Central America constitutes an important strategic area for the United States. As discussed in my recent book “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Threat to U.S. Security”, legal and institutional collapse in Central America could have very serious consequences for regional and U.S security. Central America has been victim to increasing drug cartel activity as the situation in Colombia and Mexico has turned more complicated for the drug lords. In addition, Central America is an important area of transit for drug shipments. Several countries in Central America have fallen into a situation of anarchy.
Anarchy invites the proliferation of gangs, terrorist groups and foreign powers as the situation in Afghanistan clearly demonstrates. The presence of terrorist groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Middle Eastern groups such as Hezbollah, and the growing presence of Iran in Latin America, as part of its alliance with the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian revolution, makes Central America into a key geo-political challenge.
Former U.S Ambassador to the Organization of American States, John Maisto has pointed out that the U.S State Department website lists areas in the world where the United States faces challenges but surprisingly Central America is not on that list. Central America has been severely affected by the rise of drug cartels and drug trafficking activity. This activity destroys the institutions of the state; it bribes judges, corrupts politicians and leaves the local populations at the mercy of violence and insecurity. It is estimated that more than 80 % of the cocaine destined for U.S. consumption passes through Central America. This is a lot given the fact that the U.S. is the main consumer of such drugs. Central America has also become an easy area for human trafficking where most victims are Central Americans themselves.
Last year Central American nations in cooperation with the United States and the European Union launched “Operacion Martillo” (“Operation Hammer”). This project consists of interagency and international cooperation on interdiction of drugs and it has had some major successes.
Other government efforts including the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) which is a product of the Merida Initiative, also focuses on counternarcotic activity.
So far these efforts have not been able to effectively crack down on the vast amounts of drug trafficking activities. Although some leaders such as Guatemalan president, Otto Perez Molina were able to halt some of the advances of the drug cartels, most have not been able to reverse the course as was the case in Colombia under President Alvaro Uribe.
The hard-liner, anti-drug Guatemalan president eventually came up with a different idea: the legalization of drugs. With the legalization of drugs it is expected that crime and insecurity may go away. This is not going to happen. Not only will the drug cartels not go away but violence will prevail and the thousands of gang members involved in it will not go away either.
Key Central American countries lack enough resources to defeat the drug cartels. Likewise, the poverty that prevails in these countries makes it easy for the cartels to establish areas of cooperation with the population.
Even Costa Rica, a traditional, democratic country that is an exceptional political phenomenon in Central America, now faces new challenges. Costa Rica has become a major warehouse and trading center for drug cartels. The country has become a meeting ground for Colombian and Mexican cartels where Colombian drug dealers leave their cargo for the Sinaloa cartel to pick up.
Costa Rica has no military, a small police force of 11,000, and has easily penetrable unguarded borders including a large coastal area. Under these circumstances Costa Rican state institutions, including the judiciary and the police are likely to succumb to corruption and drag along its most precious democracy and the peaceful character of this small nation.
In El Salvador, drug activity continues to develop as the cartels find natural allies in the street gangs whose presence in El Salvador is prevalent as they control many neighborhoods. These gangs, like Barrio 18 and MS 13, are mostly criminals deported from Los Angeles. Mexican traffickers also use El Salvador to launder money, a task made easy by El Salvador’s use of the U.S. dollar as their currency. What is worse, those who participated in the long Salvadorian civil war developed skills in the art of smuggling. Mexican gangs know well how to take advantage of this. Despite the efforts by the government to fight drug cartels mayors, public officials and others cooperate with the cartels.
In Honduras, drug trafficking has had a major presence; up to the point that families have amassed fortunes from the drug trade. Honduras is the main transit route for cocaine from Mexico to the United States. Street gang involvement in the drug business and in drug related crime has increased the level of homicides in Honduras to a comparable level as that in Afghanistan.
Honduras is the region’s largest transit area where hundreds of illicit flights transporting drugs take off heading north. Honduran authorities are basically helpless. It is estimated they intercept only 5% of the total amount of drugs coming in and out of their country.
Nicaragua is also a place that has more than 80 “blind spots” where traffickers cross. Nicaragua has been an easy place for drug traffickers and the Nicaraguan judicial system has reduced the sentences of many of these traffickers. Some believe that the drug cartels have been able to deeply penetrate the judicial system The U.S. government believes that this is part of an intentional action by the Ortega Government whose objective is to protect the drug cartels.
In fact, a witness pointed out that high-level officials from the Nicaraguan National Police and one magistrate from the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) are accomplices of the drug cartels. This case brought to public attention the impact that drug trafficking organizations are having on government institutions in Nicaragua.
In my view, despite the rhetoric of Nicaraguan officials against drug trafficking, Nicaragua is a member of the Bolivarian Alliance. The Bolivarian alliance is linked to the drug cartels and has focused more energy in fighting anti-narcotic activities than trying to combat the drug cartels. Many estimate that Nicaragua is intentionally providing a friendly environment to the cartels.
According to U.S. State department cables, the Sandinista Party (in power since 2006) has regularly accepted cash contributions from drug traffickers in return for non-guilty verdicts by Nicaraguan judges.
To summarize, Central America is one of the closest areas in the world to the United States. Every country in Central America is infested by drug cartels. Drug cartels destroy democracy; destroy the legal system, the state institutions and every aspect of orderly government. Geo-politically speaking, anarchy invites terrorism and foreign influence. With the presence of Iran, the FARC, and drug cartels in countries such as Nicaragua, the situation becomes more ominous. It is Afghanistan all over again but this time much closer to home.
Although the United States has given attention to Central America through projects such as CARSI, the focus on this area needs to be deeper. In spite of reluctance in the U.S. political establishment to speak about nation building, nation building is what is needed. The security of Central America is our security and currently the battle is being lost.
Luis Fleischman is the author of the book, “Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Security Threat to the United States” and co-editor of the Americas Report.
The Americas Report is the featured product of the Center for Security Policy‘s Menges Hemispheric Security Project. Published weekly, it features in-depth, original articles on subjects not regularly covered by the American press. For example, past topics have included: the radicalization of the Latin American grassroots, Hugo Chavez’s involvement in Colombian political scandals, and the ideological alliance between Chavez and Argentine President Nestor Kirchner.