The scourge of the drug cartels is Mexico’s biggest security problem and the violence there continues.
But Mexican drug gangs are not confined to Mexico. They have established an effective presence north of the border, and have even expanded to Europe and Africa.
Possibly their most destabilizing presence is in Central America, southeast of Mexico. See map here.
Mexico is a big country, approximately the size of Western Europe. It is also, by international standards, rather prosperous. It has the world’s 11th-largest economy and a higher than average gross domestic product per capita. Despite all its security problems, in 2010 the Mexican economy actually grew 5.5% and 22 million tourists visited.
We certainly shouldn’t minimize Mexico’s problems, but its size and huge economy help to absorb the danger.
On the other hand, consider the threat to three Central American countries - Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. They are less well-equipped to handle these problems than Mexico.
There are several reasons for this, beginning with location.
Cocaine is brought up from South America. There are several routes – by air, land or sea - to bring it up to Mexico and then to the U.S. Most of the routes pass through or by Central America.
The drug cartels are so rich that they have plenty of disposable income. Just as the cartels are able to buy off local officials in Mexico, they can do the same in Central America.
These three countries are much poorer than Mexico, either by total Gross Domestic Product, or by Gross Domestic Product Per Capita. Since their people are poorer than Mexicans, that makes their money even more tempting.
For the cartels, expanding their operations into Central American gives them more opportunity to hide out from Mexican authorities and expand their range of operations.
It makes sound business sense. Just as a corporation wants to expand to other countries, so does a drug gang, which is, after all, a sort of business.
The recent history of Central America makes the cartel intervention more convenient. Guatemala and El Salvador had civil wars and Honduras has had its share of strife. There are plenty of weapons floating around.
And, there are already-existing gangs in Central America, such as the notorious MS-13 group and others. These gangs have their own criminal connections which can be put at the service of Mexican cartels in destructive alliances.
The bottom line is the Mexican cartels are wreaking havoc in these societies.
Guatemala, which borders Mexico, is the worst hit thus far. Drug money has permeated the country as cartels build airstrips in the jungle. President Alvaro Colom calls the cartel invasion the biggest threat to his country and the region. Colom describes the situation: "Definitely these groups are very strong financially. They're strong in terms of violence. They're strong in how they manipulate authorities. We are doing what we can against them with our limited resources."
Last month, an armed group (probably Zetas) attacked a ranch in northern Guatemala, killing 27 people, most of them by decapitation. It was such an isolated area that the Zetas were easily able to high-tail it to the Mexican border, escaping from the Guatemalan army.
Guatemala has also proven to be a fertile recruiting ground for the Zetas, who have been able to enlist former members of the feared Guatemalan army unit called the Kaibiles.
El Salvador has become a center for money laundering for the cartels. (Money laundering is turning drug money into what appears to be legitimate money.) Why is money laundering so easy there? It’s because in 2001, El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency.
It’s not that its currency was pegged to the U.S. dollar. The country actually adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency. So there are plenty of physical U.S. dollars in the economy which makes money laundering quite easy.
Honduras, has a relatively long coastline on the Caribbean Sea. This coast is a convenient for unloading boatloads of cocaine. Honduras, by the way, now has the highest murder rate in the Western Hemisphere.
What can be done for Central America? Guatemalan President Colom says the best solution is for Americans to stop buying cocaine. That’s a valid point. American consumers are the main financiers of the Mexican drug cartels now sowing mayhem in Central America.
Can we convince drug consumers to quit buying the stuff ? If not, should be re-evaluate the War on Drugs?