The Close Relationship between Drug-related Violence and Why People Migrate to The United States

Migratory mobility center in Juchitán, Oaxaca. Photo: Istmo Press

In recent decades, the war on drugs in Latin America, with a particular focus on Mexico, has been a determining force that has shaped not only the dynamics of drug trafficking, but also migration movements in the region. Although this campaign, led mainly by the United States, had the original objective of combating the trafficking and consumption of illegal substances, its influence has extended far beyond the fight against drugs, leaving a deep mark on the migration landscape in Latin America. The influence of this campaign is not limited to migrants fleeing violence and insecurity. It also significantly affects all migrants transiting through Latin America on their way to the United States, as they must navigate regions affected by drug trafficking-related violence and corruption.

Policies in the United States regarding gun ownership and trafficking have also played a major role in the increase in violence and extortion perpetrated by drug cartels in Latin America. The ease with which firearms can be purchased on the US market has fueled a constant flow of weapons into the region, strengthening criminal organizations and contributing to the escalation of violence. These weapons, many of which are highly powerful and lethal, have allowed the cartels to confront each other and the security forces of the affected countries with greater ferocity. The availability of sophisticated weaponry has led to deadlier confrontations and an escalation of violence, directly affecting local communities and increasing widespread fear.

Straw purchases and the lack of effective accountability regarding the acquisition and possession of weapons in the United States have had a significant impact on the dangers of migrants’ trajectories toward this country. These factors have contributed to an increase in violence, extortion, kidnappings and other forms of abuse along migration routes in Latin America. Straw purchases are a practice in which people without criminal records purchase firearms on behalf of third parties, often individuals who cannot legally purchase weapons due to their criminal records. This strategy has allowed cartels and criminal organizations in Latin America to obtain a constant supply of weapons from the United States. These weapons purchased on the US market often end up in the hands of criminals in the region, which has exacerbated violence and insecurity along migration routes.

The lack of accountability in the gun market in the United States has also allowed these illegal weapons to circulate unrestricted. A lack of stricter regulations and insufficient oversight have made it difficult to trace the provenance of weapons, providing cartels with a constant flow of untraceable weaponry. This has led to situations where migrants and communities along migration routes are vulnerable to extortion, kidnapping and violence at the hands of those who control these areas. The relationship between “straw purchases,” the lack of accountability in the U.S. arms market, and forced migration in Latin America raises crucial questions about U.S. responsibility for the causes of migration and danger that migrants face in their trajectories. Instead of making the migration process more difficult, the United States should take greater responsibility in addressing these critical issues.

Policies and practices related to gun acquisition and ownership in the United States directly contribute to the violence and insecurity that forces many people to flee their homes in search of safety. This flow of illegal weapons into Latin America results in an escalation of violence and insecurity, forcing people to make the heartbreaking decision to undertake a dangerous journey north in search of refuge. This forced migration is, in part, a consequence of US gun policies.

Instead of making the migration process more difficult, the United States should recognize its role in the underlying causes of migration and take greater responsibility for protecting the human rights of migrants. This could include creating more inclusive asylum policies that take into account the experiences of migrants fleeing drug-related violence. Furthermore, the United States should work to implement stricter policies that restrict the flow of illegal weapons into Latin America, in order to reduce violence and insecurity in the region. Failure to take sufficient responsibility on these issues not only perpetuates the migration crisis and violence in Latin America, but also reflects a lack of action to address critical problems that require stronger and more resolute attention.

This past summer, as a participant in a collaborative research group of nine students, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in the realities of migration by speaking with several migrants in Las Cruces, New Mexico, and in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. Their stories revealed a painful and heartbreaking journey marked by violence and despair. Of the 59 migrants we spoke to, around 15% reported leaving their place of origin due to violence related to drug trafficking and cartels. One of them shared a heartbreaking story about how she was forced to leave her home after being unable to pay the fees imposed by a cartel, which led to the murder of her husband. The person explained how widespread corruption prevented her from turning to local authorities for help, forcing her to undertake a dangerous journey north.

Moreover, around 90% of the 59 migrants interviewed mentioned having suffered some type of violence during their journey to the United States. They recounted distressing experiences that included assaults, extortion by cartels, rapes and kidnappings. Many shared how they were left without money due to continuous extortions along the way. One of those interviewed described how he was kidnapped for several days, witnessing unspeakable atrocities, including the brutal deaths of other migrants at the hands of the cartels. The harrowing narrative of how they were forced to witness acts of extreme violence, including the mutilation of bodies, served as a harrowing reminder of the horrible realities many face in their desperate search for safety and a better life.

The shocking stories shared by migrants reveal a harsh reality: migration is not a choice, but a prevailing necessity. Most of them are forced to face dangerous paths and traumatic experiences due to the lack of safe migration routes and accessible asylum processes. These people migrate not by choice, but by the urgent need to survive in the midst of violence and insecurity in their places of origin. Furthermore, the lack of access to essential resources to request asylum, such as the CBP1 application, which only works in specific regions of Mexico, further exacerbates their vulnerability. The lack of safe and accessible immigration routes, as well as the lack of resources such as the aforementioned application, forces them to undertake dangerous routes and face extreme abuses.

These circumstances underscore the imperative need for the United States to assume its share of responsibility in this migration crisis. They should implement more inclusive and humane immigration policies, as well as provide safe and legal pathways for those fleeing violence and persecution. The existence of these harsh realities on migratory routes is incontestable evidence that the current system is failing to protect the human rights of migrants. The United States, as one of the key players in this crisis, must recognize its role and take steps to address these critical issues more effectively. At the end of the day, the United States is guilty of many of the causes of migration such as those discussed above, and for the same reason it should assume its guilt and repair its errors that lead to many deaths and violence of people in Latin America every day. The migrants’ stories are a painful testimony to the need for significant change in migration and asylum policies to ensure safer and orderly migration, as well as a more stable and secure region as a whole.

Original article by María Lima Valdez at
Translated by Schools for Chiapas.

Want to receive our weekly blog digest in your inbox?

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Shopping Cart
Scroll to Top