Global Governance, Headlines, IPS UN: Inside the Glasshouse, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

CENTRAL AMERICA: Cross-Border Cartels Dig in Their Heels

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Mar 22 2010 (IPS) - Stepped-up efforts against drug trafficking in Colombia and Mexico are increasingly driving drug mafias into Central America, where drug-related corruption and violence are on the rise.

President Álvaro Colom of Guatemala, which borders Mexico to the south, recently summed the problem up like this: “When (Mexican) President (Felipe) Calderón has a success, I have a problem.”

Referring to the increased participation of the military in the war on drugs in Mexico since Calderón took office, the State Department says in its 2010 International Narcotics Strategy Report that “As Mexico achieves further progress against the criminal organisations operating on its territory…there is growing evidence that Mexico’s drug trafficking organisations are already establishing a presence in these (neighbouring) regions, particularly in some Central American states.”

The report, released Mar. 1, is not encouraging with respect to developments in Central America.

It says the Jun. 28 coup that ousted then President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras and the “corruption within the Honduran government and its law enforcement elements presents obstacles to counternarcotics efforts,” while in Guatemala, “corruption and inadequate law enforcement efforts contributed to low interdiction levels during the past several years.”

Panama, meanwhile, is described as the “mouth of the funnel” in the movement of drugs from South America to the United States. And in Nicaragua, “corruption and political interference continue to plague law enforcement and the judiciary.”

In El Salvador, the government “did not make any significant advances in 2009 in terms of improving its ability to detect, investigate, and prosecute money laundering and financial crime,” while Costa Rica “is an important transit point for narcotics destined for the United States and Europe,” the report adds.

Increasing operations in Central America by drug trafficking organisations like Mexico’s Gulf cartel and the Zetas and Colombia’s Norte del Valle cartel have triggered bloody turf wars in the region.

Costa Rican Attorney General Francisco Dall’Anese told IPS that drug trafficking in his country – known as “the Switzerland of Central America” because of its strong democracy and relatively high standard of living – has increased to the point that “in 2009 the Institute of Alcoholism and Drug Dependence reported 250,000 more drug users than in 2008.

“This means there is wider availability of drugs in the market and that more drugs are being consumed,” he said. Criminal organisations – local, Colombian, Mexican, Chinese and others – are also very active in the country, “to judge by the large number of contract killings that have occurred in the last six years,” he added.

Dall’Anese, who is also president of the Central American Council of Public Prosecutors Offices, said the fight against organised crime must be a regional effort because drug cartels have gone global.

Last year, Costa Rica passed a law against organised crime, which created special procedural rules for cases, allowed investigators to tap telephones for a year, extended the maximum period of preventive detention from 12 to 24 months, and extended the statute of limitations to 10 years.

But in spite of efforts, the activity of drug cartels in the region continues to grow.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Western Hemisphere Affairs Frank Mora said in a February speech in Washington that the drug mafias’ move to Central America, as a result of success in the fight against drugs in Mexico and Colombia, is his biggest “nightmare”.

Professor David Martínez-Amador, who teaches a course on “transnational organised crime” in several universities in Mexico and Central America, told IPS that the heavy presence of drug trafficking organisations is a characteristic of countries where a strong role for the state is virtually absent, “as is the case in Central America, with the exception of Costa Rica.”

Martínez-Amador compared the situation in the region with the case of Italian mafias like La Cosa Nostra in Sicily and La Camorra in Naples: “They took over society because southern Italy is feudal, there has never been a real state presence there.”

On Mar. 5, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton wrapped up a tour of several Latin American countries with a visit to Guatemala, where she met with several Central American presidents and senior officials to discuss the problem of drug trafficking.

In Guatemala, she said the Barack Obama administration “recognises and accepts its share of responsibility for the problems posed by drug trafficking in this region” and added that U.S. demand for narcotics was “one of the reasons why we feel so strongly about trying to help countries like Guatemala fight this terrible criminal scourge” that is largely responsible for the high levels of corruption.

On Mar. 17, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio María Costa, and President Colom signed a cooperation agreement to open a centre of excellence on organised crime in Guatemala City.

UNODC will also provide 16 million dollars to carry out a three-year integrated advocacy programme in Guatemala aimed at strengthening the justice system, reform the police and prisons, and fight corruption and human trafficking.

“Corruption, poverty and a poor criminal justice capacity make Guatemala extremely vulnerable to organised crime,” said Costa, who also announced that UNODC would open a regional Central American office in this country.

In the latest sign of how deep drug corruption runs in Guatemala, the national police chief Baltazar Gómez and anti-drug chief Nelly Bonilla were arrested early this month for forming part of a drug trafficking ring.

Marco Antonio Canteo at the Guatemalan Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences (ICCPG) told IPS that incidents like this one, in which the Zetas were involved, confirm to what extent international drug cartels have penetrated the Guatemalan state.

He also expressed his concern that drug consumption, and not just trafficking, is also on the rise in Guatemala.

Rodolfo Dougherty, vice chair of the Central American Parliament’s political commission, told IPS that “a greater effort from the United States (the world’s biggest market for drugs) would be important to keep drugs from coming into this region.”

The Guatemalan legislator said the incursion of international drug cartels in the region is alarming, and the situation is getting worse because governments do not have the capacity to fight them.

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