How the US Props Up Criminals and Murderers All in the Name of Our Catastrophic Drug War
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In addition to smuggling by sea and air, DTOs have also capitalized on overland routes that drive through the heart of Central America. In El Salvador, a new U.S.-funded highway is exceedingly popular among traffickers moving drugs north. El Salvador’s dollar-based economy has also made the country a hub for money laundering. While in Guatemala, the porous border separating the northern province of Peten from Mexico–a 600 mile dividing line with just eight formal checkpoints – has become a virtual haven for one of the world’s most infamous DTOs. Repeated militarized efforts by the Guatemalan government have failed to push the drug-runners out. Analysts estimate as much as 60 percent of the country may be under the control of drug traffickers. Meanwhile in Honduras, a startling discovery in April of this year indicated DTOs were not only using the country as a point of passage, but also as a center for production. Deep in the triple-canopy jungles near the Honduras, Guatemala border authorities found–for the first time ever–a large drug processing laboratory north of South America's Andean region.
The growing presence of drug trafficking organizations in Central America has led to a roughly commensurate rise in violence throughout the region. The isthmus now boasts the highest murder rate in the world, with 32 violent deaths per every 100,000 people; three times the global average. The violence began to increase in 2000 and has continued to intensify in recent years, transforming what was once Latin America’s most peaceful sub-region into its most violent. Indeed the majority of Central Americans now cite insecurity as a “very serious threat” to the welfare of the region’s future, according to the United Nations’ 2009-2010 Human Development Report for Central America. A number of socio-economic factors make the Central America–particularly the Northern Triangle–fertile ground for the seeds of violence and narco-trafficking. On the whole, the distribution of income in Central America is among the most inequitable in the world, comparable only to the kind of economic conditions one would find in southern Africa or the Andean countries. The poverty hits Central American youth particularly hard. One in four young people in Central America can be described as “socially excluded,” meaning they do not participate in the labor market or the educational system. This lack of legitimate opportunities has been a boon for criminal organizations setting up shop in Central America’s violent north, effectively creating a ‘reserve army’ of potential employees.
The DTOs now taking advantage of the Northern Triangle’s untapped youth are undoubtedly some of the world’s most violent criminal groups. The drug gang garnering the most media attention has been Los Zetas. The Zetas were created by defectors from the elite Mexican special forces squad known as the GAFE (Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales). John Gibbler, an independent journalist and author of To Die In Mexico: Dispatches From Inside The Drug War, has tracked drug violence in the Zetas’ country of origin and says the highly-trained commandos were originally tasked with taking down Mexico’s powerful Gulf Cartel but were quickly bought out by the organization. Sometime in 2010 in the Zetas undertook a violent separation from their employers and now operate independently. In recent months the group has received increased coverage following the grisly discovery of mass killing in Guatemala’s disputed Peten region. A branch of the Zetas known as the Z200 is believed to have slaughtered 27 laborers on a remote farm in the area in mid-May. Most of the victims were decapitated. The assassins scrawled their name in blood on the ranch walls. In response, President Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the region for the second time this year, curtailing civil liberties and granting the military the right to arrest anyone it suspects of conspiring against the government without warrant.