A version of this essay, titled “Among the Drug Dealers, Criminals, Rapists: A Reporting Life in Latin America,” was delivered as the Robert B. Silvers Lecture at the New York Public Library on December 4, 2018.
I sense some obligation to explain the title of this talk. The flimflam man currently occupying the White House has provoked such an increase in the amount of hate circulating in the world that sometimes it makes me dizzy, as if I were about to lose my balance and fall. He uses hatred and latent violence every time he feels the need to run from the taxman or the prosecutor. The three years since the last presidential campaign have been so filled with outrage and insult, it’s hard to remember that from the first day he stood on that escalator in his very own tower, there has been no group he has vilified more consistently than Latin Americans. You can see his logic: unlike African-Americans, Jews, or even Latinos—established migrants from Latin America living in the United States, or US citizens descended from Latin immigrants—desperate Latin Americans fleeing desperate conditions back home can be called rapists, thieves, and murderers with impunity: they do not file lawsuits, do not live here, do not vote, and by definition have no representation within the United States.
The thing is, though, that in order to stick, every Big Lie has to have an element of truth. In the case of this lie, the truth is that, for years now, Latin America has had the highest homicide rate of any region in the world. In El Salvador last year, for example, for every 100,000 citizens, some fifty people were murdered. Most, but not all, were men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-eight. About one fifth were young women, a growing trend.
The figures fluctuate according to time and place, but they’ve been at least that high at different moments in Honduras, El Salvador, Caracas, parts of Mexico, certain cities in Brazil, some regions of Colombia. In the twelve years since Felipe Calderón, Mexico’s most reckless president, involved the army in his country’s drug wars, at least 150,000 of his fellow citizens have died violent, often atrocious, deaths. And this figure does not reflect the total damage—the maimed, the traumatized, the orphaned, or the increasing number of families in which poor and often unskilled women struggle to bring up hard-working, God-fearing children, often by risking everything in order to bring them to safety in this country. These numbers are part of the reason I’ve spent a good portion of the last twenty-five years talking to the rapists, thieves, killers, and drug traffickers of the world I…
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