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.
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.
Efforts on the part of the Northern Triangle governments to stop the increasing violence wrought by groups like the Zetas have been met with little success. In the early 2000s the nations adopted the mano dura, or “iron fist,” strategy which effectively criminalized gang membership, or the appearance thereof, and resulted in the systematic targeting of young–often poor–Central Americans; frequently those with visible tattoos. Though initially a welcomed policy, mano dura, resulted in severe prison overcrowding and at times the incarceration of innocent young people. In El Salvador the overall number of murders during the mano dura years–2003 to 2010–doubled.
The problem of crime in the Northern Triangle has been exacerbated by military involvement in law enforcement. In El Salvador, military units accompany police officers on patrols in high crime areas and are commonly deployed in the nation’s prisons. Guatemalan officials readily admit that less than 10 percent of the country’s armed forces actually perform traditional military functions. And in Honduras, the military has been actively incorporated into the nation’s counter-narcotics efforts. Using military forces for a job they are ill-trained to perform has, unsurprisingly, failed to significantly reduce crime rates. At the same time, it has raised concerns of a re-militarization of the area, an outcome Central American nations sought to avoid following the region’s era of civil wars during the 1980s.
The current incarnation of U.S. security policy with respect to the Northern Triangle began in March of 2007 when then-President George W. Bush took a trip to Central America and Mexico. The president’s talks with regional leaders were reportedly dominated by discussion of rapidly escalating crime and violence. Eight months after he returned to the United States the Merida Initiative was born. Purportedly designed to improve communication among law enforcement agencies, support institutional reforms and protect human rights, critics have argued the initiative provided the catalyst for Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s militarized war on drugs which, to date, has left an estimated 40,000 people dead. Though the vast majority of Merida money has been directed to Mexico–$1.5 billion in committed or dispersed funds from 2008 to 2010–a fraction, $260 million, has been set aside for Central America. In 2010 that sum was separated into a separate package known as the Central America Regional Security Initiative or CARSI.
According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, as of July of last year, $260 million had been allocated for Central American security through CARSI, with $20 million of those funds already dispersed. The Obama administration has requested an additional $100 million for the initiative in both 2011 and 2012, and has now tacked on an additional $40 million in allocated funds for the region.
The bulk of the CARSI funds are intended to provide the nations of Central America with equipment–including weapons–and counter-narcotics training. This has resulted in the creation of an FBI-led Transnational Anti-Gang unit and programs vetted by the DEA, ICE and the Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). Despite some success, government reports indicate these units have been plagued by problems of corruption.
Annie Bird argues U.S. security aid to Central America is supporting gross human rights abuses in Honduras. Bird is co-director of Rights Action, a Washington-based organization that works with Central American human rights groups, “In Honduras we have reports of paramilitary and death-squad networks operating. One paramilitary group especially has been engaged in widespread killings and disappearances.” According to Bird, some 400 private security contractors employed by powerful palm oil producers are being trained at the Rio Claro base in Toca, Colon, home of the Honduran Army’s 15th battalion. She adds, “It’s very clear that they are working in coordination with the military and the police. [They] Sometimes put on Honduran military uniforms […] and act as military officers.” Reports of Chinook helicopter entering and exiting the base have raised concerns of a possible U.S. presence at the facility.
The security problem in Hondurans is aggravated by reported links between state security forces and the DTOs they are tasked with combating. A 2008 diplomatic cable obtained by Wikileaks reveals U.S. supplied weapons “lost” by the Honduran military turned up in Mexico and Colombia. The cable cites a 2008 Defense Intelligence Agency report entitled, “Honduras: Military Weapons Fuel Black Arms Market,” which notes that three light anti-tank weapons (LAWs) were recovered in Mexico City in January of 2008. The next month another LAW was found in the profoundly violent border city of Ciudad, Juarez and in March of that year six more were recovered on San Andres Island, Colombia. Serial numbers on the weapons verified they had been supplied to the Honduran government by the U.S. Foreign Military Sales Program.
The infiltration of DTOs in Honduras is apparently not confined to a few “bad apples.” According to McClatchy News, a former member of the Honduras Council Against Drug Trafficking estimates as much as 10 percent of the Honduran Congress is linked to drug traffickers and roughly 42 percent of all cocaine flights from Colombia are believed to be passing through the country.
Not only is the U.S.-funded Honduran government in bed with international criminal organizations, it is also conducting a violent crackdown on progressive activists throughout the country. Since the coup that forced President Manuel Zelaya from office in 2009, Gerrardo Torres has seen a surge in state violence directed at those who oppose the policies of the current Honduran president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo. Torres is an independent journalist and a leading member of the National Popular Resistance Front, a non-violent activist movement comprised of students, women’s groups, LGBT activists, campesinos, indigenous peoples and Afro-Hondurans. On March 18 of this year Torres witnessed Honduran security forces kill prominent teacher-activist Ylse Ivania Velázquez Rodríguez by deliberately firing a tear gas canister at her face from point-blank range, unable to breathe she was subsequently struck by a car. According to Torres, “900 women have been killed,” in Honduras since June of 2009. He adds that, “Only 60 of the cases are in the process of investigation by the police.” While the government has come down hard on the Honduran teachers’ movement, the student movement and the campesino movement, he points out, “The most violent crimes have been committed against the people of the LGBT community.” Torres cites reports of assaults on Honduran LGBT community members after being detained by the police. He adds, “This is the people that the United States is giving money to.”
U.S. reluctance–or refusal–to respond ongoing problems in Honduras is explained in no small part by the United States’ relationship to the Honduran military. Honduras has historically been a strategic U.S. ally in Central America and is home to the Soto Cano Air Base, where U.S. forces conduct training and other assistance for the armed forces of Honduras. The extent to which the U.S. officials are aware of the Honduran government’s alleged efforts to support the lethal targeting of campesinos and activists is unknown. The historic influence and continued presence of the U.S. military in the country, however, is cause for concern. John Lindsay-Poland describes the U.S. strategy in Latin America as one in which the United States builds coastal bases, turns them over to local armed forces, then develops an, “intimate relationship with the militaries that are using them.” According to Lindsay-Poland, the United States, through the Department of Defense is, “very engaged in the Northern Triangle and in the rest of Central America.”
Drug trafficking organizations are believed to be most active in Guatemala, where they seek exploit the nation’s weakly guarded border with Mexico and like Honduras, Guatemala is struggling with entrenched connections between DTOs and state institutions receiving millions of dollars in U.S. funding. In 2005, Guatemala’s head of the drug enforcement agency, his deputy and another senior official were arrested in the United States on charges of drug trafficking. Four years later President Alvaro Colom fired several of Guatemala’s top law enforcement officials–including the the director general of the national police, his deputy and both the heads of investigations and operations–after a significant amount of drugs and cash went missing. The U.S. government, in its analysis of CARSI has noted that former combatants in Guatemala’s civil war–a U.S. funded venture that resulted in the death of more than 200,000 people and the genocidal targeting of indigenous groups–are increasingly offering their skills to incoming criminal organizations.
Some efforts to combat organized crime in Guatemala have received international praise. The establishment of the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala has yielded some success in addressing criminal infiltration of state institutions, but that success was marred in by the resignation of Carlos Castresana, head of the commission in 2010. Mr. Castresana cited a failure on the part of the Guatemalan government to support the commission’s efforts and address corruption within law enforcement organizations. Rather than bolstering state institutions, the response to crime in Guatemala has largely been one of privatization. Seventy-three private security companies operate in Guatemala, employing an estimated 120,000 guns for hire, compared to roughly 22,000 police officers. As a result, Guatemala’s poor have shouldered a disproportionate amount of the nation’s violence. In the first seven months of 2009, for example, Guatemalan authorities registered 2,235 murders. Of those killed, 30 were entrepreneurs or college graduates. According to the United Nations Human Development Program, the remaining 2,005 were poor people, half of them unidentified.
Similar issues persist in El Salvador. This year alone the country has already experienced 17 massacres–killings of three or more people at once–resulting in 57 deaths. The overall murder rate for the country last year was tallied at 71 deaths per every 100,000 inhabitants; making for roughly 11 murders per day. This month the nation’s defense minister said six Salvadoran soldiers who attempted to steal nearly 2,000 grenades intended to sell them to Zetas members in Guatemala. When President Obama toured Latin America in March of this year, he made a historic appearance in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, visiting the tomb of archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by U.S.-backed Salvadoran forces during the 1980s. Obama offered praise for the administration of President Mauricio Funes and expressed a commitment to aiding El Salvador and Central America as whole in its efforts towards stabilization. Many comparisons have been drawn between the two young presidents, and El Salvador has frequently been painted as the Obama administration’s shining hope in the region. President Funes himself, however, has admitted that his U.S.-funded security forces are far from immune to DTO influence; this month he announced a “cell” within a Salvadoran police unit was receiving $5,000 a month for services rendered to the Zetas.
Rosa Anaya is no stranger to the toll misguided U.S. foreign policy can take on a region, and a family–particularly in the case of El Salvador. During the 1980s Anya’s father worked as a Salvadoran human rights advocate when the U.S. was engaged in its last major effort to bring stability to Central America by bankrolling murderous regimes. Herbert Ernesto Anaya Sanabria was the renowned president of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador and he was an outspoken opponent of the Salvadoran government’s war on its own people. In 1986 his beliefs landed him jail where he was tortured for 15 days. One year later, after being released and failing to turn his back on his convictions, he was assassinated by the Salvadoran Treasury Police.
Rosa was 10 years old at the time. When her family returned to El Salvador five years later the government attempted to kill her mother, and in the process shot her brother.
Since that time Rosa has worked as a human rights activist in El Salvador’s notorious prison system–an explicit target of CARSI funding–reaching out to incarcerated gang members. While she credits the Funes administration for its efforts to stabilize the country, she feels the government is working to treat symptoms rather than an illness, “emphasis in the aid is not being put towards those type of programs that will help young people or anybody that’s involved in violence to […] get out of that cycle.” She agrees work must be done to improve the rampant impunity plaguing El Salvador, but argues increased focus should be put on long-term, sustainable programs that provide young people with an education and create jobs. According to Anaya, a dearth of opportunity is robbing the region of hope, “It’s very hard for people to actually relate to positive things that they can do with their lives. People have no hope within the communities. Their hope is to be able to leave this country and get some money. And that’s not building society.”
Indeed, the absence of innovative, long-term strategies for peace is a primary concern among those who hope to see a better future for Central America. At its core, funding for security in the Northern Triangle fails to address the driving force behind instability in the region; the United States’ deeply-flawed, zero tolerance drug policy. Political leaders in the United States have consistently resisted conversations on the potential benefits of harm reduction strategies, increased treatment funding and decriminalization. As John Lindsay-Poland puts it, “I think there is an acute lack of imagination in the political class of the United States and its allies…They’re afraid to experiment, to try new things.” Instead the United States appears to be repeating its historically catastrophic strategy of propping up human rights abusers and simplistically relying on militarization to root out deep-seated social problems.
When asked why the United States continues to back this approach, Lindsay-Poland replied, “If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”
It’s time the U.S. pick up some new tools.
There is an overwhelming call among those who study the Northern Triangle, those who report on its challenges and those who live within its borders for radical changes in U.S. and international drug policy. Prohibition has failed. It drives the incentive for drug trafficking organizations seeking profit and stigmatizes those with addiction issues as criminals. The United States must seriously consider the wide range of policy options advocated by groups like the Global Commission On Drug Policy; a delegation of world leaders including the former presidents of Mexico and Colombia who are calling for new approaches to international drug policy. The so-called war on drugs is a war on poor people worldwide. It rewards only the most repugnant elements of civil society, and in the case of a Central America–a region as culturally precious as it is institutionally fragile–it represents an existential threat that is rapidly worsening.
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