Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Countries of the “Northern Triangle” Rise as the New Launch Pad for Drug Distribution in Central America

The Economist: Organized Crime in Central America: The Rot Spreads
The Economist: El Salvador’s President: So Far, So Good
Federation of American Scientists: U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: the Mérida Initiative and Beyond

The Central American countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have in the past two years risen to the forefront of the war on drugs. With harsher crackdowns on the drug cartels in Mexico, the cartels have looked to launch their drug supplies from nearby locations with less police pressure. The major source of cartel pressure in Mexico has come from the Merida Initiative, a “counterdrug and anticrime assistance package” launched in 2007 between the United States and Mexico. The Merida Initiative has provided a total of $1.8 billion in the form of arms and police training for various countries throughout Central America and the Caribbean, and $1.5 billion of this funding has gone directly to counter the drug cartels in Mexico. Ten years ago this would have been a good strategy given that Mexico was the largest “staging post” for drug distribution to the United States. However, with the recent pressures placed on the cartels in Mexico, they have simply moved south into the countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Over the past ten years these three countries have simultaneously grown into the major launch pad for drugs imported from Columbia and Venezuela into the United States and have achieved the highest rates of murder in the world. As such, these countries are now notoriously known as the “Northern Triangle,” a region fraught with poverty and violence.

The “Northern Triangle” has been fertile ground for the Mexican drug cartel— many point to the dire poverty of these countries as the major reason. The average income in these countries is near $2,700 per person, barely a third that of Mexico. Amid the global financial crises, El Salvador’s economy shrank by 3.6%, one of the biggest drops in the region. The country is not expected to reach its pre-recession norm until 2012 because its economic growth is largely dependent on the growth of the United States, which has been slow. Considering the $2.1 billion worth of drugs, arms, and cash seized earlier this year in Guatemala, equal to roughly the same as 5% of the country’s GDP, it is not hard to see why many in financial distress have looked to join with one of the few lucrative ventures in their countries. Mexican mafias, “Zetas” and “Sinaloa,” have found willing and lethal new recruits to ferry drugs, extort, and kidnap, in the countries’ 70,000 street youth gang members known as “Maras.”

Honduras’s Attorney-General Roy David Urtecho, recently stated “Maras” were seeking “to establish themselves as legitimate traffickers instead of street-level thugs.” The 2009 coup in Honduras broke cooperation efforts with foreign states and suspended foreign aid into the country, aid and cooperation necessary to combat organized crime, making Honduras an easy target for increased trafficking. In 2009, 154 drug trafficking flights were logged, up from almost none in 2005. Add to this the assassination of Honduras’s top anti-drugs official in 2009, which seems to have been a Sinaloa hit, and the prospect of these countries freeing themselves from the drug trade appears grim. However the recent adaptation of social, verses militant approaches to countering drug trafficking, may be the solution these countries have been looking for. President Funes of El Salvador initially took a hard-line approach to the drug trade by ordering the army into the streets and banning gang membership, but the effect of this tactic tapered. However, Funes was successful in building other social programs in the country, an approach that could indirectly diminish the strength of the cartel. El Salvador, for example, now has free basic education, and disadvantaged children are given school uniforms and shoes. This year an additional 22,000 children have enrolled in school, which means 22,000 fewer children are likely to become “Maras.”

President Obama appears to believe in the same “social” strategy for curtailing the drug trade. As the term for the initial Merida Initiative draws to an end, President Obama has proposed a new “four-pillar” strategy. Although the first two pillars consist of much of the same tactics as the original initiative, the last two focus on “(3) building a 21st century border between the United States and Mexico, and (4) building strong and resilient communities.” These last two pillars seek to increase the secure flow of people and goods between the United States and Mexico and to improve conditions in cities prone to cartel violence through social programs and alleviating poverty. Although initial implementation of the last two pillars will largely be in Mexico, hopefully the combined efforts of presidents from the United States, the countries of the Northern Triangle and Mexico will give this strategy greater success than initiatives of the past.

1) Given the assassination of drug officials in Honduras in 2009, are efforts to counter drug cartels by ordering armies and police into the streets a good strategic approach to the problem, or does the approach just lend to more violence?
2) Can social programming be justifiably funded by and through the Merida Initiative, an initiative specifically started to counter the “war on drugs?”

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