(CNSNews.com) - An advocate for Central American children told Congress on Thursday that she considers "many" of those children to be refugees when they reach the United States. And she indicated that Americans' appetite for illegal drugs is part of the reason:
"The U.S. has spent billions to disrupt the flow of drugs from Colombia up the Caribbean corridor," Sonia Nazario said in her opening statement before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The narco-cartels, mostly Mexican, have simply re-routed inland, and four in five flights of cocaine bound for the U.S. now land in Honduras. These cartels are vying for control over turf and to expand drug distribution, sales, and extortion in these neighborhoods."
Nazario is an author and journalist who sits on the board of Kids in Need of Defense (KIND), a nonprofit founded by Microsoft and actress Angelina Jolie that recruits pro bono attorneys to represent unaccompanied children who cross into the United States illegally.
She testified that last month, she returned to Honduras for the first time in ten years, spending a week in a rough neighborhood near Tegucigalpa where the level of violence directed at children left her "astounded."
"Gangs have long ruled parts of Nueva Suyapa," Nazario said in her prepared statement, "but the recent control by narco-cartels has brought a new reach and viciousness to violence children in particular face in this neighborhood and throughout the country.
"People are found hacked apart, heads cut off, skinned alive. Children are kidnapped. People are routinely killed for their cell phones. On some 20 or 30 buses daily, passengers are all robbed at gunpoint; in one instance 23 were killed.
"Sometimes, at night, men show up in face masks and strafe anyone out on the street. Threatened families have had to abandon homes and flee with only the clothes on their backs. Several neighborhoods are worse than Nueva Suyapa; no one can go in without permission from gangs or narco traffickers, and war taxes are imposed on every resident. If you don't pay, they kill you. World Vision International, a Christian nonprofit group, has shut down operations in a nearby neighborhood because thugs won't let their staff enter."
The U.S. State Department backs up Nazario's claim about cocaine flights to the United States:
"Honduras is a major transit country for cocaine, as well as for some chemical precursors for heroin and synthetic drugs. The United States estimated that approximately 86 percent of the cocaine trafficked to the United States in the first half of 2013 first transited through the Mexico/Central America corridor," says the State Department's 2014 Country Report on Honduras.
"The United States also estimated in 2012 that 75 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights departing South America first land in Honduras. The Caribbean coastal region of Honduras is a primary landing zone for drug-carrying flights and maritime traffic. The region is vulnerable to narcotics trafficking due to its remoteness, limited infrastructure, lack of government presence, and weak law enforcement institutions."
The same report notes that "violent drug trafficking organizations and transnational gangs...contribute to violence and trafficking in Honduras."
An assistant attorney general who testified at the Thursday's hearing outlined the steps that the U.S. Justice Department is taking to stem the influx of illegal immigrants into the U.S.
Among other things, Bruce Swartz said, "we are encouraging disruption strategies in Central American countries that will make cross-border smuggling -- whether of drugs, people, or contraband -- more difficult, by targeting the cartels that may exploit the children being smuggled, or who may impose 'taxes' on human smugglers who wish to use the cartels' smuggling routes."
While the Obama administration says it is working to disrupt the supply of illegal drugs coming into the U.S., it has been notably lenient on the demand side of the equation.
Last year, President Obama's Justice Department announced that it would not challenge voter-passed laws in Colorado and Washington State that allow recreational marijuana use and sales, even though federal law forbids such activity.
Attorney General Eric Holder also has directed prosecutors to go easy on "certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels." They will no longer be charged with offenses that carry mandatory minimum sentences.