Insidious Ideology: The Drug War and Prison Systems in the Americas, Developing Alternatives to the Drug War in Latin America – Rachel Wolf

This is the fifth in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written Spring Quarter 2017 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas, taught by Lynn Holland.


Venezuela and El Salvador are examples of the dangers of mass incarceration promoted in both policy and practice and reliance on the prison system as a form of social control for both drug and gang activity. Although historically seen as a public health problem, shifting rhetoric and increased funding for policing turned drug use into a criminal problem in the United States. Soon after the inauguration of the “war on drugs” under President Nixon, the prison population began to rise.[1] Rather than address root causes or disrupt self-reinforcing processes, many Latin American countries, under pressure from the United States, have adopted the strategy of mass incarceration. Most of these countries now face prison overcrowding along with intensified organized crime, and discriminatory policing and justice systems. In Venezuela and El Salvador, the prisons have become closed systems with internal rules and danger so extreme that guards patrol only the exterior. The following paper will outline some of the challenges faced by these two countries as well as some alternative approaches being implemented in Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Uruguay, all less punitive than the drug war.

Venezuela’s prison system is in large part a reflection of its judicial system which “was ranked one of the worst in the world…in 2013” (Insight Crime 2017). Corruption and an inadequate supply of judges and prosecutors have stymied due process while violence, poor conditions, and further corruption permeate the prisons themselves. As in El Salvador, the prison system perpetuates gang activity and illicit markets. Inmates rule, “justice” is meted out in violence and death, illicit businesses are managed from behind bars, and the national guard traffics everything from weapons to food into the prison economy (Wyss 2015 & The Economist 2012). Over 70 percent of those incarcerated still await trial and human rights abuses abound. “A slow judicial system, the lack of prison facilities, and excessive prison sentences [are] reasons for the poor condition of Venezuelan jails” (Panam 2015).

Venezuelan law has mechanisms for prosecuting prison officials and others who commit torture and engage in corruption, yet the judicial system holds little credibility. In 2012, Venezuela inaugurated “Operation Cambote” to coordinate restoration and improvement of facilities with inmates, engineers and minatory officials in each of the country’s 34 prisons (Robertson 2012).  A lack of any news or analysis after it began, however, suggests a lack of meaningful and lasting reform. Nor has police reform been forthcoming – President Maduro’s “Safe Homeland Plan” of 2013 dispatched the military in a show-of-force crime prevention strategy that did little to curb violence and much to perpetuate impunity (US State Department 2013). Unfortunately, as the economic situation in the country worsens and the country struggles to secure the basic needs of the population and quell rebellion, penal reform remains low on the list of priorities.

In El Salvador, Mano dura (iron hand) initiated in 2003, has focused on reactive tough-on-crime policies. This hardline approach, with its strong public backing, is designed to “incriminate and incarcerate gang members, using (the) military to make up for the deficiencies in the police” (Ellis 2016, 32). The result has been an increasing reliance on the military, which receives strong backing from the U.S. through financial aid and training. As Wolf (2012) points out, the use of military repression exacerbates existing crime levels and breeds further insecurity, as well as leading to human rights abuses and impunity. Some place impunity near 90 percent and note that the accused can spend years behind bars before being sentenced (Insight Crime 2017).

Mano dura policies were supposed to be implemented in tandem with Mano extendida (open hand) policies whose aim was the social and economic integration for gang members. Yet of the 14,000 gang members who have been incarcerated, only 45 had been rehabilitated by 2005 (Ellis 2016, 32). In the meantime, overcrowded gang-controlled prisons have served as the perfect recruiting ground for new members and bases of operation for coordinating illicit activities and violence across the country. In 2015, the Salvadoran legislature proposed a Gang Reinsertion Law to give immunity to gang members who haven’t committed serious crimes and enable them to enter a government rehabilitation program, but the program has suffered from a lack of funding (Lohmuller). Since 2011, a poorly-funded prison rehabilitation program, “Yo Cambio” (I Change) has been slowly expanding to teach prisoners new skills, give them increasing responsibilities, improve public perception of prisoners, and allow participants to be separated from the rest of the prison population in the hopes of averting gang membership (Flores 2011). Unfortunately, U.S. aid comes earmarked largely for military training, leaving a shortage of funds that undermines the efficacy of these and other social reform programs.

While the President of El Salvador continues to press for hardline policies and militarized policing, the mayor of San Salvador is taking a different tack. Seeing gangs as a social problem, he has started a violence reduction program by investing in infrastructure and social programs, embracing youth, taking back public spaces, and “recruiting the kids to good things” (Grillo 2017). In his first year in office, the murder rate in San Salvador dropped by 16 percent, although “it is hard to know if this was caused by the mayor’s social work or the president’s policing” (Grillo 2017).

The following table using data from the World Prison Brief (2014) provides a comparison of imprisonment rates, pre-trial detention rates, and the murder rate in Venezuela, El Salvador, and several other countries in Latin America. In particular, we can see that the murder rate in Costa, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have remained relatively low by comparison. Of these, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have relatively low rates of occupancy while Bolivia and Nicaragua have the two lowest rates of imprisonment (though Venezuela is comparable here). It is worth our while then to consider some of the crime fighting alternatives that have been put forward in these four countries.

  Prison population total (including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners) Prison population rate (per 100,000 national population) Pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners (percent of prison population) Occupancy (based on official capacity) Murder Rate (per 100,000 population)*
United States 2145100 666 20.3% (2015) 103.9% (2014) 4.9 (2015)**
Venezuela 54738 173 71.3% (2016) 153.9% (2016) 59
El Salvador 38237 588 33.8% (2017) 348.2% (2016) 81.2
Costa Rica 17440 352 17.2% (2014) 139.4% (2013) 11.8
Bolivia 14598 130 69% (2016) 253.9% (2016) 10.8
Nicaragua 10569 171 12.3% (2012) 128% (2010) 7
Uruguay 10228 297 65% (2016) 112.5% 6


*data from Gagne 2017

**data from Friedman 2017


While El Salvador has relied on Mano dura and Venezuela has made heavy use of pre-trial detention, Nicaragua has created the Office of Juvenile Issues as a means of addressing gangs and violence. Here the police “treat gang members as objects of social rehabilitation” rather than criminals (Ellis 2016, 32). The country has also separated the police and military, refused to allow military action in gang prevention, and formed a corps of 20,000 volunteers in local Committees for Social Prevention of Crime (Ellis 2016, 32). In 2016, Nicaragua released about 80 percent of its prison inmates “serving sentences of less than five years.” These releases were part of a “humanitarian policy of reconciliation and unity for Nicaraguan families” (Bargent 2016). The effects of the release are yet to be seen however. In Venezuela, a similar move “where over 13,000 prisoners were released onto the streets” was accompanied by “a near complete absence of oversight and control.” With a lack of government transparency that typifies this government, it has been “difficult to assess whether the release was a carefully considered response to minimize the impact of a genuine crisis, or a badly planned, knee-jerk reaction to that crisis” (Bargent 2016). The combination of improved policing and greater community involvement in policing in Nicaragua, however, may well result in a better outcome in this country.

Costa Rica has also shied away from harsh policing tactics, opting instead

to implement a series of modest reforms to its prisons and measures to strengthen its reintegration initiatives. These measures included the creation of an external oversight body to protect the rights of individuals in custody, enhanced training of penitentiary system police and staff, and…a plan to expand the country’s reinsertion programs in the prison system in coordination with local businesses.


In addition, the Narcotics Law was amended to minimize the imprisonment of “women in vulnerable situations.” Interestingly, these and other initiatives in Costa Rica have been promoted chiefly by reformers within the Ministry of Justice and Peace and the penitentiary system (Beltran & Davis 2014).

At the same time, Costa Rica’s prisons, like those in much of Central America, have large numbers of pretrial or preventative detainees that put prisons over capacity (Krumholtz 2016). The closing of San Sebastián preventative prison in Costa Rica and legal efforts by public defenders to promote alternatives to incarceration such as ankle bracelets for flight risks, mandatory work for petty theft, and rehabilitation for drug addicts, show promise yet still face immense political and financial obstacles (Krumholtz 2016).

In Bolivia, the failure of the drug war has led not to lasting prison reform, but to drug policy reform. While the government attempted to reduce detention through legal reforms in 2014 and 2016, public support for “iron fist” policing strategies and greater use of detention has remained strong. Taking a different tack then, the Bolivian government legalized coca production for domestic consumption in 2004, expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from the country four years later and, as of this year, has doubled the area of legal coca production (Tegel 2016). The coca production system is highly regulated and policed by local growers’ associations and, as abuses against growers have decreased and economic prospects for poor farmers have improved, trust in the police has increased (Grisaffi 2014). At the same time, Bolivia continues to be a transit nation for illicit drugs and about 20 percent of prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related charges. Furthermore, the prison system is among the top five of those now over capacity in Latin America (Yagoub 2016 and King 2016).

In Uruguay, the government never subscribed to the harsh “war on drugs” that criminalized both trafficking and use. In 1974, it passed Decree Law 14294 which kept strict sentences for sellers of illicit drugs while decriminalizing personal possession (Walsh 2016). The country also has low levels of crime (6 homicides per 100,000 people) and a highly transparent government with low levels of corruption (Walsh 2016). By the mid-2000s, the country

began to embrace other harm reduction approaches to drug policy. In 2004, the government approved measures designed to provide injectable drug users with easier access to clean needles, and over the next decade made increasingly explicit references to harm reduction in national policy documents. (Walsh 2016).


In addition to harm reduction measures, the prison system is, at least in part, focused on reform rather than retribution. Punta de Rieles is an “open” prison with free movement, activities, entrepreneurship training, and thriving businesses, the proceeds of which are deposited into a savings account available upon inmate release (Bernas 2017). Uruguay’s strong governance may well be its most positive feature, but its approach also sets an example for humane and effective drug policy and prison reform.

Each country in the Americas has faced a combination of successes and drawbacks in its attempts to address drug trafficking and organized crime within its borders and internationally.  As Grisaffi (2014) points out, “Historically, the USA has dictated the terms of the ‘war on drugs,’ and has used its political and economic might to crush any debate on alternatives…[but] Latin American leaders have argued for more effective and humane alternatives.” While Venezuela and El Salvador struggle to implement meaningful reform in the face of corruption, violence and pressure, they have the opportunity to look to their neighbors for guidance and support. Whether it is bottom-up policing change, top-down prison overhaul or national drug policy reform, countries such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Uruguay are making inroads into crime reduction and prison reform in a challenge to the U.S.’ disastrous drug war.




Beltran, Adriana and Ashley Davis. (2014 Aug 15). Prison Reform in Latin America: The Costa Rica Experience. WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas. Retrieved from


Bernas, Frederick & Rayan Hindi. (2017 Apr 9). The Uruguayan prison where inmates set up shop. BBC News. Retrieved from


Flores, Gloria and Nelson Rauda. (2014 dec 4). Ampliarán modelo “Yo Cambio” a todo el sistema penitenciario. La Prensa Gráfica. Retrieved from


Friedman, Matthew, Ames C. Grawert & James Cullen. (2017). Crime Trends 1990-2016. Brennan Center for Justice: NYU School of Law.


Gagne, David. (2017 Jan 16). Insight Crime’s 2016 Homicide Round-up. Insight Crime. Retrieved from


Grillo, Ioan. (2017 Mar 2). The Mayor Saving Minors. Time. Retrieved from


Insight Crime (2017 Mar 9). “El Salvador.” Insight Crime. Retrieved from


King, Quentin. (2016 Jan 12). Bolivia Prepares for 2016 Drug Policy. InSight Crime. Retrieved from


Krumholtz, Michael. (2016 Aug 9). Hell spilling over: Is Costa Rica’s preventative prison system in need of reform? The Tico Times. Retrieved from


Labrador, Gabriel, Nelson Rauda Zablah and Jimmy Alvarado. (2017 June 6). La reducción de la pobreza, de los homicidio y otros logros dudosos del Presidente. El Faro. Retrieved from


La Prensa Gráfica. (2017 feb 17). Implementan “Yo Cambio” en el Penal de Gotera. La Prensa Gráfica. Retrieved from


Panam Post. (2015 Feb 25). Report: Hundreds Die Each Year in Overcrowded Venezuela Jails. Panam Post. Retrieved from


Robertson, Ewan. (2012 Jan 27). Venezuela Moves Ahead with Prison Reforms. Retrieved from


Tegel, Simeon. (2016 Sept 21). Bolivia ended its drug war by kicking out the DEA and legalizing coca. Vice News. Retrieved from


US State Department. (2013). Venezuela 2013 Human Rights Report. United States Department of State. Retrieved from


Walsh, John and Geoff Ramsey. (2016). Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges. Brookings Institute: Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Latin America Initiative.


Wolf, Sonja. (2012). Policing Crime in El Salvador. NACLA Report on the Americas, 45:1.


World Prison Brief (2014). World Prison Brief Data. Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Retrieved from


Wyss, Jim. (2015 Apr 27). Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions. Miami Herald. Retrieved from


Yagoub, Mimi. (2016 Nov 17). Report Highlights Overcrowding, Other Problems in Bolivian Prisons. InSight Crime. Retrieved from



[1] “Harsher sentencing of drug offences was a key development, in the context of the US government’s ‘war on drugs’ as declared by President Nixon in 1971 – with the consequence that admissions for drug offences accounted for almost one-third of all admissions to state and federal prisons over the period 1993 to 2009 (Rothwell, 2015)” (Jacobson, Heard & Fair 2017, 11)


Criminalizing la lucha: Militarization, Murder and Extractivism in Chiapas, Mexico – Kaelyn DeVries

“In Mexico, there are three systems of state-sanctioned violence: colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism” (staff member, Voces Mesoamericanas, Chiapas, Mexico)


In Mexican communities, capitalism kills. Since mining companies began extracting titanium and other minerals in 2005, the Acacoyagua municipality in the Soconusco region of Chiapas has seen a substantial increase in the number of new cases of lung, pancreatic, skin, colon and liver cancer among residents. By 2015, cancer accounted for more than 22% of the total deaths in Acacoyagua, many of them children and young adults.[1]


Just as the health effects of mineral extraction projects have proven deadly for local populations, so, too, has expressing political opposition to them. In 2009, Mariano Abarca, the leader of an anti-mining movement in Chiapas, was assassinated and Canadian mining firm Blackfire Exploration Ltd., allegedly tied to the murder, was accused of human rights abuses and corruption.[2] In 2016, Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home[3] after Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., the company whose hydroelectric project Cáceres succeeded in halting, mounted a campaign to demonize her, calling her an anarchist and the leader of a violent movement that threatened Honduran sovereignty itself.[4] Gustavo Castro, the Director of Otros Mundos,[5] an organization in Chiapas whose mission is to create alternatives to global capitalist expansion, collaborated with Cáceres on initiatives around environmental activism and anti-capitalism in the region. He was also shot and left for dead that night in Cáceres’ home. Now living in exile for his own safety, he communicates virtually with his team on the ground in Chiapas, who continue organizing communities in defense of their land, water and territory.


This trend follows an alarming pattern for activists throughout Latin America. From 2010 to 2015, in Mexico and Central America alone, an estimated 194 environmental activists were murdered.[6] In each case, the process is much the same: governments and transnational corporations systematically criminalize grassroots resistance movements, delegitimizing their cause and dehumanizing their supporters. In Mexico, environmental activists are subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention, police repression at peaceful protests, defamation, demoralization, and false charges. These actions incite the use of violence against activists and, when their murders are left uninvestigated and unpunished, institutionalizes violence as a legitimate strategy for silencing peaceful opposition. In the same way that depictions of Mexican immigrants as criminals increases their chances of being killed at border crossings,[7] the criminalization of environmental activists increases the likelihood of their persecution and death at the hands of interested state and private actors.


Below is an account of the struggle faced by mining communities in Chiapas, written following my participation in a human rights delegation alongside activists at Otros Mundos. Their story illustrates the important nexus between global capitalist expansion, state investment in security initiatives, and increased violence and human rights abuses in communities. It leaves no question as to why activists across the region have dubbed transnational mining initiatives “projects of death.”[8]


Protecting foreign investment: capitalism as a national security interest


“It is easier [for the Mexican government] to disappear, assassinate a peasant than to confront the company…” (Member, Autonomous Council of the Chiapas Coast, Mexico)


Over the last several decades, a series of structural reforms opened Mexico to greater foreign direct investment. Beginning in the early 1990s, Mexico pursued an aggressive privatization model in preparation for entrance into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These trends accelerated under subsequent administrations; particularly under that of current President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-present). Constitutional reforms facilitated the privatization of previously communal lands, while subsequent mining legislation allowed transnational mining companies expedited access to, and control over, the exploration and exploitation of minerals throughout Mexico. A 2005 reform of the original 1993 mining law allowed the government to grant mining concessions for up to 50 years, and eased the process of contract renewal following that period.[9] Energy reforms beginning in 2013 also resulted in the privatization of petroleum and hydrocarbon production.[10]


During the same period, the U.S. and Mexican governments enacted policies to heighten security throughout the country under the pretense of curbing illicit drug flows and securing Mexico’s borders. Through the Mérida Initiative,[11] the U.S. has invested billions of dollars in the militarization of Mexico since 2008, increasing access to arms and high-power weaponry, militarizing local and national police forces and providing extensive military training.


The combination of economic deregulation and repressive security policies has allowed the Mexican government to facilitate foreign investment in Mexico by expanding militarized control over resource-rich areas. In partnership with the state, mining companies deploy security agents, military forces, and sicarios to silence community opposition to the megaprojects, restrict access to mining sites and threaten the safety and security of residents. The result has been the widespread use of state-sanctioned violence in the name of protecting and growing transnational capitalist interests.[12]


In Chiapas state, the abundance of natural resources makes the region particularly vulnerable to violent territorial control by the Mexican government. The expansion of mining concessions in Chiapas (currently there are a total of 99) led to a profound increase in military presence – the state is littered with military checkpoints, barracks, encampments and bases, and the construction of additional military centers continues today. It is within this environment, that Acacoyagua residents began to fight back.


In defense of Acacoyagua: the struggle of the FPDS


“…wherever there are mines, delinquency increases, insecurity prevails, peace runs out and fear takes over the population” (Member, Frente Popular en Defensa del Soconusco 20 de Junio)


In Acacoyagua and elsewhere, the Mexican government and its corporate allies use a variety of illegal and degrading tactics to convince local communities that their business is socially responsible. Tactics include bribery, extortion, creating social conflict, spreading misinformation, and extending promises of job creation and development of schools, stores, and infrastructure.[13] After ten years of deception and devastating health outcomes, Acacoyagua residents organized in defense of themselves and their territory, forming the grassroots resistance movement called FPDS – Frente Popular en Defensa del Soconusco 20 de Junio (Popular Front in Defense of Soconusco 20th of June).[14]


Last year the FPDS brought the Acacoyagua case to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, a government institution claiming to protect Mexico’s natural resources and prevent and control contamination.[15] The FPDS discussed the health problems of the community and brought photo evidence of water contamination and the harmful effects of chemical runoff from the Casas Viejas mine. Ministry staff responded by turning the group away, calling their assertions illegitimate and unfounded.


Soon after, Mexican state police and El Puntal S.A., the corporation that runs the Casas Viejas mine, began to threaten and harass the FPDS. The company distributed flyers denigrating the organization and published defamatory remarks about its members in the local newspaper.[16] The radio station Bestia Grupera Huixtla[17] recently transmitted a segment in which broadcasters narrated a confrontation between community members in Acacoyagua and the FPDS, who set up a road block to ensure no mining trucks or equipment passed through. Segment announcers mentioned nothing of the purpose of the FPDS and the context in which they resist. Instead, they vilified the FPDS, portraying them as a violent organization and attempting to pit the community against them.[18]


On 20 June 2017, the FPDS celebrated two years of struggle against open-pit mining in the municipalities of Acacoyagua and Escuintla in Chiapas. Despite continued attempts at division and public defamation by El Puntal and the Mexican state, the Casas Viejas and El Bambú mining projects have been temporarily suspended. With the support of Otros Mundos and the Red Mexicana de Afectados por la Minería (Mexican Network for those Affected by Mining)[19], the FPDS continues to advocate for its member communities, disseminate its story at the local and national levels, and demand the dissolution of all mining concessions in the region.[20]


For the FPDS and others, the struggle is not over. As activists are brutalized, the Mexican government continues to work in partnership with transnational extractive industries to maintain the status quo. The growth and expansion of mining and other mineral exploitation initiatives depends on their ability to criminalize dissent in order to justify the violent suppression of dissenters. Mining companies are given free rein to dispossess local populations of their land and strip them of their rights to life, mobility and freedom of expression. And while Mexico’s official discourse emphasizes democracy, security and development, internally the Mexican state is deteriorating under astonishing levels of corruption and impunity, collusion with private interests and criminal groups, and major gaps in transparency and accountability.


As outsiders looking in, we must ask ourselves – who are the real criminals and how should we respond?

[1] Data from documents obtained by the FPDS from the Mexican Civil Registry











[12] See Paley, Dawn (2014), Drug War Capitalism, AK Press






[18] Information obtained from local contact in Chiapas



Insidious Ideology: The Drug War and Prison Systems in the Americas Prison Neglect and the Incoherent State in Venezuela – Patrick Pierson

This is the third in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written Spring Quarter 2017 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas, taught by Lynn Holland.



Venezuela’s penal system ranks among the worst in the world. According to a report by The Economist (2012), from 2004-2008, prison killings resulted in more than 400 inmate deaths annually, with figures on the rise in 2012 to nearly 600. “In other words, a Venezuelan is at least 20 times more likely to be murdered in jail than on the streets, despite a steep climb in the country’s overall murder rate over the past decade” (The Economist 2012). The report continues, “In Venezuela the only functions performed by prison guards are perimeter security, a daily headcount and the transfer of prisoners to court. Whereas relatives are submitted to humiliating strip searches at visiting time, it is no secret that the guns, drugs, mobile phones and other items that are available on the inside are trafficked by the national guard, which is responsible for perimeter security” (The Economist 2012).

The poor and inefficient management of prison systems does little to disrupt the activity of organized crime and illicit networks in Venezuela. Given the lack of oversight and relatively lax controls over inmates, organizational leaders are often able to continue managing their business operations from behind bars.

“The most obvious intersection of organized crime and the state can be seen in the penal system, Cedeno said. The study lays out how gang leaders, called pranes, run sophisticated business enterprises – which include communication networks, front companies, and hired assassins – from the jails. The phenomenon helps explain why Venezuela’s jails are so deadly, with some 500 inmate murders per year and thousands more hurt…” (Wyss 2015).


The unruly atmosphere which characterizes the Venezuelan prison system is clearly illuminated in a 2017 report released by Human Rights Watch. The organization tells the story of a recent uncovering of a mass grave located within a prison in Venezuela. While the facility was undergoing infrastructure updates, construction workers uncovered a grave with more than one dozen bodies, a number of which had been beheaded. The Venezuelan government had released no official documentation about the whereabouts of the massacred individuals, revealing the terrifyingly limited oversight exercised by the government with respect to protecting the rights of inmates (Human Rights Watch 2017). In such an environment, it is not surprising that the penal system would have limited impact on curtailing illicit activity or providing rehabilitative services for offenders, thereby largely precluding the possibility of inmates entering society with the tools and resources necessary for a successful reintegration.

What can account for the toleration of violence, abuse, and neglect in Venezuela’s prison system? Rather than attempting to answer this question outright, I seek clues in the following discussion of the political and social conditions of this country. These pertain particularly to the incoherence of the state, the spread of illicit market activity, and the existence of a range of armed groups in Venezuela.

Incoherence of the State


First, Venezuela is unique (unfortunately) with respect to its particularly high levels of violence, which pervade society including the prisons. For example, in 2012, the homicide rate in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, was more than twenty times higher than the global average. Furthermore, in the same year, five of Venezuela’s cities made the list of the world’s fifty most violent cities (Tremaria 2016). What explains such high levels of violence in Venezuela?

Tremaria (2016) notes a paradox at the heart of such high crime rates; namely, the fact that Bolivarianism – the mode of socialism practiced by the Chávez, and now Maduro, regime – is meant to decrease social inequality and thereby produce a more just, equitable, and peaceful society for all. Such efforts at more equitable economic distribution have come at the expense, however, of a disruption of social life and extremely heightened political polarization. In short, the Chavismo system has created clear pro and anti-Chavez groups, thereby generating evermore stark class conflict. “Today, Caracas is not only divided along the lines of socio-economic strata, but also along political allegiances, with zones of violent clashes between supporters and opponents” (Tremaria 2016: 70). While such political polarization has certainly affected social relations in Venezuela, the sweeping changes also affect public policy and security provision by the state.

In fact, the lack of cohesion among both the state and criminal organizations in Venezuela is another distinguishing aspect of illicit markets and criminal activity in the country. “Political polarization has led to an institutional fragmentation of long-standing political alliances, incompetence, and incapacity to establish a coordinated security policy addressing the problem of urban violence across different levels of governance and all Caracas municipalities” (Tremaria 2016: 71). Tremaria goes on to note that twelve ministers of the interior were appointed during Chávez’s fourteen-year rule, while twenty-two plans for citizen security were launched. Clearly, the country lacks a cohesive long-term strategy for realizing a more robust and effective criminal justice system. This lack of cohesion and coordinated policy action may be a result of diminished state capacity or incapable civil servants, but it may also be – at least partly – due to government reluctance to enact strict overhauls of the criminal justice and public security systems.

Government Corruption


Corruption within the Venezuelan civil service is an endemic problem (Coronel 1996), which likely plays a role in the dire failings of the prison system. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that nearly twenty percent of the active Venezuelan workforce is employed by the government as part of the socialist government’s agenda (162). Despite these challenges, neither the state bureaucracy nor the judiciary has taken sufficient steps to address high rates of corruption and malfeasance on the part of government employees. Coronel (1996) highlights the fact that only a handful of high profile corruption cases have resulted in jail time for offenders, despite the fact that all actors are aware of the pervasiveness of corruption among government employees. As noted by Naím (2012),

“Owing in part to such ties [between criminal organizations and government officials], the cocaine business has flourished in Venezuela in recent years, and the country now supplies more than half of all cocaine shipments to Europe…And the drug trade is not the only illicit activity that has flourished in Venezuela’s era of state-sanctioned crime: the country has also become a base of operations for human trafficking, money laundering, counterfeiting, weapons smuggling, and the trade in contraband oil.”


While the ubiquity of corruption clearly brings with it a number of economic and efficiency costs, it also results in a crisis of legitimacy between the state and its populace. A history of corruption, coupled with impunity for many offenders, erodes trust in political institutions and disrupts the government’s ability to win public support for broader reforms (Coronel 1996). The results are self-reinforcing in that a lack of legitimacy only leads to a greater degree of mistrust on behalf of citizens. Not surprisingly, widespread corruption and a severe lack of government accountability and legitimacy creates an environment in which illicit activity is allowed to flourish.

Furthermore, the judiciary in Venezuela serves largely as a tool of the ruling party and its President, Nicolas Maduro. The erosion of an institutionalized and objective rule of law dismantles norms which help to govern social and political life, thereby creating both opportunities and incentives for individuals and groups to pursue their desired objectives through extralegal means (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia 2016).

“The problem is compounded in the justice system. According to the Organization of American States, Venezuela has far fewer prosecutors – 2.47 per every 100,000 inhabitants – than a country of its size requires. It also has only 6.86 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, far fewer than it should have, and way below the norm on the continent. In comparison, Chile, a less violent country, has 50.41 judges per 100,000 inhabitants. And the few judges that the country does have faced enormous pressures to keep people out of jail, since Venezuela has one of the most overcrowded, and hence violent, prison systems in the world” (Nagel 2014: 83).


Armed Groups of Different Persuasions


The Venezuelan state often finds itself in direct confrontation with a number of armed groups of various orientations. The activities of these different groups produce a high rate of uncontrolled violence that may contribute to the capacity of gangs both within and outside of the prison system while simultaneously weakening of the role of the state.

One of the most long-standing groups is the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), a leftist guerrilla organization which emerged in the early 1990s as a counterforce to the potential influence of right-wing Colombian paramilitaries (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium). Given that Colombia and Venezuela share a border of over 2,000 kilometers, it is not surprising that Colombian paramilitary groups such as the FARC and ELN would make inroads in Venezuela, strategically using the territory as a safe haven outside the purview of the Colombian government (Insight Crime 2016). Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) maintained a complicated relationship with the FARC, cooperating with the group solely when it was to his own benefit. For the FARC, Venezuela provided strategic locations to develop and coordinate plans outside the watchful eye of the Colombian state, particularly when during periods of heightened pressure against FARC activities. For Chávez, the FARC provided a strategic ally against perceived external threats from alternative groups (BBC 2011).

Rebel and guerilla groups in Venezuela differ from other forms of organized violence in the country because they are predominantly located in rural areas and rarely engage directly in violent activity in larger urban areas. Furthermore, these groups are not directly targeted for disarmament and demobilization by the state given the government’s ability to manipulate them for its own purposes. Because guerrilla organizations do not directly challenge the authority of the state, their presence is tolerated and often exploited to the regime’s benefit.

Finally, Venezuela possesses a number of highly localized street gangs, particularly in urban centers such as Caracas. In contrast to large-scale cartel organizations in Mexico or Colombia, these groups are more similar to gang-based organizations such as MS-13 in El Salvador. They often consist of a just few dozen individuals seeking to assert control over a small geographical area, such as a few city blocks (Grillo and Benezra 2016). The groups, along with paramilitaries, often provide security services in the country’s poorly patrolled barrios, areas in which the country’s high levels of homicide are disproportionately located (Pardo 2016). Due to their control of local geographies, local gangs in Venezuela are often contracted by larger criminal organizations to facilitate smuggling or trafficking through their respective areas (InSight Crime 2016).

*    *    *    *    *

Today, as popular protests mount in the streets, the Maduro regime continues its efforts to retain control over the vast state apparatus. The social and economic strain placed on the country provides prime breeding ground for illicit activity among the country’s wide range of informal criminal actors and armed groups. Similarly, high levels of social unrest, economic insecurity, and increasingly violent police tactics generate more conducive conditions for the proliferation of localized armed gangs and criminal actors. Meanwhile, the country’s neglected prison system continues to operate under the control of prison gangs to the detriment of all who remain incarcerated.



“Bolivarian Liberation Forces.” Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. Retrieved on May 25, 2017. Accessible at:


Camacho, Carlos. “Venezuela becoming the capital of organized crime, amid raging scarcity.” Fox News. October 12, 2015. Accessed on May 15, 2017. Retrievable at:


“Colombian Farc rebels’ links to Venezeuala detailed.” BBC. May 10, 2011. Accessed on May 16, 2017. Retrievable at:


Coronel, Gustavo. “Curbing Corruption in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7:3 (July 1996): 156-165. (


“A journey into hell.” The Economist. September 22, 2012. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at:


“GameChangers 2016: Criminality and Organized Crime Thrives in Venezuela.” InSight Crime. January 2, 2017. Accessed on May 15, 2017. Retrievable at:


Grillo, Ioan, and Jorge Benezra. “Inside the Hell of Venezuelan Police Prisons.” TIME. June 8, 2016. Accessed on May 20, 2017. Retrievable at:


Grillo, Ioan, and Jorge Benezra. “Venezuela’s Murder Epidemic Rages on Amid State of Emergency.” TIME. May 20, 2016. Accessed on May 22, 2017. Retrievable at:


“Mass Grave Found in Venezuelan Prison.” Human Rights Watch. March 21, 2017. Retrieved on May 15, 2017. Accessible at:


Nagel, Juan Cristóbal. “Venezuela: A Crisis Three Years in the Making.” Caribbean Journal of International Relations and Diplomacy, Vol. 2:1 (2014): 75-88. (


Naím, Moisés. “Mafia States: Organized Crime Takes Office.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012. Accessed on May 18, 2017. (accessible at


“2016: OVV estima 28.479 muertes violentas en Venezuela.” Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. December 28, 2016. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at:


Pardo, Daniel. “Catuche, el barrio de Venezuela donde las madres tomaron el poder y acabaron con la violencia.” BBC Mundo. June 9, 2016. Accessed on May 23, 2017. Retrievable at:


Tremaria, Stiven. “Violent Caracas: Understanding Violence and Homicide in Contemporary

Venezuela.” International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol. 10:1 (2016): 62-76.


“Venezuela.” Insight Crime. December 6, 2016. Accessed on May 13, 2017. Retrievable at:


Wallis, Daniel. “Venezuela violence puts focus on militant ‘colectivo’ groups.” Reuters. February 13, 2014. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at:


Werlau, Maria C. “Venezuela’s Criminal Gangs: Warriors of Cultural Revolution.” World Affairs 2014: 90-96.


Wyss, Jim. “Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions.” Miami Herald. April 27, 2015. Accessed on May 20, 2017. Retrievable at:

Getting “Tough on Crime”: How Mano Dura Strengthens Gangs in El Salvador – Chloe Fisher

In El Salvador, the use of mano dura and other punitive policies against suspected gang members has been prevalent for many years. These policies include the use of repressive police tactics and mass incarceration as a means of clamping down on criminal gangs that emerged after the end of the civil war in 1992. Rather than deterring crime and gang activity, however, crime including homicide rates have risen significantly and gangs are as strong as ever. The crowding of the prisons due to mass arrests has made Salvadoran prisons some of the most crowded and miserable in the hemisphere. At the same time, these prisons have become a kind of headquarters for Central America’s two largest street gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.

Origins of Gang Activity

MS-13, a particularly dangerous gang, had its origins in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, California. During El Salvador’s prolonged civil war, some 700,000 Salvadorans immigrated to the U.S. as refugees, many of whom settled in southern California.  Many of these refugees attained legal status in the U.S but not necessarily citizenship. As outsiders, their children were frequently intimidated by existing gangs and responded by establishing their own, the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13.  As some of the youth had come armed with guns or machetes used during the war, it quickly became one of the most violent gangs in Los Angeles ( Flynn 2017).

After the civil war ended, the U.S. government revoked the Temporary Protected Status law, which had allowed Salvadorans to remain in the U.S. during the war. U.S. laws regarding the deportation of ex-convicts were also changed to enable the government to deport Salvadoran gang members thereby reducing pressure on the crowded California prison system. The result was a steady flow of deported former prisoners and other Salvadorans from the U.S. to El Salvador between 1998 and 2014. In total, over 81,000 ex-convicts were deported to El Salvador as well as Honduras and Guatemala (InSight Crime 2017).

In El Salvador, repatriated gang members were not welcomed back into society. They were heavily tattooed, had American tastes and habits, and in many cases did not even speak Spanish.  In addition, the post-war demobilization of thousands of soldiers and police resulted in high levels of unemployment and there were few jobs waiting for them. In light of this reception, many chose to remain active members of their gangs and so adapted the Los Angeles gang structure for the purpose of taking over local neighborhoods in El Salvador.

MS-13 and its rival Barrio 18, also originating on the streets of Los Angeles, soon emerged in the poorer neighborhoods of the Northern Triangle countries. In El Salvador, the two major gangs were bitter enemies and fighting was rampant. With violence peaking inside jails and juvenile detention centers, the public demanded action. In the year 2000, authorities responded by segregating the prisons according to gang membership choosing Centro de Internamiento de Menores de Tonacatepeque for the exclusive incarceration of MS 13 members and El Espino to house members of Barrio 18.

Mano Dura

The policy of Mano Dura, or the “iron fist”, followed in 2003. This policy stepped up police raids in gang dominated areas, increased sentences for suspected gang members, and expanded the presence of the military in neighborhoods throughout the country. In addition, the police were allowed to arrest suspected gang members based only on physical appearance – clothing, tattoos, and even gestures.

The following year, however, this early version of Mano Dura was annulled by the Constitutional Court and replaced with one known as Super Mano Dura. This second iteration gave extensive new powers to the police to stop, search, and detain suspected gang members for minor circumstances such as a tattoo or an alleged association and led to a tremendous increase in the prison population. In fact, where the prison population had been around 7,754 in 2000, by 2016, it had risen to 35,879 or more than four times the previous number.

While separation of the gangs did reduce violence between gang members, it also granted them unofficial control of the penitentiary system. Gang leaders, now safe from their enemies in prison, were restored to command and control as guards and other authoritative figures in the prison system came to play a more symbolic role in the order. In this way, Super Mano Dura actually “accelerated gang control on the inside, and made gang networks even stronger.” (InSight Crime 2017).

Prison Conditions

Prison conditions in El Salvador are notoriously deplorable. Prisoners sleep in overcrowded rooms with makeshift bedding on top of one another. Cells that are suitable for ten people, hold up to as many as 50 prisoners (World Prison Brief 2017). Serious problems with ventilation and light drive many inmates to psychotic breaks. Health care services are essentially non-existent, and gang members are not sent to the public hospitals until they are near death from dehydration, delirium, and anemia. Food services are provided by the community outside the prison and prisoners are not allowed to have eating utensils, causing the spread of disease. Most prison time is spent in communal recreation areas. There are usually small arts and crafts rooms that prisoners can use to make cards for their families but resources are slim. Jails lack job training programs and there is little contact with professionals outside of the prison such as doctors and psychologists. In a recent report, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted that adult prisons have the capacity to hold 8,110 beds yet house over 24,000 inmates or 300 percent over their capacity. Health, sanitation, and hygiene conditions were found unsuitable, and the overcrowded facilities were rampant with untreated respiratory illnesses and skin infections among inmates. In light of these conditions and the high rate of violence within the prisons, IACHR urged the construction of new prisons and renovation of existing ones (IAHCR 2013).

The IACHR also pointed out the degrading treatment of the relatives of prisoners, who are mainly women. As the army has seized control of the country’s major prison housing MS-13 inmates, misconduct and abuse by the armed forces was reported in this facility. This includes inappropriate and unhygienic vaginal and anal searches applied to all women visiting the prison including pregnant and elderly women. Refusing to submit to such a search results in the inability to visit family members.

Mass Incarceration and Gang Hierarchy

Through mano dura policies, the Salvadoran prison system has actually played a role in the organizational structure of the two major gangs. With the two separated from each other within the system and therefore protected from attack, gang leaders are able to carry on their criminal operations while inside the prison. In fact, gang structure benefits from the greater cohesion, efficiency, and elaborated hierarchy that is possible in the segregated prisons. Gang leaders are also able to take advantage of abysmal prison conditions by controlling incoming goods such as food, toiletries, medicines, and illegal substances in exchange for loyalty. As in the U.S., cellular phones are one of the most important items in the system, as they allow for communication to the outside world. (Dudley 2013)

*   *   *   *   *

Far from deterring criminal gangs, then, the current prison system in El Salvador has served to make them stronger. In segregated prisons, the shared misery of prison life creates a kind of bond among members within the same gang and has produced new efficiencies in the organizational structure of gangs. While prisons are home base for many criminal operations in El Salvador and across international lines, violent crime remains in this country. Unfortunately, as incarceration rates continue to rise, these trends are likely to continue along with the inevitable recruitment that takes place within the prisons. As in the U.S., the problem of mass incarceration and recidivism will go unchanged unless legal measures are implemented to reduce the size of prison populations and ways are found to allow more of the population to become productive members of society.



Dudley, Steven & Elyssa Pachico. (2013 June 11). A Look Inside El Salvador‘s Prison Nightmare. Video. InSight Crime. Available at:


Flynn, Sheila (2017). The History of MS-13 According to a Former Member, Daily Mail, March 14, 2017.


Insight Crime (2017). The Prison Dilemma in the Americas. InSight Crime. Accessed June 04, 2017.


Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). (2013 Mar 18). Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the Situation of Persons Deprived of their Liberty. IAHCR, 44. Available at


World Prison Brief. (2017). El Salvador. Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Accessed June 04, 2017.





Prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America.

This is the first in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written spring quarter 20l7 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas taught by Lynn Holland.

The U.S. Prison System and How It Hurts the Poor

Leonardo Godoy

Over the last several decades, the U.S. prison population has greatly expanded due in part to measures arising from government’s drug war. These measures, including the increased use of mandatory minimum sentencing, have disproportionately affected the poor and ethnic minority groups. Other problems that continue to harm the poor include the persistent use of bail, the lack of adequate reintegration programs, and the proliferation of prison-associated fees imposed on the families of prisoners.

The Drug War

The “drug war”, currently making a revival, has entailed a series of measures which have disproportionately affected the poor in this country. Soon after declaring the “war on drugs” in 1971, President Richard Nixon established the powerful Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), to greatly expand the size and scope of federal drug control activities. In 1982, President Ronald Reagan declared illegal drugs to be a national security threat as First Lady Nancy Reagan launched a privately funded anti-drug campaign to encourage youth to “Just Say No” to drugs.[1]  The Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986 allocated $1.7 billion to the anti-drug crusade and included mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses specifically for the distribution of cocaine. The Act also imposed penalties for “crack” cocaine offenses which were far more severe than those for the more expensive powder cocaine offenses. The result was that the poor, who used the cheaper crack cocaine, suffered harsher penalties than those who used the more expensive cocaine powder. This in turn led to a dramatic increase in racial disparities in the prison population.[2]

Two years later, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 included more severe mandatory minimum sentences (first time offenders would receive a five-year minimum sentence for simple possession of cocaine, even with no intent to sell), the elimination of federal benefits (such as student loans), and the use of the death penalty for serious drug-related convictions. The following year, Reagan established the Office of National Drug Control Policy to coordinate drug-related policies, security measures, diplomatic objectives, and government research, with the goal of eradicating illicit drug use, manufacturing, and distribution, and drug-related crime. Successive directors became known as “Drug Czars.”[3]

While the matter has been debated, it is widely held that the drug war contributed substantially to the rapid rise in the prison population after 1974. According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, the U.S. prison population at 2,239,751 in 2013, was the highest per capita rate in the world. By comparison, China with the next highest rate and four times the population of the U.S., had a prison population of only 1,640,000. [4] By 2012, inmates whose most serious offense was a drug offense constituted 52 percent of the federally sentenced population.[5]

In recent years, mandatory minimum sentencing has been somewhat curtailed and judges have been given greater discretion in certain cases at both the state and federal level. Unfortunately, the trend has not yet affected the thousands of people still stuck in prison for crimes that would have resulted shorter sentences if they had been committed just a few years later.

The Cost of Bail

Another practice that keeps the poor incarcerated longer is that of bail. A recent study of the New Jersey jail population found that nearly 40 percent of the prisoners were being held solely because they couldn’t meet the cost of their bail. Another study found that defendants at Rikers Island, New York City’s jail complex, were detained prior to being tried for a median of 68 days. This included some 400 who had waited for over two years for trial. Such individuals serve time without having been convicted of a crime simply because they are poor while their wealthier counterparts are able to walk free before their trials begin.

A working class person without the means to post bail not only loses time while in jail, that person may also lose his or her job for missing work and residence if he or she is unable to pay rent. The bail system also encourages suspects to simply plead guilty even when innocent, since the alternative is to be held in jail until trial. Pleading guilty, however, puts a permanent mark on the person’s record and criminal convictions make finding a job extremely difficult. Thus the current bail system results in high levels of pretrial and preventative detention, punishing the accused without guilt ever having been established.[6]

In Washington D.C., some measures are being taken to amend the bail system. Judges there can now set bail only if the defendants can afford it.[7] In addition, pretrial services provide specialists who can assess whether a defendant is dangerous or a flight risk, and provide alternatives to incarceration such as drug test monitoring, tracking ankle bracelets, or calling to remind the defendant of the trial.

Mass Incarceration and Criminal Organizations

With mass incarceration on the rise in the U.S., criminal networks have actually gained in membership and influence. Under conditions of crowding, the ranks of prison gangs swell and gang organization becomes more articulated. These conditions transform the prison setting into a kind of headquarters for organizing street level criminal activity, displacing state authority in communities, and coordinating mass violence.

The prison also becomes a kind of training ground for new recruits. In order to survive, younger and less violent inmates are typically forced to make alliances and become more hardened as they seek to survive within the prison system. Crowded prisons also mean closer and more continuous contact among inmates allowing for a greater dispersion of organizational knowledge.

After Release

The task of walking out of prison and returning to community life as a law abiding citizen can be daunting. Functioning programs that aim to rehabilitate former inmates and prepare them for jobs when they leave are few and far between. Having a criminal record makes it difficult to land that essential a job interview, much less the job itself. These tremendous challenges have contributed to a national recidivism rate of 50 percent. Two-thirds of parolees who return to prison do so because of parole violation. Scheduling conflicts with parole officers are common and some officers do little to help accommodate parolees. Depending on where one lives, the parolee may have to pay the parole program, a requirement that has actually caused some to return to selling drugs.

On top of that, many former inmates find themselves saddled with a whole new set of costs stemming from their period of incarceration. These can include medical co-pays, charges for phone calls and video visitation, fees related to booking, probation, DNA testing, and police transport, court costs and even the services of a public defender. These fees have grown immensely over the years as private enterprise has made its way into the prison industry. One report has shown that families pay an average cost of $13,607 for conviction-related costs including restitution and attorney’s fees. At the same time, nearly half of the families surveyed stated that they were unable to pay the fees. Ignoring the charges can lead to a warrant for arrest, refusal of access to public housing, or the denial of one’s driver’s license.[8]


*   *   *   *   *

Prison crowding and its self-reinforcing effect on gangs and crime along with the soaring public expense of mass incarceration have created new pressure for prison reform and crime prevention. While still in office, President Obama encouraged early intervention with young people, making certain, for instance, that young Black and Latino boys are not suspended at higher than average rates. We can also do more to invest in education and the development of job skills both within and outside of the prison system. We can encourage the replacement of bail with less discriminatory ways of keeping tabs on defendants. The multitude of fees imposed on the families of prisoners should be reexamined and eliminated where possible including those imposed for public defenders. Finally, we can continue to revise mandatory minimum sentencing.

In the end, those who have done time in our nation’s prisons and jails will not be the only beneficiaries of these reforms. Since most inmates in the U.S. will eventually be released and returned to the community, it is in all our interest to give them a better chance of success.

[1] “Clergy for a new drug policy.” Retrieved on May 25, 2017. Accessible at:


[2] American Civil Liberty Union, Fair Sentencing Act, ACLU Foundation 2017,

[3]Sacco, Lisa “Drug Enforcement in the United States: History, Policy, and Trends” Analyst in Illicit Drugs and Crime Policy, pg. 9 October 2, 2014. Accessed on June 3, 2017


[4] Walmsley, Roy “World Prison Population List (tenth edition)” International Centre for Prison Studies. Accessed on June 3, 2017. Accessible at:


[5] Sam Taxy, Julie Samuels, and William Adams, Drug Offenders in Federal Prison, U.S. Department of Justice Special Report, October 2015,

[6] Ingraham, Christopher “Why we spend billions to keep half a million-unconvicted people behind bars” The Washington Post June 11, 2015.


[7] Wiltz, Teresa “Locked Up: Is Cash Bail on the way out?” The PEW Charitable Trusts Accessed on June 3, 2017. Retrievable by:


[8] Tanzina Vega, Costly Prison Fees Are Putting Inmates Deep in Debt, CNN Money, September 18, 2015,

Message from Korbel Students Addressing Executive Order Regarding Refugees and Immigrants

February 22, 2017

To the Korbel Community:

We, students of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, are horrified by the President’s executive order issued on January 27, 2017. In the face of increasing state-sanctioned discrimination, we will stand by and with the international and undocumented members of our community, and anyone who feels threatened by the actions of this administration.

As students of a school that actively recruits internationally, we recognize our unique community make-up and the value that diversity of nationality, ethnicity, color, religion, language, perspective and experience brings to this academic institution. We are firmly committed to supporting all Korbel students, faculty, and community members who face any form of discrimination or feel unsafe, either on or off campus.

While Josef Korbel’s personal story reminds us that our country has a long history of accepting immigrants and refugees—and is stronger for it— we recognize that this offers little comfort to the many members of our community who are directly affected by this executive order. Students, professors and staff may be afraid to board international or even domestic flights, for fear that they may not be able to return, or will be detained for an unknown period of time. Family members will not be able to attend students’ graduation ceremonies. Graduating students may have fewer options to pursue professional opportunities domestically (depending on Federal OPT decisions) and abroad. Additionally, restrictions on who can enter the United States will limit our ability to host visiting scholars, professors and lecturers, ultimately undermining the quality of research and education at Korbel.

Our outrage over the implications of this executive order extends beyond its direct effects on our personal community. As Korbel students, we are committed to building global networks, strengthening international exchange and engaging with the world around us. Actions such as this ban run directly counter to our values as an international school and a diverse, multicultural student body.

We hope to open a conversation among students, faculty and the administration about how best to respond to these alarming executive actions and prepare for others that will come. In the meantime, we are here, and more than ready to dig deep and do what is right.

In solidarity and resistance,


**Add your name to the letter in the google form here:


Trump’s Proposed Tariff on Mexican Exports Will Backfire

By George DeMartino

The new Trump proposal (now under consideration by his administration) to get Mexico to pay for the proposed wall along the Mexican border through a 20% tax on Mexican exports to the US violates a range of international trade laws, and is apt to generate retaliation by Mexico. Mexico’s right to retaliate is assured by the WTO, and so would survive any attempt by the Trump Administration to cancel NAFTA. That retaliation could hurt important sectors of the US economy given that Mexico now absorbs about 15% of total US exports. But in addition to the harms from retaliation (and from the wall itself), the funding proposal is likely to backfire in at least five ways.

  1. The incidence of the tax will fall heavily on and American firms at home that import from Mexico, American consumers, and American firms in Mexico that export to the US. US retailers will look to offset higher import costs by reducing other expenses, such as by shedding employees. So will firms that import inputs from Mexico for final assembly in the US. Here, too, pressure will mount to cut costs in ways that harm American workers. And for goods without immediate substitutes, like some agricultural goods, US consumers will be on the hook for a greater share of the tax. Despite appearances and Trump’s claims to the contrary, then, Americans will pay a substantial share of the costs for Trump’s wall. But don’t expect Trump to trouble himself with the basic math.
  1. For Mexican exports for which there are ready substitutes, Mexican and US firms producing in Mexico will bear a greater share of the tax in the form of reduced revenues as they struggle to maintain their exports to the US. But very soon Mexican exports to the US will decline as US importers look to buy from other countries. The decline would of course reduce the expected revenues from the tax, and trigger other unintended effects (see #5, below).
  1. President Trump will say that the tax will induce US companies producing in Mexico to relocate production and jobs back to the US. It is unlikely most will do so. If corporations in Mexico think the tax is likely to persist, they are more likely to move production to other low-waged countries than back to the US.
  1. In fact, if the tax persists for even a year or two, it is much more likely to accelerate a trend already under way—the substitution of Chinese for Mexican goods in US markets. China has posed a serious threat to Mexican exports of high-skilled and medium-skilled manufactured products for at least a decade. The Trump tax will only accelerate the trend. And so Chinese leaders are apt to be even happier about the tax (and, also, about the Trump wall) than are Trump supporters in the US. It’s not at all far-fetched to argue that the primary beneficiary of the tax on Mexican exports to the US will be China,followed by a small number of other low-waged countries that will rush to exploit the opportunity created by increased Mexican prices in the US market.
  1. The social impact in Mexico could be severe. Like most economic shocks, the tariff will hurt the most vulnerable communities rather than the administration of Mexican President Peña Nieto, who could very well begin to reverse his abysmal level of domestic support by standing up to Trump. To the degree that the Trump tax reduces Mexican exports, it can be expected to increase the number of financially desperate Mexican workers trying to enter the US—legally and illegally—and even push some displaced workers into illicit market activity. And so the Trump tax will undermine the very purpose for which it is intended—to reduce illegal border crossings—while harming working people on both sides of the wall.

George DeMartino is a Professor at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver