Twenty-two days, five countries, one message: end the drug war.
Starting in Honduras on March 28th, the Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice will travel through El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico and the United States with the goal of reaching New York City on the eve of the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs beginning on April 19.
Made up of a diverse group of people including victims of the drug war, families who have lost relatives to violence or incarceration, human rights defenders, journalists, faith leaders, activists and others, the Caravan will travel through some of the places most affected by the war on drugs with the purpose of giving way to an inclusive, collective and open dialogue on drug policy and creating alternatives to the failed prohibitionist regime.
Why Latin America?
As one of the primary regions for drug production and trafficking, Latin America has become a hub of human rights violations, organized crime, systemic impunity and environmental destruction. In Central America, the legacy of brutal civil wars combined with militarization strategies funded by the U.S. has given way to some of the most dangerous cities in the world, forcing thousands to abandon their homes in search of safety and risking deportation once they reach Mexico's southern and northern borders.
In Honduras, Garifuna, indigenous and rural communities have been hit the hardest through gang violence and drug trafficking operations encroaching on their ancestral lands. Speaking out against the drug war comes at a high cost and those who engage in social justice and environmental activism are brutally silenced, as evidenced by the recent murders of Berta Cáceres and Nelson García from the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH).
In neighboring El Salvador, between 20 and 30 people are murdered every day and approximately $400 million (USD) are paid by civilians in extortions every year. Similarly, Guatemala's drug trafficking networks are responsible for 45% of homicides and overcrowded prisons with almost three times the people they can hold. Crossing into Mexico, over 150,000 people have been murdered and more than 27,000 disappeared since 2006, along with approximately 120 journalists who have been killed since 2000. There, the human cost of the drug war has been largely fueled by militarized national security strategies financed with a $25.6 billion (USD) budget from the U.S. as of 2016.
While Latin America has paid a heavy price for implementing interventionist drug policies, the devastating effects of prohibition are not unique to the region. In the United States, over 2.2 million people are currently incarcerated and 80% of those in federal prisons for drug offenses are black or Latino. Drug law violations have been the main driver of new admissions to prison for decades and while federal and state governments have spent $1 trillion on the drug war in the past 40 years, federal assistance for harm reduction initiatives, such as syringe access programs that would help tackle the upsurge in opioid overdoses, has been nonexistent.
Clearly, we still have a long way to go.
After decades of punitive global drug policies revolving around UNGASS 1998's unrealistic pledge of a "drug free world" and the 1961, 1971 and 1988 International Drug Control Treaties, many governments and civil society organizations alike are calling for a different approach to drug policy that prioritizes human rights, public health, harm reduction and sustainability.
As people from around the globe convene in New York for UNGASS 2016, the Caravan aims to shed light on the human faces and heartrending stories of the U.S.-driven drug war and its impact across the Americas.
Making its final stop in New York City on April 18, some of the actions planned for that day include a walk from City Hall to the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan in order to highlight the ties between drug policy and criminal justice reform, a gathering outside the U.N. with families of drug war victims from around the globe and an evening event at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem bringing together faith leaders opposed to the drug war.
Twenty-two days, five countries, one message: end the drug war. If the people lead, the leaders will follow.
Laura Krasovitzky is the Drug Policy Alliance representative for the caravan. Ted Lewis is human rights director for Global Exchange and the coordinator general of the Caravan.