Caught in the Middle
With the world’s primary producer of cocaine to its south and the main distributors of cocaine to its north, Central America has become a transit point for illicit activity.
The governments of Colombia and Mexico continue to apply pressure on drug traffickers, causing a violent resistance by the Mexican drug cartels that control access routes to the drug’s biggest consumer, the United States. This policy has created serious challenges for Central America, a region plagued by internal conflict and civil wars over the past 40 years.
Approximately 88 percent of the cocaine destined for the U.S. transited Central America from South America in 2008, according to the 2009 World Drug Report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
With these harrowing facts in mind, military leaders throughout Central America, along with Gen. Douglas Fraser, commander of U.S. Southern Command, gathered in Guatemala in April 2010 for the Central American Security Conference. Their principal objective was to stem the flow of drugs and illicit trafficking in the Western Hemisphere through cooperation between security forces and their governments.
“Illicit trafficking poses the most serious hemispheric security challenge we all face,” said Gen. Fraser, who described illicit trafficking as more than just drug trafficking, but also weapons smuggling, trafficking in persons, and associated crimes such as money laundering and document forgery. “Illicit traffickers undermine the rule of law, threaten citizen safety and corrupt state institutions.”
Central America has been caught in the middle of a tightening grip on illicit traffickers undertaken by the governments of Mexico and Colombia through the initiatives and results of the Mérida Initiative and Plan Colombia, respectively.
Launched in 2007, the Mérida Initiative is a security partnership among the governments of the United States, Mexico and countries from Central America. The initiative confronts violent transnational gangs and organized crime syndicates that threaten the entire region. Plan Colombia was conceived in 2000 by then-President Andrés Pastrana with the goals of ending armed conflict in Colombia and creating an anti-cocaine strategy with military, counternarcotics and financial support from the U.S.
In statements made to the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, Gen. Julio Avilés, head of the Nicaraguan Army, said that “with the pressure that is being exerted on the drug trade thanks to Plan Colombia and Plan Mérida, in Mexico, [the criminals] may seek to set up laboratories in the Central American region.”
Indications that drug traffickers are not only using Central America as a transit region but are also establishing bases of operations in the area are evident in the recent drug laboratories that have been found by government authorities in Nicaragua and Honduras. In September 2009, Nicaraguan authorities found a drug-processing laboratory in the municipality of Achuapa, believed to be “the first complex found in that country that has served as a distribution point for cocaine leaving Colombia and headed for the United States and Europe,” according to El Tiempo.
Within the region, Guatemala has been a major drug transit country since 1990, according to the U.S. Department of State’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, or INCS, and it continues to be challenged by increasing violence related to narcotics trafficking. In 2009, there were approximately 5,100 homicides. Twenty-nine of the victims were officers from the Guatemalan National Police. At the Central American Security Conference, Army Brig. Gen. Juan Ruiz, Guatemala’s chief of defense and co-host of the conference, commented on Guatemala’s situation and addressed the ways in which Guatemala, and the region as a whole, can combat this threat.
“Inter-agency cooperation and international support provides the most effective means in deterring illicit trafficking,” Brig. Gen. Ruiz said. “As communication among us flows and by way of a multinational coordinated action, we will implement effective plans to combat those involved in drug-trafficking, narcoterrorism and organized crime.”
Drug trafficking has also spread in Honduras, where the country’s security forces conducting counternarcotics operations have seized more illegal drugs in 2010 than in all of 2008. In 2009, the government of Honduras seized more than 6 metric tons of cocaine and it was involved in joint operations with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Those operations resulted in the arrests of high-ranking organized crime figures, including Jammal El Youssef, who had international arrest warrants for terrorism, narcotics trafficking, arms trafficking and human trafficking, according to the 2010 INCS report.
Despite these results, the top general of Honduras is concerned by the high rate of illicit traffic by air, land and sea, and he says his country is taking the appropriate action to coordinate efforts with the national police and the legal system to confront this threat.
“Drug trafficking brings with it negative aspects: an increase in delinquency and organized crime; violence increases in some regions, and this affects us severely,” said Gen. Carlos Antonio Cuéllar, commanding general of the Armed Forces. “At the same time, it causes health problems since these people are directly affected. Not only due to the trafficking, but also from people using these drugs.”