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Central America: An Emerging Role in the Drug Trade

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By Stephen Meiners

As part of STRATFOR's coverage of the security situation in Mexico, we have observed some significant developments in the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere over the past year. While the United States remains the top destination for South American-produced cocaine, and Mexico continues to serve as the primary transshipment route, the path between Mexico and South America is clearly changing.

These changes have been most pronounced in Central America, where Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have begun to rely increasingly on land-based smuggling routes as several countries in the region have stepped up monitoring and interdiction of airborne and maritime shipments transiting from South America to Mexico.

The results of these changes have been extraordinary. According to a December 2008 report from the U.S. National Drug Intelligence Center, less than 1 percent of the estimated 600 to 700 tons of cocaine that departed South America for the United States in 2007 transited Central America. The rest, for the most part, passed through the Caribbean Sea or Pacific Ocean en route to Mexico. Since then, land-based shipment of cocaine through Central America appears to have ballooned. Earlier this month, U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland estimated in an interview with a Guatemalan newspaper that cocaine now passes through that country at a rate of approximately 300 to 400 tons per year.

Notwithstanding the difficulty associated with estimating drug flows, it is clear that Central America has evolved into a significant transshipment route for drugs, and that the changes have taken place rapidly. These developments warrant a closer look at the mechanics of the drug trade in the region, the actors involved, and the implications for Central American governments -- for whom drug-trafficking organizations represent a much more daunting threat than they do for Mexico.

Some Background

While the drug trade in the Western Hemisphere is multifaceted, it fundamentally revolves around the trafficking of South American-produced cocaine to the United States, the world's largest market for the drug. Drug shipment routes between Peru and Colombia -- where the vast majority of cocaine is cultivated and produced -- and the United States historically have been flexible, evolving in response to interdiction efforts or changing markets. For example, Colombian drug traffickers used to control the bulk of the cocaine trade by managing shipping routes along the Caribbean smuggling corridor directly to the United States. By the 1990s, however, as the United States and other countries began to focus surveillance and interdiction efforts along this corridor, the flow of U.S.-bound drugs was forced into Mexico, which remains the main transshipment route for the overwhelming majority of cocaine entering the United States.

A similar situation has been occurring over the last two years in Central America. From the 1990s until as recently as 2007, traffickers in Mexico received multiton shipments of cocaine from South America. There was ample evidence of this, including occasional discoveries of bulk cocaine on everything from small propeller aircraft and Gulfstream jets to self-propelled semisubmersible vessels, fishing trawlers and cargo ships. These smuggling platforms had sufficient range and capacity to bypass Central America and ship bulk drugs directly to Mexico.

By early 2008, however, a series of developments in several Central American countries suggested that drug-trafficking organizations -- Mexican cartels in particular -- were increasingly trying to establish new land-based smuggling routes through Central America for cocaine shipments from South America to Mexico and eventual delivery to the United States. While small quantities of drugs had certainly transited the region in the past, the routes used presented an assortment of risks. A combination of poorly maintained highways, frequent border crossings, volatile security conditions and unpredictable local criminal organizations apparently presented such great logistical challenges that traffickers opted to send the majority of their shipments through well-established maritime and airborne platforms.

In response to this relatively unchecked international smuggling, several countries in the region began taking steps to increase the monitoring and interdiction of such shipments. The Colombian government, for one, stepped up monitoring of aircraft operating in its airspace. The Mexican government installed updated radar systems and reduced the number of airports authorized to receive flights originating in Central and South America. The Colombian government estimates that the aerial trafficking of cocaine from Colombia has decreased by as much as 90 percent since 2003.

Maritime trafficking also appears to have suffered over the past few years, most likely due to greater cooperation and information-sharing between Mexico and the United States. The United States has an immense capability to collect maritime technical intelligence, and an increasing degree of awareness regarding drug trafficking at sea. Two examples of this progress include the Mexican navy's July 2008 capture -- acting on intelligence provided by the United States -- of a self-propelled semisubmersible vessel loaded with more than five tons of cocaine, and the U.S. Coast Guard's February 2009 interdiction of a Mexico-flagged fishing boat loaded with some seven tons of cocaine about 700 miles off Mexico's Pacific coast. Presumably as a result of successes such as these, the Mexican navy reported in 2008 that maritime trafficking had decreased by an estimated 60 percent over the last two years.

While it is impossible to independently corroborate the Mexican and Colombian governments' estimates on the degree to which air- and seaborne drug trafficking has decreased over the last few years, developments in Central America over the past year certainly support their assessments. In particular, STRATFOR has observed that in order to make up for losses in maritime and aerial trafficking, land-based smuggling routes are increasingly being used -- not by Colombian cocaine producers or even Central American drug gangs, but by the now much more powerful Mexican drug-trafficking organizations.

Mechanics of Central American Drug Trafficking

It is important to clarify that what we are defining as land-based trafficking is not limited to overland smuggling. The methods associated with land-based trafficking can be divided into three categories: overland smuggling, littoral maritime trafficking and short-range aerial trafficking.

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The most straightforward of these is simple overland smuggling. As a series of investigations in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua demonstrated last year, overland smuggling operations use a wide variety of approaches. In one case, authorities pieced together a portion of a route being used by Mexico's Sinaloa cartel in which small quantities of drugs entered Costa Rica from Panama via the international point of entry on the Pan-American Highway. The cocaine was often held for several days in a storage facility before being loaded onto another vehicle to be driven across the country on major highways. Upon approaching the Nicaraguan border, however, the traffickers opted to avoid the official port of entry and instead transferred the shipments into Nicaragua on foot or on horseback along a remote part of the border. Once across, the shipments were taken to the shores of the large inland Lake Nicaragua, where they were transferred onto boats to be taken north, at which point they would be loaded onto vehicles to be driven toward the Honduran border. In one case in Nicaragua, authorities uncovered another Sinaloa-linked route that passed through Managua and is believed to have followed the Pan-American Highway through Honduras and into El Salvador.

The second method associated with land-based trafficking involves littoral maritime operations. Whereas long-range maritime trafficking involves large cargo ships and self-propelled semisubmersible vessels capable of delivering multiton shipments of drugs from South America to Mexico without having to refuel, littoral trafficking tends to involve so-called "go-fast boats" that are used to carry smaller quantities of drugs at higher speeds over shorter distances. This method is useful to traffickers who might want to avoid, for whatever reason, a certain stretch of highway or perhaps even an entire country. According to Nicaraguan military officials, several go-fast boats are suspected of operating off the country's coasts and of sailing outside Nicaraguan territorial waters in order to avoid authorities. While it is possible to make the entire trip from South America to Mexico using only this method -- and making frequent refueling stops -- it is believed that littoral trafficking is often combined with an overland network.

The third method associated with land-based drug smuggling involves short-range aerial operations. In these cases, clandestine planes make stops in Central America before either transferring their cargo to a land vehicle or making another short flight toward Mexico. Over the past year, several small planes loaded with drugs or cash have crashed or been seized in Honduras, Mexico and other countries in the region. In addition, authorities in Guatemala have uncovered several clandestine airstrips allegedly managed by the Mexican drug-trafficking organization Los Zetas. These examples suggest that even as overall aerial trafficking appears to have decreased dramatically, the practice continues in Central America. Indeed, there is little reason to expect that it would not continue, considering that many countries in the region lack the resources to adequately monitor their airspace.

While each of these three methods involves a different approach to drug smuggling, the methods share two important similarities. For one, the vehicles involved -- be they speedboats, small aircraft or private vehicles -- have limited cargo capacities, which means land-based trafficking generally involves cocaine shipments in quantities no greater than a few hundred pounds. While smaller quantities in more frequent shipments mean more handling, they also mean that less product is lost if a shipment is seized. More importantly, each of these land-based methods requires that a drug-trafficking organization maintain a presence inside Central America.

Actors Involved

There are a variety of drug-trafficking organizations operating inside Central America. In addition to some of the notorious local gangs -- such as Calle 18 and MS-13 -- there is also a healthy presence of foreign criminal organizations. Colombian drug traffickers, for example, historically have been no strangers to the region. However, as STRATFOR has observed over the past year, it is the more powerful Mexico-based drug-trafficking organizations that appear to be overwhelmingly responsible for the recent upticks in land-based narcotics smuggling in Central America.

Based on reports of arrests and drug seizures in the region over the past year, it is clear that no single Mexican cartel maintains a monopoly on land-based drug trafficking in Central America. Los Zetas, for example, are extremely active in several parts of Guatemala, where they engage in overland and short-range aerial trafficking. The Sinaloa cartel, which STRATFOR believes is the most capable Mexican trafficker of cocaine, has been detected operating a fairly extensive overland smuggling route from Panama to El Salvador. Some intelligence gaps remain regarding, for example, the precise route Sinaloa follows from El Salvador to Mexico or the route Los Zetas use between South America and Guatemala. It is certainly possible that these two Mexican cartels do not rely exclusively on any single route or method in the region. But the logistical challenges associated with establishing even one route across Central America make it likely that existing routes are maintained even after they have been detected -- and are defended if necessary.

The operators of the Mexican cartel-managed routes also do not match a single profile. At times, Mexican cartel members themselves have been found to be operating in Central America. More common is the involvement of locals in various phases of smuggling operations. Nicaraguan and Salvadoran nationals, for example, have been arrested in northwestern Nicaragua for operating a Sinaloa-linked overland and littoral route into El Salvador. Authorities in Costa Rica have arrested Costa Rican nationals for their involvement in overland routes through that country. In that case, a related investigation in Panama led to the arrest of several Mexican nationals who reportedly had recently arrived in the area to more closely monitor the operation of their route.

One exception is Guatemala, where Mexican drug traffickers appear to operate much more extensively than in any other Central American country; this may be due, at least in part, to the relationship between Los Zetas and the Guatemalan Kaibiles. Beyond the apparently more-established Zeta smuggling operations there, several recent drug seizures -- including an enormous 1,800-acre poppy plantation attributed to the Sinaloa cartel -- make it clear that other Mexican drug-trafficking organizations are currently active inside Guatemala. Sinaloa was first suspected of increasing its presence in Guatemala in early 2008, when rumors surfaced that the cartel was attempting to recruit local criminal organizations to support its own drug-trafficking operations there. The ongoing Zeta-Sinaloa rivalry at that time triggered a series of deadly firefights in Guatemala, prompting fears that the bloody turf battles that had led to record levels of organized crime-related violence inside Mexico would extend into Central America.

Security Implications in Central America

Despite these concerns and the growing presence of Mexican traffickers in the region, there apparently have been no significant spikes in drug-related violence in Central America outside of Guatemala. Several factors may explain this relative lack of violence.

First, most governments in Central America have yet to launch large-scale counternarcotics campaigns. The seizures and arrests that have been reported so far have generally been the result of regular police work, as opposed to broad changes in policies or a significant commitment of resources to address the problem. More significantly, though, the quantities of drugs seized probably amount to just a drop in the bucket compared to the quantity of drugs that moves through the region on a regular basis. Because seizures have remained low, Mexican drug traffickers have yet to launch any significant reprisal attacks against government officials in any country outside Guatemala. In that country, even the president has received death threats and had his office bugged, allegedly by drug traffickers.

The second factor, which is related to the first, is that drug traffickers operating in Central America likely rely more heavily on bribes than on intimidation to secure the transit of drug shipments. This assessment follows from the region's reputation for official corruption (especially in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama and Guatemala) and the economic disadvantage that many of these countries face compared to the Mexican cartels. For example, the gross domestic product of Honduras is $12 billion, while the estimated share of the drug trade controlled by the Mexican cartels is estimated to be $20 billion.

Finally, Mexican cartels currently have their hands full at home. Although Central America has undeniably become more strategically important for the flow of drugs from South America, the cartels in Mexico have simultaneously been engaged in a two-front war at home against the Mexican government and against rival criminal organizations. As long as this war continues at its present level, Mexican drug traffickers may be reluctant to divert significant resources too far from their home turf, which remains crucial in delivering drug shipments to the United States.

Looking Ahead

That said, there is no guarantee that Central America will continue to escape the wrath of Mexican drug traffickers. On the contrary, there is reason for concern that the region will increasingly become a battleground in the Mexican cartel war.

For one thing, the Merida Initiative, a U.S. anti-drug aid program that will put some $300 million into Mexico and about $100 million into Central America over the next year, could be perceived as a meaningful threat to drug-trafficking operations. If Central American governments choose to step up counternarcotics operations, either at the request of the United States or in order to qualify for more Merida money, they risk disrupting existing smuggling operations to the extent that cartels begin to retaliate.

Also, even though Mexican cartels may be reluctant to divert major resources from the more important war at home, it is important to recognize that a large-scale reassignment of cartel operatives or resources from Mexico to Central America might not be necessary to have a significant impact on the security situation in any given Central American country. Given the rampant corruption and relatively poor protective security programs in place for political leaders in the region, very few cartel operatives or resources would actually be needed if a Mexican drug-trafficking organization chose to, for example, conduct an assassination campaign against high-ranking government officials.

Governments are not the only potential threat to drug traffickers in Central America. The increases in land-based drug trafficking in the region could trigger intensified competition over trafficking routes. Such turf battles could occur either among the Mexican cartels or between the Mexicans and local criminal organizations, which might try to muscle their way into the lucrative smuggling routes or attempt to grab a larger percentage of the profits.

If the example of Mexico is any guide, the drug-related violence that could be unleashed in Central America would easily overwhelm the capabilities of the region's governments. Last year, STRATFOR considered the possibility of Mexico becoming a failed state. But Mexico is a far stronger and richer country than its fragile southern neighbors, who simply do not have the resources to deal with the cartels on their own.

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