In May 2011, 27 people were murdered – most of them beheaded – at a ranch situated in the Peten province, close to Mexico’s border to Guatemala. The killings were carried out by members from a Mexican drug cartel, allegedly the Zetas, which is the second largest drug cartel in Mexico after The Sinaloa Cartel, but considered to be the most violent. This is only one example of how Central American states that exert little or no control over certain parts of their territories risk being overrun by anti-state groupings with strong cross border networks. Many Mexican drug cartels are increasing their presence in such countries due to the fervent attempts by Mexico’s president, Felipe Calderón, to curb their turf and activity. There are signs of the drug cartels increasingly beginning to align with gangs, such as The 18th Street Gang and the Mara Salvatrucha, both of which originate from Los Angeles, later expanding their networks to Central America. The real extent of the collaboration is still unknown, but a potential cooperation could pose a great threat to positive development in several Central American countries, as has been pointed out by the World Bank.
The problem of drug wars in Latin America is sadly a persistent issue, and is becoming ever more violent, which can be linked to contemporary Latin American history – watermarked by political and social turmoil. Throughout most of the 20th century, cruel dictatorships and subsequent civil wars have been a part of creating a legacy of violence proving profitable for gangs, terrorists and narcotraffickers today.
One of the worst ramifications of the lack of political stability has been a tangible absence of authority, which has left certain areas in the hands of drug cartels, primarily in Central American countries. Dumbfounded by a staggering lack of resources and scarred by decades of authoritarianism and economic inequality, governments in Central American states like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are now having to deal with societies with exceptionally low levels of social trust. Exploiting the absence of government control, Mexican gangs have been able to build well-hidden airstrips in the Guatemalan jungle, launder tainted money in El Salvador, which adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency in 2001 in order to keep inflation at bay and boost investors’ confidence in the economy, and unload their cargo along the coast of Honduras.
Another devastating effect of the increased criminal activity has been a significant jump in casualties: the murder rate in Guatemala has skyrocketed, and is now even higher than Mexico’s. In Honduras, the situation is even worse, now claiming the highest homicide rate in the entire Northern hemisphere. Yet another huge problem is the level of corruption among government officials and politicians; substantial parts of the profits from drug trafficking end up in the pockets of the elite. Corruption is without a doubt one of the biggest, and most important, obstacles in changing paths. Earlier this year, the Salvadoran newspaper El Faro published anextensive report covering a Salvadoran drug syndicate called the Cartel de Texis in which many of the mentioned issues are described, for example how policemen, judges, congressmen, local mayors, et cetera, co-operate with the syndicate.
How to stabilize the region is indeed a multi-million-dollar question. Steps taken towards full-fledged democracy and social stability are constantly undermined by the fear of organized crime becoming a substitute for a real government, and drug money corrupting already fragile institutions. Trying to fight violence with violence has not only resulted in horrendous numbers of casualties, but has also failed in both harming the trade in illegal drugs and in countering corruption, as has happened in both Colombia and Mexico. Some argue that the U.S. would be able play a more important role in Latin America by targeting social problems rather than financing military projects, targeting guerillas and coca farmers. Others consider that it would be best if the U.S. refrained from meddling in the domestic affairs of these countries, allowing them to handle their domestic matters independently.
Recent elections in Nicaragua and Guatemala indicate that there is a fork in the road regarding the matter of how to best address the issues: in Nicaragua, re-elected Daniel Ortega symbolizes an affront to democracy, while in Guatemala, newly-elected Otto Pérez Molina speaks of taking military action and handling the current situation with amano dura, an iron fist. Which one of the two methods is better suited for resolving the issues is perhaps a matter of ideology, but strengthening social structures, creating a reliable and trustworthy police force, and a crackdown on corruption within the state institutions could serve as more sustainable options. One thing, however, that can be said with certainty is that action needs to be taken in order to end the Latin American malady of a seemingly unending spiral of violence.