About the Author: Andrew Lewis is a Program Officer at the U.S. Department of State Foreign Press Center (FPC).
The State Department’s Foreign Press Center’s role is to help foreign journalists in their coverage of the United States. It’s with this in mind that the FPC invited several journalists from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean to the U.S. for a week-long tour engaging the issue of transnational crime, especially trafficking in persons, drugs, and arms.
Our friends in Mexico perhaps know the human cost of trafficking all too well. Over 10,000 (including some journalists) have been killed so far since that country’s shift to an aggressive stance against criminal enterprise. But the surprise for our other journalists was that these criminal enterprises had infiltrated their countries as well.
For the interviewees, responding to questioning by journalists on FPC tours is never a cakewalk. We typically ask our embassies around the world to recommend highly motivated, highly professional journalists for participation, and their questions often probe difficult aspects of the relationship between the U.S. and their countries.
Some of the toughest questions this group has asked so far involve numbers. With what degree of certainty can we say how much money arms traffickers earn from their trade, or how do we reliably estimate the number of drug abusers in the U.S.? Reliable statistics, especially explaining illegal activities, are notoriously hard to obtain.
Next to the hard data, an intimate look at both the highs and lows of human emotion was on the itinerary. We spent a day with the Fulton County Drug Court in Atlanta, Georgia. Exposure to institutions like these give the journalists a sense of what U.S. communities are doing to combat not only drug production and transport, but the demand side of the problem as well. Some defendants, former addicts clean for years, told us stories of healing themselves, rebuilding families and finding jobs. Others, mostly relapsed and unmotivated offenders, were sent to seek motivation to stick with the program in what Judge Doris Downs, who presides over the court, hoped was their last stint in jail.
Dealing with some of the most serious offenders and yet boasting an impressive success rate, journalists found both parallels to their own countries in the Fulton County program. In Costa Rica, successfully recovered addicts campaign against drugs, much as successful drug court participants share their stories with peers as inspiration. Yet in Guatemala, even completely clean former addicts struggle with discrimination in finding employment.
We will spend the remainder of this trip continuing to explore multiple perspectives on these issues. The Atlanta Police, the Georgia branch of D.A.R.E., and CETPA, an organization addressing substance abuse by Latinos, are all on the agenda. This tour has been a professional as well as cultural exchange for our guests, and we’ll hopefully be able to round things out with the only appropriate introduction to Atlanta: hot dogs, cheese fries, and super-sized cups of Coca Cola when the Braves play the New York Mets tonight at Turner Field.