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Effects of the War on Drugs on Latinos in the US and the Role of Stereotypes


This discourse interrogates the effects that the war on drugs in the US has had on the Latino community, including the link to mass incarceration and the role of stereotypes in the anti-drugs efforts. It focuses on both the positive and the negative impacts but finds that the latter far outweigh the former for Latinos both within and outside the US. The only discernable advantages are potential increases in access to healthcare and rehabilitation services and enhanced education and awareness on the harmful effects of drugs. However, the disadvantages such as prejudice and discrimination, the enhanced surveillance and interference by law enforcement, mass incarceration of Latinos, and increased violence and deaths in Latino communities abound. Moreover, the influence of stereotypes in the war’s execution has resulted in the disproportionate and unfair depiction and targeting of Latinos. Therefore, it is indisputable that the war on drugs in the US has been disastrous for the Latino community.

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The US has been in a sustained war on drugs within and beyond its boundaries for five decades now. The incessant efforts and trillions of dollars notwithstanding, it has been unarguably unsuccessful, going by recent trends in drug and opioid overdose deaths that have precipitated a national epidemic of catastrophic proportions. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (2021) reports almost 50,000 drugs and opioid-related deaths in 2019 alone. The disparities occasioned to and experienced by specific populations, particularly Hispanics and Black Americans, are more evidence of the project’s utter failure. This discourse focuses on the Latino community, particularly the impact on it, including the link to mass incarceration and the role of stereotypes in the execution of the war on drugs. Notably, the adverse effects far outweigh any potential benefits to Hispanics within and outside the US. Additionally, the influence of stereotypes in its execution has resulted in the disproportionate and unfair depiction and targeting of Latinos. Their over-representation within prison populations reflects that unfortunate reality.

Effects of the War on Drugs on the Latino Community

The decades-long war on drugs has borne mixed fortunes for Hispanics both within the US and the larger Latin American community of nations to the south. Accordingly, the concerted efforts have resulted in both beneficial and detrimental effects on the Latino community. Consequential benefits include better funding and improved access to healthcare and rehabilitative services, and increased education and awareness on the harmful effects of drug and substance abuse. However, the same efforts have ingrained prejudice and discrimination against Latinos, particularly those living in America. Further, invasions of privacy, excessive surveillance and targeting, violence and killings, and mass incarcerations have become synonymous with the Latino community.

Beneficial Effects

Enhanced Access to Healthcare and Rehabilitation

The mitigation of disparities in access to healthcare and rehabilitation services by the Latino community in the US constitutes the most significant advantage presented by the war on drugs. Hispanics are among a distinct group of ethnic minorities that typically experience challenges in access to the health system (Velasco-Mondragon et al., 2016). According to the American Addiction Centers (2019), regardless of almost similar prevalence rates, there is a considerable gap in the treatment of substance abuse issues among Latinos compared to other segments of the American population. More than 90% of Hispanics with drug and substance abuse issues cannot access treatment or the specialty facilities required for rehabilitation (American Addiction Centers, 2017). The situation is not any better for the minority that gains access, going by the poor results of these treatment and rehabilitation schemes within Latino communities (American Addiction Centers, 2017). Thus, Hispanics have conventionally had limited access to health services.

The war on drugs, however, arguably ushered in a new paradigm regarding access to these vital services by Latinos. For instance, Curtis and Riggs (2016) explain that court-mandated drug treatment has been a helpful instrument in the war on drugs. This method was embraced as a cost-saving alternative to incarceration as it facilitated the supervision of more people than could be imprisoned (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Methods of executing the court-supervised mandatory drug treatment schemes usually entail either daily outpatient schemes or therapeutic communities. The former involves daily attendance and execution of designated tasks—such as counseling, job readiness, and life skills training—over the duration set by the court (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). The latter are live-in facilities established for rehabilitation and ‘re-socialization before reentry into society (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Curtis and Riggs (2016) also note the increased funding for alternative treatment programs. Therefore, regardless of the effectiveness and outcomes, the war on drugs has arguably facilitated greater access to health and rehabilitation services by Latinos.

Increased Education and Awareness on the Harmful Effects of Drugs

Another potentially valuable contribution of the war on drugs to the Latino community, especially within the US, is enhanced education and cultivation of awareness on the harmful effects of drugs. Curtis and Riggs (2016) explain that policymakers assumed that Latinos were vulnerable to drug problems because they were uneducated about the perils of drugs. It necessarily follows that enhancing educational initiatives to create awareness of the detrimental consequences of drug and substance abuse among Latinos was a prerequisite to an effective campaign. Accordingly, the government and relevant policymakers formulated various drug-prevention strategies that acknowledged the centrality of education in the war on drugs.

For example, school-based drug and substance abuse prevention programs were established nationwide under the auspices and funding of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The ubiquitous Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program is the best illustration of such initiatives. Similarly, through the Office of the National Drug and Control Policy, the government launched an aggressive broadcast effort targeting American youth titled The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign. Although these campaigns did not specifically target the Latino communities, they were instrumental in raising their awareness of the perils of drugs and narcotics. Thus, the efforts against drugs also resulted in enhanced education and awareness among Hispanics.

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Adverse Effects

Prejudice and Discrimination

Whether intended or not, racial and ethnic prejudice and discrimination against Latinos were a defining attribute of the war on drugs. Netherland and Hansen (2016) contend that the war on drugs has persisted with a sustained ignorance of the racial and ethnic dynamics that have resulted in its racialized execution. There is a deep-seated misconception that the Latino community is extensively and regularly engaged in the making, supplying, and use of illicit drugs and substances in the US (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). This fallacy is premised on the notoriety of a few Latin American countries as the leading producers and exporters of drugs (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Consequently, there has been a disproportionate targeting of Latinos in the implementation of the campaign. The same level of scrutiny is not dispensed in white communities that arguably have higher drug and substance use prevalence rates.

The racialized and ethnicized nature of the war on drugs is indisputable. Curtis and Riggs (2016) reiterate that racial profiling has always been a central feature of the war on drugs. Support for this claim derives from available statistics on encounters between law enforcement and Latinos, arrests, and prosecutions for drug-related crimes. More ethnic minorities, primarily Latinos and Black Americans, interact with the criminal justice system notwithstanding the same drug and substance abuse prevalence rates among dominantly white communities. Not even women have been spared from the horrid experiences of prejudice and discrimination. Compared to white women, Latinos are more vulnerable to being criminalized and incarcerated, have their children taken away, or refused fundamental rights and freedoms (Haakma, 2020). Accordingly, the differential treatment of Latinos in the war on drugs is ample evidence of prejudice and discrimination.

Enhanced Surveillance and Interference by Law Enforcement

The misconception that cultivated the prejudicial and discriminatory execution of the war on drugs also bred excessive surveillance and interference by law enforcement personnel. Curtis and Riggs (2016) posit that the mistaken connection between Latinos and illegal drugs has triggered excessive attention from police officers and other stakeholders within the criminal justice system. According to Haakma (2020), statistics have established that Hispanics frequently undergo surveillance by law enforcement, are usually racially profiled, and experience stops and frisks by police officers more often than White people. Accordingly, increased police presence and more patrols within Latino neighborhoods is a common phenomenon. Similarly, police crackdowns against perceived dealers and users within these localities are usual. Therefore, Latinos live in highly repressive environments punctuated by tension and suspicions due to constant interference by police that often cultivates instability and threats to peace.

The consequence of this state of affairs is the unfortunate perpetuation of various vices such as police brutality, harassment, privacy infringements, and violations of other fundamental rights and privileges. Police brutality is a legacy of the overly militarized nature of the war on drugs which has resulted in the employment of excessive force against perceived drug dealers and users. Harassment and privacy infringement is an obvious consequence of the incessant police patrols and the unrelenting presence within the Latino neighborhoods. Violations of privacy may also arise where law enforcement officers deploy unconventional or illicit means to further their investigations. These impugned activities also pose a significant challenge to the creation and maintenance of cordial relations between the targeted communities and law enforcement personnel or other members of the criminal justice system. Hence, due to the excessive surveillance and interference, community policing initiatives within Latino neighborhoods have a very slim chance of success.

Mass Incarceration of Latinos

The disproportionate mass incarceration of Latinos for drug-related crimes is indicative of the prejudice and discrimination and the excessive surveillance underlying the execution of the war on drugs. Curtis and Riggs (2016) enumerate that the annual growth of the Latino population in prison has outdone that of any other ethnic or racial group in the US. This trend began in the final two decades of the 20th Century and has persisted through the entirety of the 21st Century. The US criminal justice system, from arrest to sentencing, embodies features that constitute barriers that contribute to the overrepresentation of Latinos (Walker et al., 2004). Hence, the number of those in federal custody has been more than twice the entire Latino population since 2004 (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Latino women have also borne the brunt of the war on drugs. Haakam (2020), positing that prison admission rates for Hispanic females on drug charges are considerably lower compared to Black and White females, acknowledges the reality of high incarceration rates caused by the war on drugs. Therefore, the mass incarceration of Latinos is a significant adverse effect of the anti-drugs initiative against the community.

The imposition of harsher sentences compared to Whites offenders prosecuted for similar drug-related charges presents another aspect to the disproportionate mass incarceration of Latinos. As an example, Curtis and Riggs (2016) decry the fact that a Latino arrested for possession of crack cocaine would likely face the mandatory minimum term of imprisonment. In contrast, a White person would have to be found with 100 times more powder cocaine to be subject to the same sentence. Additionally, Latinos are the usual targets for deportation by US authorities for drug-related charges (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Thus, the war on drugs has not only resulted in the unfair mass imprisonment of Latinos, but also the imposition of stricter sentences because of their racial or ethnic features.

Increased Violence and Deaths in Latino Communities

The war on drugs has also resulted in the devastation of Latino communities, both within and outside the US, by death and violence. The proponents of the anti-drugs efforts initially believed that only a belligerent approach led by law enforcement institutions and personnel could effectively address the drug and substance abuse problem (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Accordingly, this belief led to the government’s militarization anti-drugs campaign, with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) spearheading the fight. The DEA and other police institutions execute operations in support of the efforts in a hostile way, usually employing tactics suited for combat situations in pursuit of drug pushers and users. However, the aggressive methods deployed by law enforcers are counterproductive and only lead to undesired outcomes like police harassment and brutality. Consequently, violence and brutality against Latinos are common, with many losing their lives in the process.

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Neighboring Latin American countries have not been spared from the violence and death associated with the US’s war on drugs. Sandvik and Hoelscher (2016) assert that those efforts have had grave humanitarian consequences for the region because of the highly militarized approach that has precipitated extreme violence, displacement, and human suffering. The US is primarily responsible for these outcomes as it not only funds the efforts in countries like Mexico, but also trains soldiers and provides them with weaponry and other equipment. However, the considerably lax gun laws in America mean that the gangs and cartels profiting from illicit drug running also have access to weapons. Therefore, they can resist governments’ attempts to stop the drug trade through extreme violence with the unfortunate consequence of injuries and deaths among members of the public. Thus, the war on drugs has resulted in violence and death in Latino communities.

The Role of Stereotypes about Latinos in the War on Drugs

Stereotypes have influenced the deployment and execution of the war on drugs and have been responsible for the methods used and the resultant outcomes. According to Curtis and Riggs (2016), the anti-drugs campaign was premised on the misinformed notion of an inextricable and intricate connection between Latinos and illegal drugs. This perceived nexus constituted the basis upon which the government and its enforcers paid excessive attention to Latino communities across the US. Additional misconceptions that informed the efforts include that Latinos are unenlightened concerning the harmful effects of drugs and that poverty and money demands pushed them to deal with drugs. Another typical stereotype is that their culture constitutes a barrier that makes Latinos suspicious and unwilling to participate in treatment programs (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Consequently, they have become the prime targets of the nation’s drug policing efforts, more than white communities, regardless of the existence of the same drug use prevalence rates across all segments of the American population.

Two fundamental reasons that rationalize the existence and prevalence of these stereotypes are evident from the discourse. First, as Curtis and Riggs (2016) explain, this skewed perception primarily stems from the perpetuation of mainstream knowledge that some Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Peru, and Mexico are heavily involved in the production, supply, and sale of illicit drugs and narcotics. This premise is unfounded and inaccurate because a majority of those affected by enforcement actions often fully assimilate into the American culture (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). Second, the perpetuation of these stereotypes often served as a convenient excuse to target and eliminate the less desirable elements comprising ethnic and racial minorities (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). This objective was attained by associating the Latino community with drugs and decadence. Thus, while their lineage and links to Latin America provided the basis, the stereotypes also served a pragmatic purpose for its proponents.

The influence of the stereotypes about Latinos and drugs has majorly been pushed by the government, through its policymakers, coupled with the depictions of popular culture by the media. Curtis and Riggs (2016) assert that the former eagerly capitalized on the misunderstanding over the association of crack cocaine with specific racial and ethnic entities to cultivate the view that Latinos had a serious drug and substance abuse problem that demanded aggressive intervention. Accordingly, they used this position as justification for the subsequent drug policing. The media have also been instrumental in perpetuating the same inaccuracies. A content analysis of 100 popular media coverage over a decade revealed constant distinctions between compassionate depictions of predominantly white substance users contrasted with criminalized narratives of users from Latino or African American ethnicities (Netherland & Hansen, 2016). Such representations have unarguably been influential on the deployment of the war on drugs as these groups are usually the largest targets for enforcement action.

Both broadcast and print media are mainly responsible for the cultivation and perpetuation of these stereotypes. Curtis and Riggs (2016) allude to news reports, press conferences by law enforcement, comedy, and film that ingrained the image of a conventional drug dealer as a mean and violent Latino. Reference is made to the renowned movie by Al Pacino, Scarface, that depicts Latinos as notorious, drug-dealing gangsters as well as the academic literature (Curtis & Riggs, 2016). The consequences of these stereotypical portrayals are evident from the discourse above. They have resulted in the prejudicial and discriminatory conduct of the war on drugs. Consequently, law enforcement agencies subject their communities to constant and excessive scrutiny and interference that has resulted in the disproportionate mass incarceration of Latinos. Violence, death, and police harassment, and brutality have become common occurrences within US boundaries and beyond, throughout various Latin American countries.


Although the war on drugs in the US has had both beneficial and adverse effects, a keen evaluation of the prevailing state of affairs reveals that the bad outweighs the good for the Latino community. The anti-drug campaign was partly helpful because it facilitated greater access to health and rehabilitation services to a segment of the American population that is traditionally under-served. Similarly, it led to increased education and awareness initiatives to enlighten the target population on the harmful effects of drugs. However, the campaign was also responsible for the entrenchment and perpetuation of prejudice and discrimination, the increased surveillance and interference with Latino communities by law enforcement, the disproportionate mass incarceration of Latinos, and increased violence and death within their communities. Stereotypes have been a primary influence on the conduct of the anti-drug efforts and are the reason why they have been unsuccessful. There is a demand for objective and informed premises to guide the war on drugs.

Annotated Bibliography

Curtis, R., & Riggs, R. (2016). The U.S.war on drugs and Latina/o communities. In J. Morín (Ed.), Latinos and criminal justice : An encyclopedia (pp. 84-95). Santa Barbara, CA.

This chapter provides a comprehensive account of the detrimental effects that the war on drugs in the US has had on Latino communities across the country. It highlights the genesis of the so-called war, the stereotypes about Latinos, drugs, and gangs, facts and statistics on drug use by Latinos, and the impact of the anti-drugs campaign in the community. The chapter has been particularly informative to the discourse’s focus on the adverse effects of the war on drugs on Latinos.

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Haakma, B. (2020). Hispanics and the war on drugs: An explanation for the rise in Hispánica imprisonment (Publication No. 3898) [Masters Thesis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas]. UNLV Theses, Dissertations, Professional Papers, and Capstones.

This dissertation was designed to interrogate the racial disparities inherent in the criminal justice system with a specific focus on the impact of the war on drugs on the Latino female population in US prisons. Although it found lower incarceration rates of Hispanic women compared to Blacks or Whites, it was, nonetheless, insightful on the reality of high incarceration rates caused by the war on drugs even among women.

Netherland, J., & Hansen, H. (2016). The war on drugs that wasn’t: Wasted whiteness, “dirty doctors,” and race in media coverage of prescription opioid misuse. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, 40(4), 664-686. Web.

This journal article embodies the results of an evaluation of popular media portrayals of opioid use among various ethnic and racial groups. The researchers established a difference in the depictions of white users compared to Blacks or Latinos, the former being sympathetic and the criminalization of the latter. Thus, this study established the existence of drug-related bias against ethnic minorities that influence the conduct of the war on drugs. It contributes to this discourse’s interrogation of the role of stereotypes in the anti-drugs campaign.

Sandvik, K., & Hoelscher, K. (2016). The reframing of the war on drugs as a “humanitarian crisis”: Costs, benefits, and consequences. Latin American Perspectives, 44(4), 168-182. Web.

This journal article focuses on the humanitarian cost of the militarization of the war on drugs in Latin America. The researchers contend that the approach has been unsuccessful and only resulted in violence, displacement, and great suffering for people. Accordingly, the authors propose the development of a conceptual framework as a foundation to address the human costs created by the Us’s war on drugs. This article is insightful concerning the surge in violence and death as among the adverse effects of the US initiative.


American Addiction Centers. (2019). Substance abuse statistics for Hispanic Americans. Web.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021). Opioid overdose crisis. Web.

Velasco-Mondragon, E., Jimenez, A., Palladino-Davis, A., Davis, D., & Escamilla-Cejudo, J. (2016). Hispanic health in the USA: A scoping review of the literature. Public Health Reviews, 37(1), 31-58. Web.

Walker, N., Villarruel, F., Senger, J., & Arboleda, A. (2004). Lost opportunities: The reality of Latinos in the US criminal justice system. Washington, DC: National Council of La Raza. Web.

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