Drug Trafficking: Central America’s Dark Shadow

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  • Drug trafficking through Central America is more threatening than ever before.
  • To combat high levels of organized crime, cartel activity, violence, and institutional corruption, Central American countries must develop coordinated efforts and joint security measures, with a particular focus on community development.
  • The U.S. must recognize its role in the crisis and implement long-term financial and social commitments, and work toward effective policy changes to reduce the nation’s persistent demands for drugs.

For years, Central America has served as a one-way transit route for drugs traveling north toward the United States. Now, with increasingly frequent crackdowns on drug trafficking in Mexico and continued U.S. demand, Central America has become a pivotal route; an astonishing 84 percent of illegal cocaine that reaches the U.S. passes through Central America.[i] Colombia and Mexico are the predominant producers of narcotics, and the resulting drug trafficking throughout Central America cannot be ignored. As Francisco Campbell, the Nicaraguan Ambassador to the U.S., remarked to a COHA audience, “Unlike the imaginary threats of the past, this one is real. This is the first time we can talk about an honest hemispheric threat.”[ii] Central America needs to implement integrated and viable security strategies to ensure hemispheric security, while the U.S. must refocus its efforts and assume greater responsibility as the largest consumer of Latin American drugs.

Abundant Evidence

Since 1997, the Coast Guard has seized an extraordinary 806,469 pounds of cocaine and 333,285 pounds of marijuana in transit from South America through the Caribbean, the primary drug route prior to the 1990s.[iii] As the Coast Guard’s increased surveillance and policing of the corridors significantly limited the flow of drugs through the Caribbean, the drug trade simply shifted from the Caribbean to Mexico, with Central America serving as a critical transit route.

Militarized enforcement strategies in Colombia and Mexico also contribute to the shift of drug traffic to Central America. In 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama wrote, “As Mexico and Colombia continue to apply pressure on drug traffickers, the countries of Central America are increasingly targeted for trafficking of cocaine and other drugs primarily destined for the United States.”[iv] Central America is no longer merely a transcontinental passageway for an illegal economy totaling USD 34 billion.[v] This shift in drug trafficking routes has brought about profound national security threats and unprecedented levels of violence and organized crime throughout the region.

The “northern triangle” of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador has become greatly destabilized, and appears to be undergoing a rapid transformation into the new frontier for dangerous Mexican cartels. Guatemala now transports 60 percent of drugs in transit from South American-drug producing countries to the U.S., and reports reveal murder rates twice as high as those found in Mexico.[vi] Guatemala’s largely ungoverned border with Mexico makes the country a prime location for the thriving drug trade and the encroachment and proliferation of Mexican cartels, namely Los Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel. The Guatemalan security forces lack adequate weapons to confront traffickers, and the judicial system is essentially unable to enforce the law, as only one of every 20 murders is ever solved and prosecuted.[vii]

In addition to the influx of violent crime, the “northern triangle” has also emerged as a potential producer of narcotics. It was previously believed that Honduras served merely as a transfer point for narcotic shipments between South America and the U.S. However, in March 2011, police encountered the nation’s first cocaine processing lab on a coffee farm north of the capital, Tegucigalpa, which reportedly had been run by Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel for the past two to three years and was capable of producing approximately one ton of cocaine per month.[viii]

Drug-related corruption has thoroughly infiltrated Central American governments and business elites. Cartels have penetrated key state institutions throughout Central America, including the police, army, executive branches, and judicial systems. Drug-related violence and costly law enforcement also impact Central American economies by reducing the availability of already limited resources. According to the World Bank, “dealing with crime and violence costs Central America around 8% of its GDP.”[ix] Consequently, combating drug trafficking has become an inherently daunting challenge.

The changes in drug trafficking patterns, combined with the accompanying spike in violent crime has led to the Obama administration to officially include Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica on the “Majors List”, a compilation of “major drug transit or major illicit drug-producing countries” already occupied by other Central American, South American, Caribbean, and Middle Eastern countries.[x] The increase in violence, corruption, and production illustrate the alarming spread of cartel activity in Central America. Crackdowns in Mexico and South America continue to put pressure on cartels, forcing them into Central America’s most vulnerable states.

Central American Recognition and Cooperation

The drug trafficking crisis, once an isolated concern, now affects the entire Central American region. While partial solutions can come from individual nations, a more integrated approach must be implemented regionally with cooperation from South America and the U.S. Historically, widespread cooperation and integration have been lacking in Central America. Developing a coordinated strategy is, therefore, no easy task; corruption, mistrust, and a plethora of domestic objectives make synchronizing goals and resources difficult.

Despite these snares, the Central American Integration System (SICA) was partially designed “to set up a new model of regional security based on the reasonable balance of forces, the strengthening of civilian authority, the overcoming of extreme poverty, the promotion of sustainable development, the protection of the environment, and the eradication of violence, corruption, terrorism, and drug and arms trafficking.”[xi] At a SICA summit this June, leaders from seven member nations committed to develop and implement a joint security strategy. With these unmistakable efforts for cooperation and integration against drug traffickers, SICA has become an expression of Central America’s united political will to resolve this crucial security issue.

Clearly, Central American nations are acknowledging the harrowing reality of the situation. One proposed model to combat drugs being used in Nicaragua actively encourages the development of isolated and vulnerable communities, which may easily fall prey to powerful and wealthy drug cartels.[xii] Given that crime is “both the cause and consequence of poverty, insecurity and underdevelopment,” according to Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United NationsOffice on Drugs and Crime, this approach has the potential to be the most effective method to deal with drug control and crime prevention.[xiii]

Not only would these measures reduce susceptibility to infiltration by providing communities with a direct connection and sense of support from the state, they are far more affordable and effective than large, expensive militarized programs. Federico Arce, attaché to Ambassador Campbell maintains that “Community programs are not expensive – helicopters are expensive.”[xiv] Options exist, even with budget constraints. Other goals that have been proposed and, in some cases, adopted include the creation of consistent legislation concerning drug trafficking, border agreements and border security policies to prevent drug criminals from escaping to other Central American states, and a more thorough process of purifying law enforcement sectors. These alternative development models must take priority. However, such initiatives have traditionally been second to other measures, such as interdiction, and face a steep upward battle without significant international support.

The U.S. Factor

The U.S. tends to attribute Central America’s drug problems to the region’s weaknesses: small size, limited resources, corruption, poverty, lack of integration, weak governments, ineffective law enforcement, and unstable economies. Many local inhabitants agree that these areas need improvement; however, they also argue that the roots of the problem extend much deeper.

According to the 2011 UN World Drug Report, the largest hemispheric and global cocaine market “continues to be that of the United States, with an estimated consumption of 157 mt [metric tons] of cocaine, equivalent to 36% of global consumption.”[xv] It is this demand that sustains the Latin American drug industry and forces Central America to assume the position of middleman.

It is far too convenient for the U.S. to simply sweep aside its own role in the crisis and focus on Central America’s weaknesses. The U.S. must stop ignoring its consistently destructive role in the war on drugs and translate the idea of co-responsibility into action. A congressional aide with experience on Latin America suggests, “The U.S. Government should do more to understand how the cartels operate in the United States and U.S. officials should use the resulting intelligence and analysis to more aggressively confront the cartels in the United States.”[xvi] As long as a demand exists, drugs will be produced and transported, thereby exacerbating drug violence problems in Central America.[xvii]

Washington’s solution has been to pour billions into counter-narcotic efforts, such as the costly and criticized Mérida Initiative, which provides “equipment and training in support of law enforcement operations and technical assistance to promote the long-term reform, oversight and professionalization of [Latin America’s] security agencies.”[xviii]As of 2010, Congress had appropriated USD 1.3 billion for Mérida programs in Mexico, while only USD 248 million was allocated to Central America.[xix] The U.S. must re-appropriate these funds in order to sufficiently support Central America’s battle against its greatest threat.

Ultimately, however, the U.S. must enact policies that will reduce the high domestic demand for cocaine. Otherwise, any counter-narcotic efforts throughout the rest of the hemisphere will be meaningless. Reforming and introducing new drug policy represents a long-term commitment, and is something of a recurring nightmare for Washington policymakers. But as Arce suggests, “Even if policy takes a long time, there is maneuverability” and the possibility of pursuing other options.[xx]

As history has revealed, the drug war is capable of changing fronts. Efforts must keep up with the emergence of new trafficking routes, instead of focusing on previous threats. Without proper policy adjustments, corruption, violence, and organized crime will continue to flourish in Central America.

Final Thoughts

Previous strategies in the war on drugs, such as expensive militarization programs, or controversial reforms, including legalization, are slow and relatively ineffective responses to a problem that is growing exponentially. Instead, the U.S. needs to support local and regional programs in Central America designed to fight the drug trade through improved education, rural development, and employment opportunities. The U.S. also needs to address domestic factors that influence the drug trade.

These dual objectives should be the focus of continued bilateral aid and regional cooperation. Only then will technical assistance to rectify the integrity of law enforcement and justice sectorswhich will in turn better fight organized crime, violence, corruption, and protect human rightshave any chance of success.[xxi] Hemispheric communication, coordination of efforts, a new sense of urgency, and a long-term financial, social, and political commitment to the crisis must be the first steps for nations afflicted by the drug war.

References for this article can be found here.