Drug Mayhem Moves South

Drug Mayhem Moves South

Mini Teaser: Mexico’s drug violence is spreading into Central American countries that lack the resources to cope with such dire challenges. The region is in danger of reverting back to turmoil.

by Author(s): Ted Galen Carpenter

THE DRUG violence in Mexico no longer is a concern just to that country. More than forty-three thousand people have died in the fighting there since President Felipe Calderón initiated his military offensive against the powerful drug cartels in December 2006. Uneasy officials in the United States understandably worry not only about the potential of the growing turmoil to destabilize Mexico; they also worry about the prospect of the violence seeping northward into the United States.

That could happen. But currently Mexico’s drug violence is spreading south into Central America, not north into the United States. That may prove to be only minor comfort to U.S. officials, though, because the expanding influence of the Mexican cartels is posing a security threat to fragile Central American countries. That development could put the region back on Washington’s priority security agenda for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

One reason the cartels are expanding their operations into Guatemala, Honduras and other Central American countries is Calderón’s vigorous antidrug offensive in Mexico. Although powerful players such as the Gulf, Sinaloa and Zetas cartels are not about to abandon their positions inside Mexico, they are dispersing some of their operations to safer arenas. David Gaddis, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, observed that the cartels are moving into countries “where they feel, quite frankly, more comfortable” than they do in Mexico.

In a December 2009 Time magazine interview, Honduran antidrug czar Julian Aristides González stated that in the six years he had held the post, he saw the presence of the Mexican cartels explode. He made a glum assessment: “Almost all of the big Mexican organizations are carving out territory here. And when they run into each other, they will fight over it.” He might have added that the cartels would not hesitate to eliminate any official who tried to impede their operations. Aristides González himself was assassinated shortly after giving his interview to Time.

What is so worrisome about the mounting presence of the drug cartels in Central America is the vulnerability and overall weakness of the region. There has been speculation that the violence in Mexico could ultimately cause that country to become a “failed state.” Such fears are understandable given the scope of the carnage, but they are excessive. For all of its problems, Mexico still maintains powerful institutions that serve to keep the country relatively stable. One is the Catholic Church, a prosperous, well-organized and pervasive factor in Mexico. Another is the influential business community, which has an enormous incentive to prevent the country from descending into chaos. There are three stable political parties that have the same incentive and impressive capabilities. Though Mexico faces a serious threat from the drug cartels—and there are a few areas of the country in which the government’s writ has become precariously weak—it is still a long way from becoming a failed state.

But in Central America, where stabilizing institutions aren’t as strong, the situation is considerably more dire. Associated Press correspondent Katherine Corcoran observes:

Mexican drug cartels now operate virtually uninhibited in their Central American backyard. U.S.-supported crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have only pushed traffickers into a region where corruption is rampant, borders lack even minimal immigration control and local gangs provide a ready-made infrastructure for organized crime.

Indeed, the marked deterioration of the security environment in the region seemed to begin in 2008, when the Zetas, a cartel that originated with special-forces units in Mexico’s military trained by the United States to combat the drug traffickers, defected to the Gulf cartel. Later, the Zetas broke with their new employer and became a competing trafficking organization. Local traffickers in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador invited the Zetas in, partly to provide protection but also to help professionalize their operations. It was not long, though, before the Zetas displaced the locals and took over. And once that occurred, other Mexican cartels—especially La Familia and the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels—also moved in, lest their ruthless competitor gain control of all the lucrative trafficking routes through Central America.

ONE MAJOR reason for worry about the power of the cartels is the political fragility of the Central American countries. Mexico had eight decades of political stability from the 1920s to the early years of the twenty-first century under the domination of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Even though the country now has a multiparty system and the PRI has lost the last two presidential elections to the conservative National Action Party, Mexico is still a bastion of political stability compared to its Central American neighbors.

With the exception of Costa Rica, those countries have been buffeted by decades of turmoil, including violent peasant rebellions, military coups, bloody civil wars and ideologically driven societal upheavals. Mexico’s weaknesses, especially the pervasively corrupt police forces and prison system, as well as the dysfunctional court system, are not only replicated but also greatly magnified in most Central American countries.

Image: Pullquote: What is so worrisome about the mounting presence of the drug cartels in Central America is the vulnerability and overall weakness of the region.Essay Types: Essay