An essay on criminal drug trafficking through Central America
Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) from Mexico and South America are aggressively expanding their operations in Central America to bypass interdiction efforts on seaborne and airborne shipping routes. These DTOs take advantage of a new U.S. funded Pan-American Highway, weak and corrupted Central American governments, and connections with armed youth gangs to ship drugs by land into Mexico from South America.
This growth in land-based trafficking through Central America has increased violence in that region, particularly in the northern section of the isthmus, bordering Mexico. There, Mexican groups such as Los Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel compete for territory, recruiting youth “mara” gangs as enforcers and drug couriers. The expansion into Central America is part of a deliberate strategy by Mexican DTOs trying to augment their ability to get illegal narcotics into the United States from South America. Components of this strategy include establishing and holding transshipment lanes and pickup locations. Currently, it is less likely for narcotics to travel by land all the way from South America to Mexico, instead a combination of transit methods are used, which include littoral transit, aerial delivery, and overland transport.
Indications are that DTOs have established networks of front companies, expressly to help move contraband. “Maras” recruited into trafficking are paid with drugs or with relatively small amounts of cash, which keeps them dependent on Mexican DTOs. Meanwhile, larger Central American criminal organizations, which could potentially rival the Mexican groups, are targeted for elimination.
Implemented in 2008, the Merida Initiative is the current U.S.-led effort to counter illegal drug trafficking in the region. There is a Central American component to the Initiative which aims to re-establish rule of law and increase security by disrupting the movement of criminals through the region. However, Central American governments claim their portion of the aid is too insignificant to adequately disrupt criminal activity.
Increased drug trafficking through Central America has had a negative impact on the region’s governing and economic institutions. Inflation is fueled by laundered drug money, which passes its way through economies that widely use the U.S. dollar and have lax banking oversight. Judicial systems already flooded with drug-related criminal cases are simultaneously corrupted through bribery and intimidation. Furthermore, police forces are frequently outgunned with national militaries called in to support law enforcement efforts, which adds the risk of exposing more national security forces to corruption by their proximity to drug trafficking operations.
As Mexican DTOs continue their expansion into Central America, they will likely continue to maintain their paternal role with local youth gangs, while posing additional security risks to the state and exposing more individuals to drug addiction. These problems are compounded by the region’s systemic unemployment, which is especially high among males, 18-25 years old; the typical drug trafficking demographic. By establishing a larger foothold in the Central American region, Mexican DTOs will likely increase the volume of narcotics trafficking from South America. In the short-run, this may lead to pitched competition between DTOs and violent clashes for new territory.