hand in jail

5 Ways Drugs Uniquely Impact the Latino Community

Netflix’s Narcos is back. Whether you love the show or just love to hate it, the response to the crime web series telling the story of notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar has been equally dichotomous: either you’re into (or hate) the glamorization of drug cartels or you appreciate (would rather not see) the brutal violence that occurs in the underground economy.

The truth: Drugs, and how it has impacted Latinxs, is complicated. It can be viewed as a form of survival or a pathway to death, as prosperity or demise. Ahead, how drogas have uniquely influenced our community, both in the U.S. and in our home países – and how the criminalization of narcotics in the former impacts the brutality in the latter.

Forced Entry: Despite Hollywood’s romance with the Latino drug trade narrative, few people who join the underground economy do so for the glitz and the glam. For many, it’s necessity. Racial, class, immigration and language barriers keep us out of institutions needed for obtaining lucrative careers, leaving so many in our communities juggling multiple minimum-wage or under-the-table jobs to just barely scrape by. Selling nickel bags on the corner or growing cannabis plants at home, both more accessible than the Ivy Leagues, becomes a real alternative, whether we want to participate or not. For Latinxs, and other communities of color, joining the street economy – including drug dealing – is oftentimes a form of survival, not greed or inherent criminality.

Mass Incarceration: Instead of developing real solutions to the economic and social problems that create a culture where it’s easier for communities of color to sell drugs than get a college degree, politicians have helped design the prison-industrial complex, growing surveillance, policing and imprisonment to the benefit of government and private businesses, by putting dealers behind bars on mandatory sentences for non-violent drug crimes, many of whom Latinx. Although whites and people of color use and sell drugs at comparable rates, nearly 80 percent of those locked up in federal prisons and almost 60 percent of those in state jails for narcotic offenses are Black or Latinx. Even more, Latinas specifically make up one of the fastest-growing prison populations, with most detained on drug charges.

Deportation: For many immigrant Latinxs who finished serving their long sentences and repaying their “debt” to society, they aren’t released back to their communities but rather transferred to ICE, where they are often swiftly deported to their “home” countries, regardless of how foreign that “home” is to them. Even authorized immigrants who are convicted of drug-related crimes, including minor possession charges, can be permanently barred from legalizing their status, forcing them, once again, to go to the street economy for necessary income, where the cycle repeats and they, too, are likely deported.

Latin American Drug Wars Exist Because of the U.S.’ “War on Drugs:” Abroad, back across Latin America, these people face a reality much different from the one they knew as low-level couriers trying to get by. They are forced into societies where drug cartels may have ripped their families and communities apart. They come front and center to the violent drug wars that the United States’ “War on Drugs” fortifies by criminalizing drug activity and pushing demand, which doesn’t disappear, to be met overseas.

Barriers to Help: The criminalization of drugs hurts Latinxs in distinct ways: from mass incarceration and criminal records that prevent the formerly imprisoned from obtaining an income outside of the street economy, creating a vicious cycle of incarceration, to deportations and violence in Latin American countries. Far less money, time and political conversations are placed on the roots of the problems that lead people to take such desperate measures. But little attention is also given to the public health concern of addiction, another matter uniquely impacting Latinxs, who face language, cultural, citizenship and regional barriers to help.

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