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The Mexican Drug Cartel Threat in Central America

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By Karen Hooper

Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina told Mexican newspaper El Universal on Nov. 9 that he plans to engage drug cartels in a "full frontal assault" when he takes office in 2012. The former general said he will use Guatemala's elite military forces, known as Los Kaibiles, to take on the drug cartels in a strategy similar to that of the Mexican government; he has asked for U.S. assistance in this struggle.

The statements signal a shifting political landscape in already violent Central America. The region is experiencing increasing levels of crime and the prospect of heightened competition from Mexican drug cartels in its territory. The institutional weakness and security vulnerabilities of Guatemala and other Central American states mean that combating these trends will require significant help, most likely from the United States.

From Sideshow to Center Stage

Central America has seen a remarkable rise in its importance as a transshipment point for cocaine and other contraband bound for the United States. Meanwhile, Mexican organized crime has expanded its activities in Mexico and Central America to include the smuggling of humans and substances such as precursor chemicals used for manufacturing methamphetamine. Substantial evidence also suggests that Central American, and particularly Guatemalan, military armaments including M60 machine guns and 40 mm grenades have wound up being used in Mexico's drug conflict.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Colombian cartels transited directly to Miami. After U.S. military aerial and radar surveillance in the Caribbean effectively shut down those routes, Mexico became the last stop on the drug supply chain before the United States, greatly empowering Mexico's cartels. A subsequent Mexican government crackdown put pressure on Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to diversify their transit routes to avoid increased enforcement at Mexico's airstrips and ports. Central America consequently has become an increasingly significant middleman for South American suppliers and Mexican buyers of contraband.

The methods and routes for moving illicit goods through Central America are diverse and constantly in flux. There is no direct land connection between the coca-growing countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. A region of swampy jungle terrain along the Panamanian-Colombian border known as the Darien Gap has made road construction prohibitively expensive and thus barred all but the most intrepid of overland travelers. Instead, aircraft or watercraft must be used to transport South American goods north, which can then be offloaded in Central America and driven north into Mexico. Once past the Darien Gap, the Pan American Highway becomes a critical transportation corridor. Honduras, for example, reportedly has become a major destination for planes from Venezuela laden with cocaine. Once offloaded, the cocaine is moved across the loosely guarded Honduran-Guatemalan border and then moved through Guatemala to Mexico, often through the largely unpopulated Peten department.

Though precise measurements of the black market are notoriously difficult to obtain, these shifts in Central America have been well-documented — and the impact on the region has been stark. While drug trafficking occurs in all Central American countries to some extent, most violence associated with the trade occurs in the historically tumultuous "Northern Triangle" of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. No longer receiving the global attention they did when the United States became involved in their Cold War-era civil wars, these countries remain poverty stricken, plagued by local gangs and highly unstable.

The violence has worsened as the drug traffic has increased. El Salvador saw its homicide rate increase by 6 percent to 66 per 100,000 inhabitants between 2005 and 2010. At the same time, Guatemala's homicide rate increased 13 percent to 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. Meanwhile, Honduras saw a rise of 108 percent to 77 per 100,000 inhabitants. These are some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

In comparison, the drug war in Mexico caused murder rates to spike 64 percent, from 11 to 18 deaths per 100,000 between 2005 and 2010. Conservative estimates put the number of dead from gang and military violence in Mexico at 50,000. These numbers are slightly misleading, as Mexican violence is concentrated in scattered pockets where most drug trafficking and competition among drug traffickers occurs. Even so, they demonstrate the disproportionate impact organized criminal groups have had on the societies of the three Northern Triangle countries.

Guatemala's Outsized Role

Increased involvement by Mexican cartels in Central America inevitably has affected the region's politico-economic structures, a process most visible in Guatemala. Its territory spans Central America, making it one of several choke points on the supply chain of illicit goods coming north from El Salvador and Honduras bound for Mexico.

Guatemala has a complex and competitive set of criminal organizations, many of which are organized around tight-knit family units. These family organizations have included the politically and economically powerful Lorenzana and Mendoza families. First rising to prominence in trade and agriculture, these families control significant businesses in Guatemala and transportation routes for shipping both legal and illicit goods. Though notorious, these families are far from alone in Guatemala's criminal organizations. Major drug traffickers like the well-known Mario Ponce and Walther Overdick also have strong criminal enterprises, with Ponce reportedly managing his operations from a Honduran jail.

The relationship of these criminal organizations to Mexican drug cartels is murky at best. The Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels are both known to have relationships with Guatemalan organized criminal groups, but the lines of communication and their exact agreements are unclear.

Less murky, however, is that Los Zetas are willing to use the same levels of violence in Guatemala to coerce loyalty as they have used in Mexico. Though both Sinaloa and Los Zetas still need Guatemalan groups to access high-level Guatemalan political connections, Los Zetas have taken a particularly aggressive tack in seeking direct control over more territory in Guatemala.

Overdick facilitated Los Zetas' entry into Guatemala in 2007. The first indication of serious Los Zetas involvement in Guatemala occurred in March 2008 when Leon crime family boss Juan Leon Ardon, alias "El Juancho," his brother Hector Enrique Leon Chacon and nine associates all died in a gunbattle with Los Zetas, who at the time still worked for the Gulf cartel. The fight severely reduced the influence of the Leon crime family, primarily benefiting Overdick's organization. The Zetas most flagrant use of force occurred in the May 2011 massacre and mutilation of 27 peasants in northern Guatemala intended as a message to a local drug dealer allegedly tied to the Leon family; the Zetas also killed and mutilated that drug dealer's niece.

MS-13 and Calle 18

In addition to ramping up relationships with powerful political, criminal and economic players, Sinaloa and Los Zetas have established relationships with Central American street gangs. The two biggest gangs in the region are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18. The two groups are loosely organized around local cliques; the Mexican cartels have relationships at varying levels of closeness with different cliques. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that there are 36,000 gang members in Honduras, 14,000 in Guatemala and 10,500 in El Salvador.

They were formed by Los Angeles gang members of Central American origin whose parents had immigrated to the United States to escape the region's civil wars. After being arrested in the United States, these gang members were deported to Central America. In some cases, the deportees spoke no Spanish and had no significant ties to their ancestral homeland, encouraging them to cluster together and make use of the skills learned on the streets of Los Angeles to make a living in Central America via organized crime.

The gangs have multiplied and migrated within the region. Many have also returned to the United States: U.S. authorities estimate that MS-13 and Calle 18 have a presence in as many as 42 states. Though the gangs are truly transnational, their emphasis is on controlling localized urban turfs. They effectively control large portions of Guatemala City, Guatemala; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and San Salvador, El Salvador. Competition within and among these gangs is responsible for a great deal of the violence in these three countries.

In a March statement, Salvadoran Defense Minister David Munguia Payes said that his government had evidence that both Sinaloa and Los Zetas are active in El Salvador but that he believes MS-13 and Calle 18 are too anarchic and violent for the Mexican cartels to rely on heavily. According to Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla, Mexican cartels primarily hire members of these gangs as assassins. The gangs are paid in drugs, which they sell on the local drug market.

Though limited in their ties to the Mexican cartels, the prevalence of MS-13 and Calle 18 in the Northern Triangle states and their extreme violence makes them a force to be reckoned with, for both the cartels and Central American governments. If Central American street gangs are able to better organize themselves internally, this could result in closer collaboration, or alternately serious confrontations with the Mexican cartels. In either case, the implications for stability in Central America are enormous.

The U.S. Role

The United States has long played an important, complex role in Latin America. In the early 20th century, U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere was characterized by the extension of U.S. economic and military control over the region. With tactics ranging from outright military domination to facilitating competition between subregional powers Guatemala and Nicaragua to ensuring the dominance of the United Fruit Co. in Central American politics and business, the United States used the first several decades of the century to ensure that Central America — and by extension the Caribbean — was under its control. After World War II, Central America became a proxy battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On a strategic level, Central America is far enough from the United States (thanks to being buffered by Mexico) and made up of small enough countries that it does not pose a direct threat to the United States. U.S. interest in the region did not end after the Cold War, however, as it is critically important to the United States that a foreign global competitor never control Central America or the Caribbean.

The majority of money spent combating drug trafficking from South America to the United States over the past decade has been spent in Colombia on monitoring air and naval traffic in the Caribbean and off the Pacific coasts, though the U.S. focus has now shifted to Mexico. Central America, by contrast, has languished since the Reagan years, when the United States allocated more than $1 billion per year to Central America. Now, the region has been allocated a total of $361.5 million for fiscal years 2008-2011 in security, economic and development aid through the Merida Initiative and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The Obama administration has requested another $100 million for CARSI. Of this allocated funding, however, only 18 percent has been dispersed due to failures in institutional cooperation and efficiency.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has facilitated most U.S.-Central American security cooperation. The DEA operates teams in the Northern Triangle that participate in limited counternarcotic operations. They are also tasked with both vetting and training local law enforcement, a particularly tricky — and most likely doomed — task. As the failure of Guatemala's highly vetted and lauded Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations shows, preventing local law enforcement from succumbing to the bribes and threats from wealthy and violent DTOs is a difficult, if not impossible, task.

The DEA's limited resources include five Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Teams worldwide. These are the agency's elite operational teams that are equipped to train foreign law enforcement and military personnel and to conduct support operations. Originally established to operate in Afghanistan exclusively, the teams have been deployed to several countries in Central America, including Guatemala and Honduras. These teams are designed to be flexible, however, and do not represent the kind of long-term commitment that would likely be necessary to stabilize the region.

Central America's Challenge

Central America has no short-term escape from being at the geographical center of the drug trade and from the associated violence. Unless and until technologies shift to allow drugs to flow directly from producer to consumer via ocean or air transport, it appears likely that Central America will only become more important to the drug trade. While the drug trade brings huge amounts of cash (admittedly on the black market) into exceedingly capital-poor countries, it also brings extreme violence.

The billions of dollars drugs command create an insurmountable challenge for the regional counternarcotic campaigns. The U.S. "war on drugs" pits the Guatemalan elite's political and financial interests against their need to retain a positive relationship with the United States, which views the elites as colluding with drug organizations to facilitate the free passage of drugs and key figures in the drug trade.

For the leaders of Central America, foreign cartel interference in domestic arrangements and increasing violence is the real threat to their power. It is not the black market that alarms a leader like Perez Molina enough to call for greater involvement by the United States: It is the threat posed by the infiltration of Mexico's most violent drug cartel into Guatemala, and the threat posed to all three countries by further Central American drug gang destabilization, which could lead to even more violence.

Looking Forward

The United States is heavily preoccupied with crises of varying degrees of importance around the world and the significant budget-tightening under way in Congress. This makes a major reallocation of resources to Guatemala or its Central American neighbors for the fight against Mexican drug cartels unlikely in the short term. Even so, key reasons for paying close attention to this issue remain.

First, the situation could destabilize rapidly if Perez Molina is sincere about confronting Mexican DTOs in Guatemala. Los Zetas have proved willing to apply their signature brutality against civilians and rivals alike in Guatemala. While the Guatemalans would be operating on their own territory and have their own significant power bases, they are neither technologically advanced nor wealthy nor unified enough to tackle the challenge posed by heavily armed, well-funded Zetas. At the very least, such a confrontation would ignite extremely destabilizing violence. This violence could extend beyond the Northern Triangle into more stable Central American countries, not to mention the possibility that violence spreading north could open up a new front in Mexico's cartel war.

Second, the United States and Mexico already are stretched thin trying to control their shared 3,200-kilometer land border. U.S. counternarcotic activities in Mexico are limited by Mexican sovereignty concerns. For example, carrying weapons and operating independent of Mexican supervision is not allowed. This hampers the interdiction efforts of U.S. agencies like the DEA. The efforts also are hampered by the United States' unwillingness to share intelligence for fear that corrupt Mexican officials would leak it.

Perez Molina's invitation for increased U.S. participation in Guatemalan counternarcotic operations presents a possibility for U.S. involvement in a country that, like Mexico, straddles the continent. The Guatemalan choke point has a much shorter border with Mexico — about 970 kilometers — in need of control and is far enough north in Central America to prevent insertion of drug traffickers into the supply chain between the blocking force and Mexico. While the United States would not be able to stop the illicit flow of cocaine and people north, it could make it significantly more difficult. And although significantly reducing traffic at the Guatemalan border would not stop the flow of the drugs to the United States, it would radically decrease the value of Central America as a trafficking corridor.

Accomplishing this would require a much more significant U.S. commitment to the drug war, and any such direct involvement would be costly both in money and political capital. Absent significant U.S. help, the current trend of increased Mexican cartel influence and violence in Central America will only worsen.

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