South and Central America fight cartels fleeing Mexico

The National Civil Police detain suspected gang members during an operation
					near the crime scene in Tonacatepeque. US President Barack Obama has pledged US
					$200m to help El Salvador counter drug and gang violence. [Reuters]

The National Civil Police detain suspected gang members during an operation near the crime scene in Tonacatepeque. US President Barack Obama has pledged US $200m to help El Salvador counter drug and gang violence. [Reuters]

By Ruben Luis Ayala - Analysis

Leaders throughout the Americas are mobilizing to counter the movement of drug cartels from Mexico into South and Central America.

Presidents and representatives from seven countries met at a Guatemala City summit March 16 with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon to discuss the penetration of Mexican cartels into southern countries.

Presidents Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Porfirio Lobo (Honduras), Álvaro Colom (Guatemala), along with Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow and representatives from El Salvador, the Dominican Republic and Panama attended the meeting.

And US President Barack Obama pledged US $200 million to fight drug trafficking and gang violence during his March 22 visit to El Salvador.

Latin American countries already have seen a jump in violence, corruption and drug use after the Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels expanded its organized crime activities to countries like Nicaragua.

For Roberto Orozco of Nicaragua's Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies told IPS News that the “insecurity created by organized crime in our countries” is mostly “due to the effects of the Mexican war on drugs.”

Others, including some frustrated Latin American leaders, have said that drug syndicates are targeting other countries due to the intensity of President Felipe Calderon fight against trafficking - a trend highlighted in the this year’s annual report of the UN’s International Narcotics Control Board.

The summit prompted new regional security initiatives including El Salvador President Maurico Funes setting up a new Central American Citizen’s Security Partnership. The initiative helps strengthen courts and the rule of law with cooperation from Colombia, Chile, and Mexico.

Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom has been pushing hard for his fellow leaders to agree on a regional plan to combat drug trafficking and organized crime, with particular emphasis on the Northern Triangle of Central America.

President Colom told reporters he is confident that by early June when the First International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy gathers (again in Guatemala) a serious regional plan will be produced.

What has prompted the new realism of Latin American leaders and their readiness to work far more cooperatively than in the past? Cynics would argue the fear of the Mexican drug syndicates is the cause.

But challenges bring new opportunities. For all of the gloom and doom in the media coverage of the recent INCB global report, for instance, and the focus on increased drug use in Latin America and the spread of organized crime from Mexico, more thoughtful analysis would suggest hopeful news and possibilities.

It is not their strength that is encouraging Mexican traffickers to set up operations outside Mexico. The move stems from their increasing weakness – it is testimony to the Mexican government’s onslaught on the major cartels and evidence that President Calderon’s efforts are succeeding and forcing the cartels to activate escape plans.

In short, a significant shift is underway in the dynamics and structure of the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere and one that can be exploited by Latin American governments with US support. They are starting to realize it. If the Latin American leaders can make life difficult for the Mexican interlopers, then the cartels could find themselves boxed. It all comes down to political willpower and cooperation.

The INCB report highlighted other trends suggestive of the serious difficulties the major cartels are now facing. Expanding their trafficking operations to Latin America is forcing them in the new territory to form alliances with street crime gangs. That in itself is dangerous for the cartels – the street gangs are less disciplined than the cartels and difficult to control. Also, alliances are easier for law enforcement to penetrate than cohesive organizations that have little need to seek deals or partnerships with others.

And while occupied with that, the Mexican cartels are finding it much harder than in the past to move cocaine north of the US-Mexican border – the consequence of the squeeze they have been put under from the Mexican and US authorities. The evidence for that is to be found in reports such as the INCB’s, which noted that cocaine availability in the US has decreased and prices for low-purity cocaine there have jumped.

The Mexican cartels are not only looking to Latin American markets to make up for the shortfall but further afield. They are pushing more drugs to Europe via Africa. Venezuela figures prominently in that trade. The INCB report says that Venezuela is “one of the principal countries of origin of cocaine shipments seized in Western Europe.” As any businessmen will tell you, the most vulnerable moment for a business is when it undergoes change in operations and markets. The vulnerability of the big Mexican cartels develops apace.

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