Drug Challenge Requires Collective Response, Central American Leaders Say

By Dialogo
January 31, 2011

Central American leaders are looking to Washington for assistance in
combating drug cartels intent on moving trafficking operations away from Mexico.
And the U.S. is responding by sharing intelligence, providing training and
tracking drug movements as well as advising on judicial and social programs aimed at
confronting corruption, strengthening civilian law enforcement and rebuilding
The increasing collaboration between the U.S. and Central American
authorities threatens to make it more complicated for major Mexican cartels to
escape their own internecine violence and the onslaught from the government of
President Felix Calderon.
Signs that Mexican traffickers are looking to Guatemala, El Salvador and
Honduras as “safe havens” attest to the Calderon government’s 2010 successes and
suggest that the four-year-long crackdown on Mexican traffickers is beginning to
bear fruit.
The Calderon crackdown has succeeded in weakening Mexico's drug cartels,
including the preeminent Pacific cartel, Mexico’s Security Cabinet announced in a
Christmas message.
About 24 percent of all 2010 drug arrests in the country involved members of
the Pacific cartel.
Record drug seizures and other blows have weakened the criminal
organizations, the Security Cabinet said. In response, Mexican criminal gangs such
as Los Zetas are searching further south for new operational opportunities.
“Drug violence is spilling over the border, as the Mexican government's tough
stand on narco-traffickers pushes notorious organizations like the Zetas
southwards,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement in October.

Violence increases

Guatemala’s murder rate climbed to 52 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in
2010, compared with rates of 14 in Mexico and 5.4 in the U.S. More than 10,000
drug-related murders have taken place in Guatemala this year.
The country has long functioned as a major transit country for cocaine
traveling north. Drugs arrive from production countries in the south and then move
overland via Mexico into the U.S. Drug analysts estimate that between 285 and 350
metric tons of cocaine transited Guatemala in 2010.
But now with the squeezing of the Mexican cartels on their home territory,
the drug challenge for the Guatemalan authorities has increased. The amount of
illegal drugs seized in Guatemala doubled between 2008 and 2009, according to the
U.S. State Department.
“We think drug trafficking is strongly invading Central America,” Guatemala’s
President, Alvaro Colom, acknowledged in an interview in November.
“When President Calderon is successful, they (the cartels) come here. If we
manage to achieve success, they will go to Honduras, but sooner or later, if we
don't hit them all together, they will come back,” he said to BBC News.
The Guatemalan leader insists that neither his country nor any of his
neighbors can win this fight alone ─ the only way forward is to treat the criminal
threat as a regional one.
“We were looking at the routes of planes and ships used to smuggle drugs, and
it is incredible how Central America is being hit. From Acapulco to Colombia, it's a
severe aggression,” Colom said.
Outside experts agree. David Gaddis, chief of operations at the U.S. Drug
Enforcement Administration, said Mexican crime groups are moving into Central
American countries “where they feel, quite frankly, more comfortable.”
Like Guatemala, El Salvador has witnessed an influx of Mexican criminals –
which in turn has sparked turf fighting and a 37 percent jump in 2009 in the
country’s murder rate. “The more pressure there is in Mexico, the more the drug
cartels will come to Central America looking for a safe haven,” said David Munguía
Payes, El Salvador’s defense minister.
Mexican traffickers have been setting up bases in Honduras to facilitate drug
transportation into Mexico, according to Honduran authorities.
In Guatemala, it appears to be the Zetas who are taking the lead. They are
reputed to have set up recruitment and training bases and have forced at least one
Guatemalan drug family to leave the country.
“When you have drug traffickers afraid of other drug traffickers, you know
it’s getting pretty bad,” U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland told
international broadcasters in December.
Last year, one of the Mexican cartels sent a message to Guatemalans by
leaving several decapitated heads on the steps of the country’s Parliament.

U.S. steps up

Central American leaders have avoided treating the increasing threat from
cartels as an exclusively Mexican problem.
Instead, they have begun discussion on how to cooperatively address the drug
trade as a regional challenge.
The $31-billion drug trade amounts to more money than the combined annual
defense budgets of all the Central American countries. In response, Central American
leaders have called on the U.S. for assistance.
Washington has greatly increased its efforts on a broad front in recent
U.S. Forces have been training a Guatemalan special force tactical strike
team and the U.S. Government has donated a number of UH-2 helicopters to help
provide essential air mobility.
And more intelligence is being shared on drug and cartel movements at a joint
interagency task force center known as JIATF-S based in Key West, where members of
the U.S. military, the DEA, Customs and Border Patrol and the Coast Guard work with
representatives from Central American countries.
But the U.S. has offered more than a military response. In Guatemala, the
U.S. Embassy and the United States Agency for International Development have helped
the government to establish 24-hour drug courts to process the large number of cases
stemming from cartel violence.
The U.S. has also assisted in setting up a model police precinct in one of
Guatemala City’s most violent suburbs, Villa Nueva.
Community outreach programs in the suburb have encouraged locals to tip off
the police about drug activity.
The U.S. has also provided funding and advice on improving security at border
crossings with Mexico.

“Plan Central America?”

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla has urged U.S. and Central American
leaders to talk about a more comprehensive collective approach, with an anti-drug
plan tailored for the region.
Chinchilla calls her program “Plan Central America.”
The initiative would in many ways resemble the multiyear, multibillion-dollar
Merida Initiative launched by George W. Bush in 2007 and expanded by President
Obama, but with a greater focus on Central America.
“We don’t want to be seen as an appendix of the Merida Initiative,”
Chinchilla said.
Central American leaders agree they won’t win the fight against the cartels
without first defeating official corruption and lowering poverty rates.
Guatemala’s President Colom said his country’s poverty creates a breeding
ground for cartels to recruit locals into their ranks.
“If you don't have social programs, these narcos have the communities on
their side,” he said.