A growing vice

By Eric Mathison

Last month, the Mara 18 gang set a Guatemalan bus on fire, killing nine people and injuring a dozen more. Only the latest attack in ongoing gang violence, the arson was an extortion attempt on the company that owns the bus. This year, many similar attacks have happened in Central America where gang violence, largely spurned on by drug trafficking, is tearing the region apart.

Four years ago, Mexican President Felipe Calderón began the war on drugs in earnest. He sent 6,500 soldiers to the state of Michoacán, which had become a major transportation route for cocaine from Colombia to the United States. Since December 2006, Caldeón’s anti-drug efforts have become the focus of his presidency– there are now over 30,000 troops directly engaged in the war with drug cartels in Mexico. Some progress has been made as major cartel leaders have been arrested or killed and police corruption reduced. Still, for all Mexico’s efforts, change isn’t coming quickly enough. Over 35,000 people have died in drug-violence-related deaths since 2006 and thousands of others have been kidnapped. Worse still, restricting the drug trade in Mexico is pushing the industry south into Central America, particularly the “northern triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras– countries which are far less able to handle the increase in crime. Unless the United States, the destination for the drugs, dramatically reforms its drug policy, Central America will be thrown into chaos.

America’s war on drugs has been ongoing for 40 years. In the 1990s America focused on eliminating the supply of cocaine from Colombia, which accounted for around 90 per cent of America’s supply. At the end of that decade, Colombia was receiving hundreds of millions of dollars a year to fight drug cartels, making it America’s third largest foreign aid recipient. (The funding peaked in 2000 when America gave $765 million for military and police use.) When the Bush administration took over, Plan Colombia (as it was known) was largely focused on providing military support. Military equipment, training and personnel were provided to counter the drug cartels and thousands of square kilometres of coca plants were destroyed with herbicides.

But it didn’t work. Indeed, since the 1980s when American President Ronald Reagan intensified the war on drugs, the price of cocaine on American streets has become increasingly cheap. At the height of Plan Colombia, there was no noticeable drop in the cocaine supply because there was too much of it to make a difference and the cartels simply shifted further into the Colombian jungle or into neighbouring Peru and Bolivia. While coca production hasn’t decreased, major cartels in Colombia were weakened, leaving a hole for Mexican cartel leaders to fill the void. According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, 65 per cent of cocaine bound for America came through Mexico in 2000. In 2007, the number was 90 per cent.

The Obama administration changed the focus away from cocaine producers in South America to decreasing the amount that gets into America via Mexico. In 2008, it announced the Merida Initiative. Totalling $1.4 billion over three years, the initiative provided three quarters of its allotted money to Mexico and the rest to Central American countries to combat drug cartels. Compared to Colombia, where the goal was eliminating insurgents, the Merida Initiative focused on border patrol, intelligence support and lowering corruption.

If the goal of the Merida Initiative was to decrease drugs getting into America, it has failed. Like Plan Colombia, there have been arrests or killings of important cartel leaders, but so far no decrease in drug trafficking is reported. The initiative ended last September, but violence continues. Because America is the target market, it is also responsible for the drug trade. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that up to $23 billion in drug profits come from America to Mexico every year and 2,000 weapons are shipped into Mexico illegally. Compared to the profit drug cartels are making, the money the Merida Initiative provided was paltry.

The bigger fear is that, like Plan Colombia which pushed the cartels into neighbouring countries, Mexico’s drug war will just force the drug trade elsewhere. Evidence suggests that this is already occurring. Mexico’s cartels have the advantage of sharing a land border with the U.S. and they are still extremely powerful, but Central America is increasingly playing a larger role. Whether or not drugs continue to flow through Mexico– which they undoubtedly will to some extent– a major power shift would be equally catastrophic for a region that has a much lower military budget and more corruption than Mexico.

The American government is hoping to control the spread of the drug cartels through two American-funded programs set to take over from the Merida Initiative. The Central American Regional Security Initiative will provide $165 million in assistance a year for law enforcement and community policing to combat gangs. Another similar program includes Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

Two problems exist with the programs. First, like Merida they’re both woefully underfunded– $165 million spread over an entire continent will fail to make a difference. For their part, the governments of the countries most threatened by violence– Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras– have more corruption and lower budgets than Mexico. Honduras has a GDP of $12 billion, which is lower than some estimates of the total profit Mexican cartels make each year.

Second, the resources that those governments are using and the aid they’re getting from America is mostly spent on increasing police numbers. The root of the problem, however, goes deeper. The police forces and armies have ties to the drug cartels, so increasing their numbers is only going to raise the number of corrupt officials. In Guatemala, for instance, former intelligence officers have defected to the cartels, meaning that rooting out corruption puts legitimate investigators’ lives at greater risk. Worse still, governments that are tough on crime often end up increasing their jail populations without decreasing the number of crimes committed. Honduras enacted laws in 2003 that allow those suspected of gang membership to be jailed for up to 12 years based only on suspicion. El Salvador has implemented similarly tough legislation.

Guatemala and El Salvador both endured civil wars which ended in 1996 and 1992 respectively. In El Salvador, approximately 75,000 people died; in Guatemala, 200,000 did. Since then, the countries have made little progress. While both civil wars arose as responses to poor government, the drug trade is threatening to return the countries– along with the rest of Central America– to an even more politically unstable condition than they are currently in. In fact, Guatemala and El Salvador now have more violent deaths than they did during their civil wars. They, along with Honduras, Venezuela and Jamaica have the highest murder rates in the world.

The history of each country affects them differently, but the northern triangle’s rise in violence is primarily due to drug trafficking. The American National Drug Intelligence Center reports that in 2007, less than one per cent of the cocaine shipped from South America for the U.S. went through Central America. After only two years the number increased to between 60 and 90 per cent. Land routes mean that there are more chances for confrontations with police and other gangs, so violence has increased.

Mexico’s war on drugs is forcing cartels to change their shipping tactics. Large ships and aircraft are now being replaced by land routes or more clandestine maritime options, such as semi-submersible boats which can carry up to 10 tonnes of cocaine in one shipment and are nearly imperceptible to radar.

The country feeling the most pressure from the Mexican drug war is Guatemala, which the U.S. State Department calls “the epicenter of the drug threat.” Guatemala shares a long border with Mexico and it is much more porous than the Mexico-America one. This means that drugs, weapons and gang members can easily cross over, which they are increasingly doing. The Zetas, a Mexican cartel, are considered by the American Drug Enforcement Administration to be the most violent criminal organization in Mexico. They have increased their presence in Guatemala, taking over an entire department (equivalent to a Canadian province) in the north central part of Guatemala last December.

The northern triangle has another threat– the maras, or youth gangs. During the Central American civil wars many people fled to the U.S. After the wars ended, youths who were born in Central America but emigrated to the U.S. began returning to their home countries, mostly not by choice. Following the Los Angeles riots in 1992, California instituted tough anti-gang laws to combat the looting and violence during the riots. In 1996, the legislation grew tougher. Non-citizens were deported for petty crimes such as drunk driving, meaning that approximately 20,000 youths were sent back to the northern triangle even though they had spent nearly their entire lives in America. As more people are deported, the gangs grow in Central America. Because they were so young when they went to the U.S., most youths returning to their country of birth have few connections except for the gangs they knew in America.

The maras, along with the organized cartels of Mexico, are the perfect storm for the collapse of the entire region. The United Nations estimates that 45 per cent of Central Americans are 15 years old or younger, meaning that the gangs have a huge reserve of unemployed, disenfranchised youth to draw on. With the weapons left over from the civil wars along with those smuggled into Mexico, the power struggle that is beginning to form threatens the security of civilians, not just in Central America, but in Mexico and the U.S.

The size of this problem is too big for Central American countries to handle on their own. Further, while drug trafficking has been the primary focus of American efforts, the maras risk gaining more political power– for now they are limited to drugs. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras can improve the situation by decreasing their focus on tough gang policies. Building more prisons and sending more youths to jail isn’t going to solve the problem, so long as the deeper factors– poverty, unemployment, political corruption– continue to plague the countries. Rather, governments must resist the “tough on crime” stance they have adopted and focus on social programs, job development and rooting out corruption in their government and police forces.

None of this is possible, however, unless America dramatically increases its commitment to the region. The war on drugs has been ongoing for 40 years with little progress made. Rather than justify the new commitment because of the drug war, the U.S. government should view it as a matter of regional security. America has played a large role in stoking the fires of instability– both by failing to stop drug trafficking and by their poor record of intervention in Central America.

The American government has much to learn from the “get tough” programs it has used in the past. The military strategy used in Plan Colombia failed to decrease the supply of cocaine available to the U.S. Colombian security forces financed by the American government were complicit in a number of documented human rights violations, including participation in massacres or intentionally failing to stop them from happening. The fumigation used to destroy coca plants also displaced tens of thousands of farmers who were planting legal crops.

In America, Los Angeles has since developed an effective method of controlling gangs. The strict punishment-only system the city used in the 1990s was, by their own admission, a failure. Despite a hard on crime approach gang numbers didn’t decrease. Now, communities are more involved, gang prevention programs exist and youths involved in gangs are more likely to reform, according to William Bratton, the LAPD chief of police from 2002-2009. Under Bratton crime in Los Angeles dropped for six consecutive years. This model can be exported to cities like San Salvador, where communities have been overrun by gangs and transit drivers refuse to drive through certain areas because of the violence. Money is better spent on an approach that includes programs beyond law enforcement.

The much bigger issue is America’s entire stance on narcotics. By keeping drugs like marijuana and cocaine illegal, the government is incapable of controlling supply except through military efforts in other countries. Community projects, treatment programs and anti-gang initiatives have been shown to be dramatically more effective than reactionary efforts to control drug supply. With minimal results after 40 years, the war on drugs is the longest running foreign policy failure in American history.

Mexico and Central America view the blame for the drug problem equally split between their countries and America. The former president of Honduras, Jose Manuel Zelaya, called for the decriminalization or legalization of narcotics. So has former Mexican President Vincente Fox. Their case is strong: people know the dangers of drugs or can be educated about them. Harm reduction and treatment are more effective at reducing drug use than law enforcement.

Without an aggressive plan to reform narcotics trafficking, Central America is at risk of becoming a failed region. If the drug policy doesn’t change, cartels from Mexico will overrun Central America and the struggle for power between the Mexican cartels and the maras will grow more violent. The solution to the drug problem is complex and in no way can it be tackled by one country. But if something doesn’t change soon, cocaine use will become the smallest of worries.

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