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How the US Props Up Criminals and Murderers All in the Name of Our Catastrophic Drug War

The US appears to be repeating its historically catastrophic strategy of propping up human rights abusers and simplistically relying on militarization to root out social problems.

It’s considered the most dangerous place on Earth outside of an active war zone. A cluster of Central American countries known as the Northern Triangle, officially made up of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. With a murder rate four times higher than headline-grabbing Mexico and ten times that of the United States, the region is said to be as deadly as Kandahar or Mogadishu. In 2007 alone, each of the three nations individually saw more homicides than all 27 countries of the European Union combined.

And it’s getting worse.

In recent months U.S. media outlets and think tanks have pointed a collective finger at one overriding cause for Central America’s rising level of violence; the influx of foreign drug traffickers. Late last month Secretary of State Hilary Clinton traveled to Guatemala City to meet with all seven of the region’s presidents as well as Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and officials from Canada, Europe, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank. The topic of the meeting was Central American security. Clinton vowed to increase U.S. spending in the region by $40 million, upping U.S. investment under a particular regional security package to $300 million; a ten percent increase from last year’s commitment. Meanwhile the Inter-American Development Bank has pledged $500 million in aid spread out over two years. In total, international donors pledged nearly $1 billion in aid to Central America.

According to Clinton, the funds–which in part will be directed to creating specialized anti-drug police units and intelligence gathering–are necessary to ensure that institutions in the region are, “ capable of protecting human rights.”

While the capability of Central American institutions to safeguard human rights is open to interpretation, activists in the region have raised serious concerns about the governments’ interest and will in doing so. They fear the hundreds of millions of dollars ear-marked for law enforcement and security will be used by the deeply corrupt–at times violent–governments of the Northern Triangle to support ongoing human rights abuses. Others argue the funds represent a misguided effort that favors militarization over more creative, sustainable models of aid and policy. Persistent connections between Central American governments and the criminal organizations they are mandated to eliminate further compound the growing sense of insecurity.
In the 1970s and 80s, drugs originating in Latin America generally made their way to the United States through the Caribbean. Increased pressure from the militarized drug war in Mexico and Colombia, however, has forced drug trafficking organizations–or DTOs–to diversify their trade routes and tactics. Like a water balloon squeezed from the top, Mexico’s most notorious criminal groups have been pushed into the institutionally weak nations of Central America, particularly in the Northern Triangle. Though precise statistics are inherently difficult to pin down, estimates on the share of cocaine now making its way through Central America from Colombia en route to Mexico, and eventually on to the eager markets of the United States have now climbed to as high as 84 percent; a substantial increase from just 23 percent in 2006. According to the United Nations 2010 World Drug Report, roughly 200 metric tons of cocaine transits Central America and Mexico annually, resulting in approximately $6 billion of profit for regional 'cartels' each year.

Narco-traffickers still take to the skies to move product–though in shorter flights than they once favored–often using clandestine airstrips constructed in the jungles of the Northern Triangle. According to a Congressional Research Service report, drug flights into Honduras reportedly “skyrocketed” following the 2009 U.S.-backed ouster of President Manuel Zelaya. Increasingly, however, the DTOs now move their cargo by sea. In some cases, the criminal organizations have even built submarines to transport goods underwater from Colombia to the shores of Central America and Mexico.