A few weeks ago, I watched a documentary about the HSBC money laundering scandal. For those of you as unfamiliar with this scandal as I was, essentially the powerful international bank, HSBC, was knowingly manipulating regulations to funnel drug cartel money from Mexico and Colombia through the U.S. financial system. Being a bank that is labeled as too big to fail– it was let off from its behavior with just a small fine that can be figuratively described as a mere speeding ticket[i] for the mega-wealthy institution. A mere speeding ticket, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people continue to die from cartel violence and drug overdoses every year.
Since 2002, over 100,000 people have died in Mexico[ii] as a result of cartel violence. 2018 saw a record number of homicides, with 33,341 murder investigations, up 33% from 2017’s[iii]. Similarly, overdose deaths continue to soar in the United States- with 70,237 overdoses fatalities in the United States in 2017.[iv] Yet HSBC had to pay a fine of only $1.9 million for the $881 million they laundered[v], escaping accountability and encouraging banks worldwide to continue their harmful actions. And all under the guise of maintaining an economic system that- frankly- seems to not be working so well.
Anyways, I don’t design to go into economic systems in this piece (that is for a later essay). What I do hope to discuss and bring to question is the practicality of our punitive measures. For it does seem to me that we are going after the wrong people. In 2012, the year HSBC escaped criminal prosecution, 90,000 individuals were convicted for drug crimes in the United States[vi]. Yet the mere impact that the majority of drug criminals- including more powerful ones like Joaquín Guzmán (El Chapo)- have on the drug trade is miniscule compared to the impact of money laundering. For even El Chapo wouldn’t have been able to have the negative impact he has had in Central America, South America, Mexico, and the United States without the help of international banking corporations, as money laundering is essential to the drug trade.
And so, drug criminals- even the most minor offenders- will often find themselves convicted of a federal crime. But the institutions central to the workings of this trade are able to get off with a simple fine. A prime example of punishing the wrong players, that is if your goal is to induce positive change by decreasing crime, violence, and overdose fatalities.
But there are many other examples of how judicial systems worldwide focus on punishing the wrong individuals, and for the sole reason of clout and dominance. In general, those being exonerated are in positions of power and those being prosecuted are in a subjugated class- such as women and non-citizens
Let’s focus on the first group: female criminals. In general, prostitutes are penalized to a much greater extent than the pimps and john that necessitate their existence. As I previously stated in my essay The Sex Industry: A Ubiquitous Entity:
Many sex workers are repeatedly arrested and degraded for their work, whereas the pimps and johns who are just as complicit in the illicit nature of the industry often experience limited retribution for their involvement. According to HG.org, one of the first online law and government websites launched in 1995, amongst the 70,000-80,000 individuals that are arrested for prostitution every year, about 70% are female prostitutes and madams, 20% are male prostitutes and pimps, and only 10% are the johns that pay for the service.
It doesn’t take much thought to understand that if you are only prosecuting 20% of the population willing to pay for a service, around 80% of potential clients will remain; and those 80% of customers will create further demand. Simply put, even if 70% of prostitutes are arrested, another 70% will replace them as there is a high demand for the service. Moreover, money is a necessity in our society, and ethical principles or public shame regarding work isn’t a high consideration for many, especially if you are financially destitute or will be making a considerable amount of money from the service.[vii]
So it is a conclusion to make from emotional logic that punishing small time drug offenders and prostitutes over big banks, pharmaceutical companies, pimps, and johns doesn’t do much to solve the problems that such industries generate. In fact, it merely serves to maintain the status quo of the current power structure: corporations and white men over workers, women, and non-white individuals.
Now let’s look at the second group: immigrants. Immigrants are continuously blamed, victimized, and punished by many powerful governments. In media, they are portrayed as criminals, uneducated, lazy, dull, dirty, and as a drain to our resources. And that image of them sells well, breading xenophobia amongst a large population.
But rather than blame immigrants and complain about the issues that comes with mass immigration, let us ask the pertinent question: Are countries where immigrants flock to also to blame?
If the U.S. as a country asks that question, it will find that it plays a large role in what is now labeled as an immigration crisis. The drug trafficking mentioned above is one manner in which the U.S. is part of the contribution. The demand for drugs in the U.S., its greedy banking systems, and its corrupt pharmaceutical companies help encourage the drug trade, which destabilizes entire communities and makes violence so severe that sometimes the best choice individuals in affected areas have for survival is to flee their home, regardless of the risks this provokes.
A second contribution is the manner in which Eurocentric countries have destabilized and taken advantage of other countries for centuries while also globally promoting and profiting from a corporate based economy. This has caused many countries to flounder in an urban, business environment, causing rampant poverty and destitution. Oftentimes, the only way for a better future in such countries is to move to a place where there is perceived economic opportunity, such as the U.S. Moreover -a fact that cannot be omitted- the US and many other powerful countries play their hand at generating war torn areas where the only option for survival is to emigrate.
Furthermore, in conjunction with destabilizing and impoverishing entire populations to the point of mass emigration, the US in particular has an almost narcissistic desire not only for global power and recognition, but to paint itself as this utopian nation where even the most downtrodden can achieve massive success with hard work. We propagate this ideal with our mass media: in film, music, art, and technology. Now, if you present yourself as the golden land of opportunity- where everyone and everything is rich, beautiful, and full of positive feeling- aren’t you asking for mass immigration? And even more so when you proliferate an exclusive and scarcity mindset in immigration quotas? Anyone who understands basic business strategy knows that the scarcity tactic is one of the most effective psychological tools to drive interest. And the US cannot deny that it has effectively marketed the country to immigrants (and- like many marketing scams- with a highly inflated value).
It seems to me that humanity has created a global system that works to contain the status quo. Those in power are reluctant to relinquish their dominance and control, regardless of the negative effect it has on the environment, towns, cities, nations, the world order, and even themselves. Mass homicide, shootings, overdoes, homelessness, and economic chaos is not a big enough threat to their established hierarchy. And they will continue to find ways to punish the subjugated and exonerate the privileged.
This means that if we want change, we will have to push for it. Hard. And like in any relationship dynamic, the first step to finding a solution is to go deep and ask ourselves how have we helped to contribute to the situation, and not to find a scapegoat to blame.
[i] This metaphor was not of my own creation. It is from the documentary.
Cartel Bank. Dirty Money Series. Directed by Kristi Jacobson. Jigsaw Productions. 26 Jan. 2018. Netflix.
[iii] Meixler, Eli. “Cartel-Ravaged Mexico Sets a New Record for Murders.” Time. 22 Jan. 2019. time.com/5509216/mexico-murder-rate-sets-record-2018/
[iv] NCHS Data Brief, Number 329, November 2019. Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999-2017. www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db329-h.pdf
[v] Cartel Bank. Dirty Money Series. Directed by Kristi Jacobson. Jigsaw Productions. 26 Jan. 2018. Netflix.
[vii] (Whether that be investment bankers, CEO’s, marketing directors, escorts, pimps, con artists, or drug dealers.)
It’s important that we punish with empathy and fairness, not with power, influence, and greed.
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