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Posts from 2015

One Giant Graveyard

Understanding Murder and the War on Drugs in Mexico, 2006–2013

“I wish you had no narco-trafficking, but it’s not really your fault. Basically, we did too good of a job of taking the transportation out of the air and water, and so we ran it over land. I apologize for that.” - Bill Clinton
On September 26, 2014, 43 students in the state of Guerrero, Mexico disappeared, leaving no clues behind. They became the latest victims in a state in which criminals and politicians work together to kill common enemies. Even though Mexicans have become accustomed to indiscriminate killings, the evidence that this latest event was ordered by the local government generated outrage and massive protests.

The terrible events in September 2014 took place within an important historical context. In December 2006, President Felipe Calderón, with the encouragement of the United States, declared a war on drug cartels. Calderón had neither a clear strategy nor sufficient military intelligence and power to win this war. His actions led to retaliation by the cartels that resulted in a surge of homicides, kidnappings, and extortions in several states of the country. 

From 2007 to 2011, violence in Mexico exploded, with the number of homicides rising from 8 to 24 per 100,000. And while the steep increase in violence was initially concentrated in certain states in Mexico, by 2013 it was widespread, likely reflecting the drug cartels’ expanded operations. 

The image presented here illustrates the dramatic spread of homicides in Mexico between 2006 and 2013.  The graphic was created using data from Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI). 

As the video makes clear, states near the border with the U.S. experienced substantially more violence than states located in southern region of the country (with the exception of Guerrero). Likewise, those states with the largest number of cartels operating experienced the greatest homicide rates. During the 2006–2013 period, for example, Chihuahua had an average annual murder rate of 94 per 100,000, higher than the most violent country in the world (Honduras, with 90 homicides per 100,000 in 2012) and around 80% higher than the next most violent state, Guerrero. By comparison, Yucatan had a homicide rate of only 2.3 per 100,000, significantly lower than even Chile, the safest country in Latin America.

It is important to underline that this spread of violence in Mexico did not correspond with the state of local economies: the poorest states were not those with highest levels of violence; likewise, the wealthiest states were not the safest.  Rather, homicides over this period were overwhelmingly driven by the presence of cartels and the proximity to the United States and its enormous drug market. 

Less than three months after the disappearance of the 43 students in Guerrero, former President Bill Clinton, speaking in Mexico City, apologized to the people of Mexico for the role that U.S. demand and U.S. policy played in Mexican violence and drug trafficking. 

“I wish you had no narco-trafficking,” he said. “But it’s not really your fault. Basically, we did too good of a job of taking the transportation out of the air and water, and so we ran it over land. I apologize for that.” 

The analysis conducted in researching this article supports the conclusion implied by the former President in this quote: the War on Drugs appears to have been a failure and to have contributed to the violence plaguing Mexico over the last decade.

Demand for illicit drugs in the United States creates lucrative markets for Mexican drug-trafficking organizations. Mexican cartels earn around US$2 billion each year from exporting marijuana alone to the U.S. along the southwest border.

Despite the seemingly meager results in drug consumption and smuggling, the Mexican government consistently increased the budget allocated to public security and the army between 2006 and 2012. By 2012, the government spent almost US$10 billion on homeland security, compared to about US$5 billion in 2006. And while the government launched consistent attacks upon the cartels, it had a poor strategy for freezing their assets, leading to an ongoing process of new confrontations and exacerbating the violence in the country.  

At the same time as this spending was increasing, homicides were skyrocketing, particularly in those states along the U.S. border and with heavy presence of drug cartels, as shown below.  


Taken together, the strategy followed by the Mexican government toward defeating the drug cartels, along with persistent and growing demand for drugs in the United States and Mexico, appears to have contributed to the steep increase in the number of homicides between 2007 and 2011, with no corresponding reductions in consumption or in smuggling. This conclusion is supported by state- and municipal-level analysis looking at violence in Chihuahua and Guerrero over the same time period.  And while it is impossible to isolate the exact impact of the drug war on homicides and other violence in Mexico, this analysis contributes to a growing evidence base suggesting that the War on Drugs has been unsuccessful and has contributed to the astonishing rates of violence and murders in Mexico. 

Ignacio Camacho is a Master of Public Policy candidate for 2015 at the Goldman School of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley. This featured research was originally posted on PolicyMatters Journal.

In Times of Crisis, Local and Regional Food Procurement Can Save Time, Money, and Livelihoods

The most recent Farm Bill, officially known as the Agricultural Act of 2014, was probably most widely associated with an $8.6 billion cut to SNAP, a 2.8 million acreage cut in land marked for conservation, and a long congressional stalemate. However, looking more closely, the Farm Bill also had a major win signed into law in its expansion of funding devoted to local and regional food procurement. Started as a pilot program in 2008, the USDA Local and Regional Procurement Pilot Program (LRP) provided post-crisis food aid in developing countries by purchasing and distributing food from local areas.

At only $80 million dollars, the LRP is a pittance in comparison to the $946 billion allotted in the bill. Nonetheless, local and regional food procurement as a disaster response has been remarkably successful thus far. A 2012 USDA report showed that the LRP program helps get food to victims of disaster-strewn countries an average of 74 days earlier and 36% cheaper than through in-kind food aid donations. 

And as our country prepares for the inevitability of more natural disasters year after year—disasters like Hurricane Sandy, for example—we could take a lesson from the international community. It’s time to for us to use a similar model of focusing on local and regional food procurement—through SNAP, new transportation policies, and community food projects, among other initiatives—to respond to disasters, so that people who fall victim to disasters like the 114,000 victims of Hurricane Sandy can have access to food quickly, cheaply, healthfully and efficiently. Here, I use Hurricane Sandy as an example to show four policy changes that should be made in disaster response.  

Extend and expand the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (DSNAP).  DSNAP provides all eligible victims of disasters with a short-term allotment of food stamps at the maximum possible allotment for their household under the typical SNAP program. According to the Food Research and Action Center, every dollar of emergency money spent on food stamps sparks $1.73 in local economic activity, enriching a local economy struggling with the disaster.  As seen in Figure 1, this $1.73 per dollar impact is larger than any comparable program in local stimulus per dollar. After Hurricane Sandy, we saw that thousands of families became food insecure due to the storm, and extending DSNAP is a cost-effective and efficient way to help communities recover over the long term while feeding families today. 

Increase Food Stamp outreach initiatives. While DSNAP will help get families back on their feet, many families will still need longer-term support. Therefore, outreach initiatives must be put in place to educate and enroll families in regular SNAP benefits. A major disaster brings already vulnerable families to the brink, making it critical to provide outreach to allow informed family response. Furthermore, increased SNAP participation has been shown to mitigate emergency food provider (EFP) food shortages, a major issue facing EFPs in post-disaster areas.

Increase transportation access for individuals and families from disaster-affected areas to nearby food retailers. Food and water are points of greatest concern following a disaster. Following Hurricane Sandy, the areas of NYC most affected were already areas in greatest need of supermarket access, In planning for the next storm, it is even more important to increase transportation to nearby food retailers

Enable emergency food providers (EFPs) to purchase food locally for distribution. Improving EFPs’ access to locally grown food boosts the local economy, supports local farmers, and increases access to fresh food for low-income communities. This emphasis on the local economy as a whole is a key. Facing significant damage from a natural disaster, an emphasis on local food responds on both the supply and demand sides, boosting local farming while taking advantage of quick and low transportation costs to efficiently meet demand. In order to meet increasing demand at EFPs, looking to our local food producers provides a comprehensive economic response. 

Without a doubt, the people directly impacted by disasters like Hurricane Sandy are the most important among those affected by improved and increased access to food. However, many other stakeholders will benefit from improved post-disaster food policies as well. Local farmers will be able to secure a return for the crops that will be purchased for EFPs, while EFPs will be able to meet their increasing demands for food. With improved transportation, local food retailers will be able to increase their foot traffic, and increased SNAP participation will be a boon for NYC’s local economy. This is of particular importance for businesses that have been dealt an unlucky blow in the wake of a disaster.

The champions of policies focused on local food procurement as a response to disaster relief have worked and experienced success on both a national and international level. A non-profit organization called Just Food, through its direct purchasing and Fresh Food For All program, has demonstrated that increasing the ability for EFPs to purchase food locally and promote SNAP participation has helped individuals and families access fresh food while providing additional markets for farmers.  Through LRP, Oxfam America has seen that “LPR can save time and money, allowing crucial aid to reach more people in need of food assistance. It also invests in communities so they can feed themselves, instead of becoming dependent on food aid in the future.” There is a tremendous opportunity for Oxfam and Just Food to share best practices and methodologies for local food procurement as a way to improve food access. While operating on two very different levels, the premise of both programs is the same: instead of relying on in-kind food donations and increased dependency through food aid, invest in rebuilding communities for the long term by increasing access to and purchasing of fresh, local food.  

By allowing individuals and families to obtain SNAP, get to food retailers, and access fresh, local food through EFPs, we can ensure that those affected by future disasters will have a solid foundation to rely on as they work to feed their families and rebuild their lives. The policies outlined here are not major shifts, and they can be done using our existing systems. All they require is the funding and support necessary to make sure that all those affected by large natural disasters know about and are able to participate in these programs. They also require the political will to take proactive steps toward preparing for the next disaster. For Sandy victims in New York City, perhaps the policy window is closed. However, considering that there will inevitably be a “next time”, the US must act and adopt these lessons so that when the next disaster strikes, we will be ready to respond. 

Sasha Feldstein is a first-year MPP student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. This featured research was originally posted on PolicyMatters Journal.

Confronting the Past

Understanding El Salvador's History and the Current Child Migration Crisis

As a first generation Salvadoran-American, I have always been interested in understanding why my grandmother decided to send her two teenage daughters to the United States. I have learned that the civil war that plagued my parents’ home between 1980 and 1992 forced many grandparents and parents like mine to face the same difficult question that confronts many families still today: whether it is necessary to send their children to the United States in order to protect them from being victims of violence. The Salvadorans who fled to the U.S. to escape the horrors of the civil war have much in common with the unaccompanied children who migrated to this country in historic numbers this past summer and have since become another part of the large undocumented population living in the shadows. The parallels are striking and discomfiting. Parents are trying to save their children from becoming victims of, or being enlisted by, violent gangs. They are trying to ensure them access to their basic human rights, such as education. And young people are seizing their own agency, deciding to make the difficult trek to reunite with their families or avoid violence in their own homes. They are risking their lives to try to save them. 

There are a number of historic, deeply rooted issues that have increased the instability and severity of the violence in Central America. This article will discuss the complex recent history of El Salvador, how the violence of its Civil War continues to echo in the country today, and what lessons our immigration policy during the Civil War can teach us about appropriate policy responses today. This article will also argue that, for basic humanitarian reasons, it is critical that the United States provide at least basic social services to these vulnerable children. If American policymakers do not address the underlying reasons driving Salvadoran migration—something they failed to do in the 1980s—the violence plaguing El Salvador will persist, and its citizens will continue making the difficult decision to seek refuge in the US. 

Push Versus Pull Factors

Despite the parallels with recent history, many U.S. policymakers still question why thousands of youth are so suddenly fleeing their home countries in Central America. At a congressional hearing last year, some congressmen charged that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA)—a policy that defers for two years the removal of individuals who arrived in the United States before the age of sixteen and are attending, or have graduated, high school—is a major “pull-factor,” enticing more children to enter the United States. Republican Representative Matt Salmon (AZ-05) claimed rumors that DACA will provide all children “permisos” to stay in the U.S. had spread through Central America. Republican Representative Sean Duffy (WI-07) called on President Obama to make a public pronouncement that the border was in fact closed, arguing it was the only way to persuade children not to migrate. Money is being poured into campaigns highlighting the grave consequences and difficulties faced by individuals who attempt to cross the border. 

These charges overlook the much more important “push factors” that are driving children to seek refuge in the United States. The Department of Homeland Security has reported that most of the children are traveling from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Not surprisingly, these countries have the first, fourth, and fifth-highest murder rates in the world, respectively. 

These statistics are consistent with findings from research I have been completing for the past two years, and events I witnessed during my time in visits to El Salvador. This past summer I worked with Clínica Monseñor Oscar A. Romero in Los Angeles, named after the beloved, martyred Salvadoran archbishop.[1] In conversations with local community members, it became very clear that the same environment that caused its founders to flee El Salvador twenty years before—terror, inequality, and violence—was causing the huge increase in migration today. When I traveled to El Salvador this past summer to assess the reality Salvadorans face as part of my work with Clínica Romero, I learned that no single policy or public statement would solve this dire situation. Rather, I saw that the dangers children face in their journeys to the United States pale in comparison to the dangers they face at home. Having also visited El Salvador the year before, I was shocked by how much had changed. The military now occupied nearly every building in San Salvador’s central market, bearing automatic weapons. Most striking was the seemingly complete disappearance of young men, who usually crowded the market. One mother of two teenage boys told me it is too dangerous for them to visit the central market and they generally do not leave the house. Christian, her 14-year-old son, had been attacked by nine young men while attempting to buy food at a stand less than a block away from his mother’s stand. The attackers stripped off his clothes to see if he had any tattoos signifying gang affiliation. Her 18-year-old son, Douglas, graduated high school last year but has yet to find a job. Given the significant risk of being attacked by gang members if he were to leave the house to find work and the dangers faced when using public transportation, she prefers he stay at home. 

It is also important to acknowledge that children are not leaving their homes for the United States only at the behest of their parents. Many are leaving under their own power and agency, to escape parental abuse or reunite with family members in the U.S. The UNHCR’s Children on the Run reported that 21% of the children interviewed from El Salvador reported surviving abuse and violence in their home at the hands of their caretakers.[2] Additionally, the Office of Refugee Resettlement reports that 85% of children who make the journey have been reunified with their families in the U.S.[3] El Salvador’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reported that as of 2011, approximately 12% of Salvadoran children were growing up without one or both parents due to migration. Through interviews with some of the children living in El Salvador, researcher Leisy Abrego documented the negative effects of such circumstances on how children perform in school, develop their goals, and integrate into society.[4]

Understanding a Long, Violent History

The Salvadoran Civil War lasted from 1980-1992. It was fought between the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which was supported by the US government with a total of $5 billion in economic and military aid,[5] and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Named after a leader of an attempted indigenous revolt in 1932, the FMLN was a coalition of guerrilla groups that aimed to unseat the country’s ruling power and restructure the economy for the benefit of the country’s poor majority.[6] The Civil War should be understood as part of a long history of protests by those excluded from the small circle of economic and political interests. 

ARENA was the party of right-wing military officers, paramilitary operatives, and conservative members of the traditional oligarchy.[7] ARENA’s paramilitary groups are accused of coordinating the infamous assassinations of Archbishop Monseñor Oscar A. Romero during Mass in 1980, six Jesuits at the University of Central America, political advocates, and an untold number of massacres against rural Salvadorans, such as those at El Mozote where almost 1,000 innocent men, women and children were killed.[8

The Effects of Persecution and an Unwelcoming New Home

The violence that still plagues El Salvador is a residual phenomenon of the country’s Civil War. Historian and author of Violence and Terror Among Salvadoran Families in the Postwar, Julia Dickson-Gomez, argues that the expectation of violence, the pervasive mistrust in one’s neighbors, and a profound disillusionment with politics are traits of trauma that have been transmitted from generation to generation following the Civil War.[9]

This breakdown of trust and community is further complicated by the deportation of gang members to El Salvador during the 1990s. The risks faced by all Salvadorans during the Civil War, and in particular by young men, drove many to seek refuge in the United States during the 1980s.Salvadorans attempting to begin a new life in the United States rarely came to the country together as a family. Usually, the parents arrived first, splitting nuclear families between borders. Once they saved enough money, the children were brought to the U.S. They were then introduced to the new life their parents had formed, sometimes learning that they had new American siblings they had never met before. Children who traveled to the United States experienced the severe culture shock of their new homes and their parents’ American realities, changes many children had a difficult time understanding and accepting.  

As is true for many migrants, Salvadorans who have recently arrived in the United States face limited economic opportunities and significant discrimination. Other Latinos already living in the area, mostly Mexicans, did not accept Salvadorans. Young immigrants were the most affected by discrimination. They sought community and understanding through informal social networks of fellow Salvadorans that later transformed into dangerous gangs, such as the Mara Salvatrucha.[10]

At first, these informal social networks were unofficial groups of friends who simply came together in different neighborhood corners to spend time together and participate in activities typical for youths their age. In the 1990s, members of the gangs became heavily involved in violent and drug-related activities. Since many of the members were undocumented, immigration policies were enacted that directly targeted gang members and facilitated their deportations. Under the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act (1996), prosecution of non-citizens for drug trafficking offenses increased from 1,799 in 1985 to 7,803 in 2000.[11] By 2003, the total number of criminal deportations to Central America had increased to 5,905. El Salvador received 1,982 deportees with criminal records, the most of any country. Many of the deportees that arrived in El Salvador did not have family in the country, since family members had fled to the U.S. in the 1980s. Without any safety social net, supportive services like mental health, counseling, education or integration programs, or support from family members, the deportees again became involved in gangs. Recruiting new and more members, the gangs replicated and spread what they had started in the United States.  

It is critical that proper social safety net programs, such as health care and proper legal representation, are provided for this new wave of unaccompanied immigrant children to ensure their successful integration, and help them avoid the same obstacles and challenges that the youth faced during the 1990s. 

Moving Forward

El Salvador’s long history of political suppression, violence, and gangs has aggravated the crisis in which the country currently finds itself. El Salvador’s road to reconstruction is not easy. The country must address many interconnected and complex issues, especially the terror produced by gangs and the impunity with which they operate. 

When dealing with the current humanitarian crisis, the first concern is whether the children are deported or remain in the United States. If they are deported, it is important to acknowledge that they are returning to countries where they will be at risk, and question what protection they may have. Instead of providing substantial military aid to these countries, the U.S. should focus on investing in social and economic development that supports youth development programs and education, and addresses poverty. If the children stay in the U.S., integration programs are needed to help them identify and build productive social networks so they may avoid relying on dangerous and informal social networks such as gangs. 

Central American children are fleeing to the United States to attain basic human rights protected by the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights: life, liberty and security of person, education, and asylum from persecution. As a nation that identifies so deeply with the value of these basic rights, we must work to ensure that these children have opportunities to access them. Moreover, given our historical involvement in El Salvador’s Civil War and support for its government, the United States will forever be implicated in the country’s instability and its struggle to free itself from violence. Not only must the U.S. humanely address the crisis of unaccompanied refugee children, we have an obligation to proactively support El Salvador’s government in successful and peaceful development. This is also the most effective strategy for addressing the United States’ concerns around immigration. If we do nothing to solve El Salvador’s underlying problems, violence will continue to plague its citizens and they will continue to seek safety and peace elsewhere. 


[1] The clinic views health care as a right everyone should have, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or immigration status. It was established in 1983 by Salvadoran refugees fleeing the Civil War to fill the void of social services available to the newly immigrant group. Clínica Romero provides quality, affordable, and culturally sensitive health care and other services to the uninsured and underserved communities in LA. 

[2] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Children on the Run: Unaccompanied Children Leaving Central America and Mexico and the Need for International Protection.” The United Nations Refugee Agency, 2014.  

[3] United States Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Office of Refugee Resettlement, “Unaccompanied Alien Children Program Fact Sheet,” May 2014.

[4] Abrego, Leisy. Sacrificing Families: Navigating Laws, Labor, and Love Across Borders. Stanford University Press, 2014.

[5] Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador” Cambridge University Press, 2000. 

[6] Murray, Kevin, and Tom Barry. Inside El Salvador. Interhemispheric Resource Center, 1995.

[7] Murray, Kevin, and Tom Barry. Inside El Salvador. Interhemispheric Resource Center, 1995. (NOT SURE IF PMJ USES I-BID IN END NOTES) 

[8] Danner, Mark. Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War, New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

[9] Dickson-Gomes, Julia. (2002). The Sound of Barking Dogs: Violence and Terror among Salvadoran Families in the Postwar. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 16, No. 4. pp. 415-438.

[10] Ana Arana. “How the Street Gangs Took Central America,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 84, No. 3, May/June 2005, p. 98.

[11] Urias, Laura. “Homegrown in the Streets of the United States and Exported to the Barrios of El Salvador: The Deportation of Gang Members.” How. Scroll: Soc. Just. L. Rev. 8 (2005): 1.

Katya Rodriguez is a second year graduate student at the Goldman School of Public Policy pursuing her masters’ in Public Policy and International and Area Studies. She worked with Clínica Monsenor A. Romero as a University of California Human Rights Fellow, sponsored by the Human Rights Center at the UC Berkeley School of Law. This article was originally posted on PolicyMatters Journal. 

Assessing an Innovative Policing Program

Wednesday evenings in Jack Farrell Park in East Palo Alto, California, is a curious sight—police officers playing volleyball and soccer with community members, leading bicycle tours around the city’s streets, and conducting outdoor Zumba classes, while staff from a local community health center engage residents on topics like healthy cooking and female health. These are all part of an innovative initiative aimed at curbing crime and building healthy habits in two high-crime neighborhoods in East Palo Alto called the Fitness Improvement Training (“FIT”) Zone program.

Launched in 2012 by the East Palo Alto Police Department, the FIT Zone program takes aim at two enduring issues facing residents of this small California city—violent crime and poor health. In 2012, this city of just 28,000 had the 13th highest violent crime rate out of all cities across the state. Half of all children in East Palo Alto are overweight or obese, and residents suffer from chronic diseases, like diabetes, at four times the rate of other areas in the county. Researchers have begun to understand the complex relationship between health and crime, a fact not lost on residents of East Palo Alto who avoid walking through their streets and parks for fear of crime. Each week, a variety of health and exercise activities are held at two FIT Zone program sites to encourage residents to use their outdoor community spaces in safe and healthy ways, and build positive relationships between the community and law enforcement. By fostering safe public spaces where residents can be active, the FIT Zone program aims to discourage criminal activity, especially gun violence, in these areas.

For my Advanced Policy Analysis project in my second year in the GSPP master’s program, I partnered with the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law & Social Policy to evaluate the impact of the FIT Zone program on public safety. My research focused on whether the program reduced shootings in the two targeted neighborhoods, and whether shooting activity was displaced into areas just outside the intervention sites. To do this, I reviewed five years of spatial data from the ShotSpotter acoustic gunshot detection system, a monitoring tool installed across the city that provides law enforcement with the exact geographic location, time, and date of shooting incidents. I compared the change in shootings before and after the FIT Zone program began in the intervention sites and areas immediately surrounding the intervention sites with a comparison site to estimate whether the FIT Zone program reduced gun violence.

My research found that the FIT Zone program reduced shootings significantly at one intervention site, but not the other, where the program appeared to have no impact on shooting incidents.  One intervention site appeared to reduce shootings in the surrounding areas, a potential diffusion effect, while the other saw no change in gun violence in nearby streets. Why did the program appear to work in one location and not the other? Crime reduction efforts are rarely “one size fits all” solutions, and my evaluation of the FIT Zone program found no different. How the program was implemented at each site mattered, and the study raised important questions about whether the FIT Zone program was appropriately tailored to the underlying physical and social dynamics that generate gun violence in each neighborhood. Ultimately, the research led to a reorganization of the program, and the launch of a new intervention site.

The East Palo Alto Police Department’s FIT Zone program represents a promising new frontier in cross-disciplinary collaboration and community-police partnerships.  My work with the Warren Institute and the East Palo Alto Police Department represents an early effort to evaluate and strengthen innovative policing programs.


Rebecca Tublitz’s Advanced Policy Analysis (APA) project on the FIT zone was awarded the 2014 Smolensky Prize for outstanding APA.