Trump Exemplifies Regional Trend of Blaming Crime on Migrants

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New US President Donald Trump has ordered the construction of a border wall to keep out what he has labelled the “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” from Mexico. But while Trump may have taken xenophobic rhetoric to a new extreme in the United States, when it comes to organized crime in the Americas, he is far from alone in taking a blame thy neighbor stance.

On January 25, Trump signed an executive order for the construction of an “impassable physical barrier” on the US-Mexico border, reported the BBC.

The order is designed to fulfill one of his most contentious yet popular campaign promises: to control immigration through the US southern border. Throughout the campaign, Trump blamed Mexican immigrants for a variety of social ills ranging from sexual crimes to unemployment, but he focused on one area above all others: organized crime.

“I have a message for the drug dealers, for the gang members and the criminal cartels, your days are numbered,” he said at an October campaign rally in Florida. “When we allow ICE and the Border Patrol agents and when we give them a big beautiful wall … we will stop the drugs from poisoning our youths and others.” 

Trump’s incendiary rhetoric and simplistic solution reframed the debate in the United States over organized crime and immigration, and undoubtedly fanned the flames of anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. However, he is far from the only regional leader currently blaming organized crime on immigration and foreigners. Examples can be found across the region of politicians directing the blame outwards for internal security problems.

Just the day before Trump’s announcement, Argentina’s Security Minister Patricia Bullrich justified new plans to tighten immigration restrictions by blaming immigrants for drug trafficking and related violence, reported La Nación

“A lot of Paraguyan, Peruvian and Bolivian citizens work as drivers, mules and other links in the drug trafficking chain,” she said. 

Bullrich also said both Peruvians and Paraguayans go to Argentina and “end up killing each other in order to control drugs.” The minister at least spared such stigma for her other target. “The Bolivians — not so much,” she added. 

Bullrich’s comments follow several years of media and political panic over the influx of Colombians into the country. In this time, Argentina has been labelled a “nest of hitmen,” and a “dormitory” and “paradise” for Colombian organized crime.

Bullrich’s comments and her immigration plans echo those made by former Chilean President Sebastián Piñera a few months earlier. In November, Piñera also campaigned for stricter immigration laws in order to tackle organized crime, reported La Tercera. The former president alleged many of Chile’s gangs were comprised of foreigners and stated that current immigration policies “end up importing evils like delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.”  

However, by far the closest echo in the region of the extreme lengths Trump has gone to in order to blame outsiders has long been provided by another nationalist populist with a reputation for being dismissive of evident facts: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

Since becoming president in 2013, Maduro has laid blame for Venezuela’s security crisis and political instability at the door of neighboring Colombia. Maduro has blamed Colombian “fascists” and “paramilitaries” for everything from drug trafficking to social protests and has accused them of plotting political assassinations. In 2015, the president even resorted to shutting down the border and ejecting Colombian migrants from the country in what he claimed was action targeting “paramilitaries.”

InSight Crime Analysis

Transnational organized crime is by its very definition a problem that crosses borders and so there is some truth in claims about the influence of foreign criminals in many countries. Mexican drug cartels do indeed operate in the United States; Colombian armed groups do maintain a presence in Venezuelan border regions; and drug traffickers from Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Bolivia all use Argentina as a trafficking transit route. In addition, there can be little doubt that porous borders and loose immigration policies are an advantage to organized crime.

However, immigration and border control are just one small part of a combination of complex factors and conditions that determine the actions and success of transnational organized crime. It is highly unlikely that the immigration policies proposed by Trump and his Latin American counterparts will make a serious impact on the operations of organized crime, and it would be naïve to believe that this is their primary objective when conflating immigration and crime. 

SEE ALSO: Coverage of the US-Mexico Border

The blaming of “the other” in the form of minorities or outsiders has long been a staple tactic of political leaders and movements, especially nationalistic ones, and one that is often used not only to rally support against a common enemy but also to distract from a government’s own failings. The current cases of Trump, Maduro and Bullrich are likely no different.

In the United States for example, Mexican cartels operate not because of loose immigration rules but because the United States remains by far the biggest drug consumer in the world, despite decades of repressive drug policies at home and abroad. In Venezuela and Argentina, meanwhile, transnational organized crime has been able to turn these countries into drug transit routes and criminal refuges more because of weak state institutions and high levels of corruption than because of their porous borders.

Anti-immigrant rhetoric and blaming foreign countries not only masks these national failings, it also detracts from the important and complex debates over transnational security cooperation that should be taking place within and between countries in the Americas. Simply laying the blame on a mass of foreigners undermines transnational security cooperation, makes little sense from a policy perspective and stigmatizes already marginalized social groups.

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