Donald Trump made headlines in June 2015 when he announced his candidacy for president, running on an anti-immigration, tough on crime platform, asserting that “[Mexicans] are bringing drugs. They're bringing crime.” However, while Trump and his administration have brought immigration and the war on drugs to the forefront of public discourse in recent years—promoting racist travel bans, mandatory minimums on drug law violations, and increased border militarization—his administration did not create the drug war; it thrived under the Obama Administration and has been alive and well since the 1980s, manifesting in horrific events like those in November of 2013 at the San Ysidro border checkpoint when deported migrants tried to cross the border en masse and were met with tear gas and rubber bullets.
However, footage released by ABC last month reveals a level of misconduct by Customs and Border Patrol agents that is even worse. The video paints a haunting picture of the series of events that led to the death of Mexican teenager Cruz Velazquez Acevedo at the hands and direction of Customs and Border Control Officers Valerie Baird and Adrian Perallon.
On November 18, 2013, Acevedo attempted to cross from Tijuana to San Diego carrying two bottles of what he claimed to be full of apple juice, but actually contained liquid methamphetamine. In the video, Officer Baird pulls out and suspiciously examines a bottle, conferring with Officer Perallon before setting it in front of the 16-year-old, motioning for him to drink from it. Shortly after obeying the officers, Acevedo began convulsing and screaming. Only then did CBP follow protocol and test for controlled substances. Two hours later he was dead of a methamphetamine overdose, having drunk four sips, ten times the lethal dosage.
The tragic death of Cruz Velazquez Acevedo is far from isolated and is merely an example of the way CBP officers dehumanize and commodify immigrants and non-citizens, treating them as less than human, and subjecting them to brutal treatment. In 2010, at the same border checkpoint, Anastacio Hernandez, an undocumented immigrant who had lived in the United States for 27 years with his wife and five young kids, was beaten to death by CBP agents as he and his brother tried to cross back into the United States. In neither case were the agents responsible disciplined or held accountable in any way, though earlier this year the U.S. government paid $1 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the Acevedo family.
The nation is progressing when it comes to destigmatizing and decriminalizing drug use. However, humanity beginning to be shown to people—or rather, U.S. citizens—struggling with problematic substance use or arrested for non-violent drug offenses is not extended to those who sell drugs, regardless of situation or circumstance, often validating inhumane treatment of these people simply because they committed a crime. Additionally, white Americans who deal or smuggle drugs are let off the hook easier than migrants and people of color for the same—or even worse—infraction. Sarah Furay, for example, made headlines in 2015 as the "Adorable Drug Kingpin" who smiled for her mugshot after getting arrested for possession with intent to deliver large amounts of cocaine, methamphetamine, LSD, and marijuana. Meanwhile, people of color are labeled as thugs and criminals or killed on the spot for much less.
Smuggling drugs from Mexico to the United States is a crime, making it harder to excuse and sympathize with those responsible. However, many are people who are coerced by cartels into trafficking drugs—as Acevedo was by the Sinaloa Cartel—exchanging their safety for money, aid for their families, or sometimes, nothing.
Our nation is at an important crossroads: give into populist propaganda and succumb to a reinvigoration of the drug war and crackdown on immigration, or combat bigotry and stand for compassion and humanity over violence and policing. The drug war works to silence, terrify, and subjugate; so while the choice might be easy, the fight is not. It is, however, our duty to continue pursuing justice if we want to heal our communities, end the drug war, and train public safety and border control officers to honor human dignity. Rest in peace, Cruz Velazquez Acevedo.
Eleanor Knauss is an intern with the Drug Policy Alliance.