SEATTLE — The recent capture of Mexican drug kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán has sparked discussion about drugs and poverty in Mexico.
According to Poverties.org, nearly half of Mexico’s population lives in poverty, and especially in rural areas, many people lack access to health care, social services and clean water. Though the government, with some support from the U.S., has made efforts to address these issues, weak economic growth has made it difficult for progress to be made.
Drugs and poverty in Mexico are intimately intertwined. Gangs like Guzmán’s Sinaloa Cartel are extremely powerful and destructive paramilitary forces that corrupt governments terrorize communities through violence, rape, extortion and kidnapping. Twelve million Mexicans work in the black market and do not have access to social security, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation.
The capture of Guzmán, while cheered by some, is regarded by others as a somewhat ambiguous event. The idea that the exercise of police force alone will solve the country’s problems obscures the important connection between drugs and poverty in Mexico.
Since drug cartels thrive on impoverished communities’ entrapment and lack of opportunity, addressing poverty directly could undercut the power of cartels. A community with access to better food, water, education and healthcare will be able to drive its own economic growth and thereby protect itself from exploitative criminal organizations.
Mexico has already taken many such steps to root out the drug and crime epidemic. Conditional cash transfer (CCT) programs reward investments in education, health and food and help move young workers from agriculture to manufacturing and service sectors. Such integration brings poor people into mainstream markets and society, thereby helping them out of poverty.
Other social spending programs have reduced Mexico’s rate of poverty in the last half-century, including unconditional cash transfer (UCT) programs, which, like CCT programs, have apparently helped improve nutrition in certain parts of the country. Better nutrition means improved cognition in children, which leads to better education and more labor market participation. Some say that social security needs to be balanced with infrastructural and institutional development in order to be effective, but UCT and CCT are a good start.
There is a sizable contingency of politicians on Capitol Hill who are actively supporting Mexico in these efforts. In the 2016 budget, Congress approved $750 million to be used to assist Central American governments in stabilizing their countries. This money will be used to help track down criminals like Guzmán, but it will also support educational community programs that aim to curb violence and prepare impoverished at-risk youth for productive lives free of cartel exploitation.
Addressing the problems of drugs and poverty in Mexico is said to also benefit the U.S., since violence in Central America has spurred heavy migration and a humanitarian crisis at the U.S.-Texas border. With continued collaboration, the U.S. and Mexico, as well as the other Central American countries, can stabilize the region by making it a place of peace and prosperity.