to build up any institutions. But the drug war also gives drug trafficking groups enormous profits — through the black market of prohibited drugs — allowing them to bribe, extort, blackmail, and finance a war against any government entity that poses a threat.

Developed countries have tried to alleviate all of these issues by helping developing countries finance their own war on drugs — such as the US-funded Merida Initiative for Mexico. But these measures either fail to suppress violence — as shown by Mexico's war on drugs, in which as many as 80,000 people have died since 2006 — or shift violence to other countries that aren't getting as much support, as happened when drug trafficking operations moved from Colombia to Central America and Mexico after the US government helped Colombia crack down on drugs in the 1990s and 2000s.

The final result: a never-ending cycle of a violent trade-off that most Americans would consider unacceptable within our own borders, yet politicians don't get asked about it at debates.


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