Column: The Deadly Link Among Guns, Drugs and Fleeing Migrants

  • Central American migrants, part of the caravan hoping to reach the U.S. border, wait for a ride in Donaji, Oaxaca state, Mexico, Friday, Nov. 2, 2018. The migrants had already made a grueling 40-mile (65-kilometer) trek from Juchitan, Oaxaca, on Thursday, after they failed to get the bus transportation they had hoped for. But hitching rides allowed them to get to Donaji early, and some headed on to a town even further north, Sayula. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

For the Valley News
Sunday, November 04, 2018

As a nation, we need to be able to connect the dots.

Policies affecting migrants and asylum seekers have been front and center in the 2018 midterm elections, and will continue to be the focus of national debate. There are other issues, including drug addiction and gun violence, that are related to the immigration crisis. But instead of connecting those dots, President Donald Trump chose instead to campaign on a platform of fear and scapegoating.

Trump claims our country is being “invaded” by a “caravan” of dangerous migrants, many of whom are gang members. In reality, the majority of these people are fleeing the brutal gang violence and extortion that scars their home countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

In Honduras, which has the highest homicide rate in the Western Hemisphere, I learned firsthand about the dangers the citizens there face, and witnessed death, during a 2013 medical project sponsored by the Norris Cotton Cancer Center and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. According to a 2017 report by The Trace, a New York-based nonprofit news organization that focuses on the issues of guns and firearm-related violence, 80 percent of the homicides in Honduras involve firearms, and many of those firearms come from the United States.

Sources of Guns

In Honduras, and in other Central American nations, the firearms that fuel the violence are often purchased at licensed U.S. gun retailers through what are known as “straw purchases.” The weapons are then smuggled out to Central America.

According to The Trace report, 25 percent to 50 percent of the firearms used in crimes in these Central American countries were traced to retail sales in the U.S. Gun trafficking into Mexico is even worse, with an estimated 2,000 crossing from the U.S. every day.

In addition to the trafficked firearms, official corruption in these Central American countries has also been a source of black market sales to gangs and other criminals. “Currently, military and police stockpiles in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have been identified as the largest sources of illegal firearms in the region,” a 2017 report published on the ResearchGate website found.

The National Rifle Association also is to blame.

According to The Trace, the international small-arms control treaty known by the acronym CIFTA, which was drafted during the Clinton administration, “has since been signed and ratified by all but three countries in the Western Hemisphere — one of which is the United States, the largest gunmaker and the largest retail gun market in the world, severely hindering the pact’s effectiveness.” The failure of the U.S. to ratify the treaty is due to effective lobbying by the NRA.

Further, according to the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there is no “clear and effective federal statute” that makes gun trafficking a federal crime, again thanks to the NRA’s efforts, which also include support for the Tiahrt Amendment, which restricts the ability of the U.S. government to use firearm-tracing data collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in academic research or in civil lawsuits against gun sellers or manufacturers.

The Drug Connection

America’s appetite for illegal drugs and our failure to effectively treat addiction contributes to the violence in Central America, including Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Much of the money the “straw” purchasers use to buy guns in the U.S. to smuggle to criminals and drug gangs in Central America comes from the sale of illegal drugs that have been trafficking into the U.S. One estimate is that 90 percent of the cocaine entering the U.S. passes through Central America.

Unfortunately, many Americans still believe that addiction is a character flaw when in fact it is a chronic disease with a genetic component like diabetes or hypertension. Even worse, individuals with the genetic predisposition to addiction may have been led down the path of illicit drug use by a medical provider through the use of opioid analgesics to treat pain. When their prescription runs out, some addicted individuals turn to street drugs. That funds the criminal drug dealers who then purchase firearms to be trafficked to Central America.

The unfortunate cycle is complete. The dots are connected. Addiction and drugs are linked to guns and violence, which results in thousands of innocent people — parents and children — fleeing north to what they hope will be safety for themselves and their families.

What Can We Do?

These are complicated issues and will require a comprehensive — and bipartisan — response, not the dumbed-down “solution” Trump has offered.

Instead of building a wall to keep them out, deporting those who get in and cutting aid funds to Central America — money that supports programs for law enforcement and violence prevention — we need across-the-board immigration reform.

We need to start treating substance abuse disorders for the diseases that they are.

And we need effective gun safety legislation. This would include limiting the bulk purchase of firearms. Studies from the ATF have shown a reduction in illegal trafficking in states with so-called “one-gun-a-month-laws.”

Next, we need to hold federally licensed firearm dealers responsible and weed out those who allow guns to end up in the hands of criminals. Finally we need to strengthen federal and state background checks and close the loopholes on private sales, gun show sales and internet sales.

Contact your legislators on both the federal and state level and impress on them the need to act comprehensively if we hope to have an impact on these societal issues.

Paul Manganiello, of Norwich, is Emeritus Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth and board president of the GunSenseVT Education Fund.