President Felipe Calderón’s administration, with renewed aid and expanded support from the United States (the so-called Merida Initiative) has fiercely pursued the local drug barons and their minions since his controversial electoral victory in 2006. Despite these efforts, the cartels’ penetration of Mexico’s anti-drug forces and the stepped up tempo of its violent victories have shown no sign of relenting. Their tactics have, if anything, only grown more sanguinary and their weapons more deadly.
In reaction to a far more engaged police and military presence, the cartels have begun to quite literally tear apart their enemies by means of torture, execution, dismemberment and beheading. Corpses have been found with crude messages attached to them to serve as a gruesome warning to those who might wish to interfere or foolishly aspire to be heroic at the cartel’s expense. Associated members have also kidnapped and savagely executed soldiers, police officials, staff attorneys, and journalists who, for one reason or another, have been marked as enemies of the cartels.
Adding to the mounting sense of insecurity, the violence has become increasingly random and indiscriminate; the death toll of innocent by-standers dramatically contributed to the soaring body count in 2008. In what might have been the most brazen of these recent acts, two grenades were thrown into a celebratory crowd that gathered at the city’s main square for the 198th anniversary of Mexico’s Independence. This occurred on September 15, 2008, in Morelia, Michoacán, the hometown of President Calderón. The attack left eight celebrants dead and more than a hundred injured. This unprecedented massacre of innocent bystanders has been condemned as an act of “narcoterrorism” by the Mexican authorities and is the first time that a large group of uninvolved civilians have been directly targeted in the violence.
The increasing violence is coincident with the growing militarization of Mexico’s anti-drug war and the cartels’ growing usage of heavy armament. The drug cartels have in part armed themselves by taking advantage of the nearby unrestricted availability of weapons in gun shops in southern U.S. border states such as, Texas, Arizona and California. A veritable arms race between the cartels and the government has been going on for many months as military grade body armor, machine guns, high powered assault rifles, hand guns, telescopic sights, fragmentation grenades, grenade launchers and armor piercing ammunition have been purchased and spirited across the border.
Making matters worse, an emerging market for local consumption of narcotics in Mexico has been blamed as a major cause of new drug-related violence in Mexico. According to the fifth annual national poll on the effects of addiction, a poll conducted yearly by the Mexican government since 2002, national drug consumption has grown by 30 percent and cocaine consumption has doubled. The fastest growing demographic for overall addiction polled is the 12-17 year old group, while overall, women’s consumption rate has nearly doubled in a mere six years.
The Expansion of Transnational Crime Syndicates
During the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Mexican drug cartels, mainly working independently through established and integrated trafficking networks, systematically moved marihuana and heroin into the United State. However, after the maritime Caribbean maritime smuggling corridors that the Colombian cocaine trade had thrived upon were suppressed by the combined anti-narcotic efforts of the United States and Colombia, the three largest Mexican-based cartels, Sinaloa, Golfo and Tijuana, entered the cocaine distribution racket. The notorious Medellin and Cali cartels had to find other routes to move their product into their largest market, the United States. They chose to hire the already established Mexican cartels just south of the U.S. border to distribute the cocaine into the United States.
However, as noted above, since the collapse of the cartel-driven Colombian drug trade of the 1990’s, the Mexican cartels, more specifically the Pacific-based Sinaloa Cartel and the Atlantic-based Golfo Cartel, have taken over this responsibility by way of land and maritime corridors.
To explain exactly how this happened, one must know that the U.S. has led an often failed thirty-year war against drugs some more successful than others. Recently, Plan Colombia was one of these. It was based on a counter-narcotics aid package financed mostly by Colombia and the United States; its goal was to eliminate the coca-producing and trafficking areas of southern Colombia. According to an October 6, 2008, U.S. congressional report commissioned by Vice-President-elect Joseph Biden, Plan Colombia’s herbicidal campaign has not reached its intended goal of halving coca crops; instead, cultivation grew 15 percent from 2000-2006 as cultivation methods became better adapted.
Prior to the U.S.-backed crop fumigation plan, coca was grown on large unobstructed swathes of land. Since then, likely is to take place on more remote areas such as the sides of cliffs and in the depths of the Amazon jungle, thus making it harder to eradicate and leaving no simple measure to curb the crop’s expansion. Furthermore, the occasional decline in supply is more likely to occur because of crop relocation initiatives that coax the usually stable price of cocaine to rise, producing lucrative returns for both the distributors and producers alike.
As a result of the war on drugs, more experienced cartels have become exceptionally flexible in order to adapt to sudden obstructions to their trade. Such was the case regarding the Mexican cartels when they took up cocaine distribution duties after the Caribbean corridor was compromised for ongoing use by the Colombian groups in the 1990s. A further example is how the land bridge through Central America is currently becoming a more practical route for the international drug trade to move its narcotics northward to the U.S., as the heavy strain on traditional routes have made them impracticable for the volumes waiting to be trafficked by Mexican and Colombian cartels.
Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s defense minister, perhaps for his own self-serving interests, has claimed that the Sinaloa Cartel has been negotiating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in order to establish a direct Pacific trade route to transit cocaine shipments without having to turn to intermediaries. The Sinaloa cartel also has begun to set up bases across the Central American isthmus in such locations as Costa Rica and Nicaragua, as a means to diversify their routes due to the crackdown by Mexican authorities on their pre-existing sites. In an anti-narcotics action that took place from October 27 – 30, Nicaraguan police, operating in three cities, arrested 18 suspected traffickers from Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Most notorious of those detained was Martin Lugo Lucio, alleged Sinaloa cartel capo in charge of controlling the group’s operations in the country.
Jaramillo also claimed that right wing paramilitary groups and well-established Colombian traffickers were involved in similar business arrangements with other Mexican cartels. In September of 2007, a Gulfstream jet owned by Colombia’s most wanted drug lord and former paramilitary commander of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), Daniel Rendón, crashed in Yucatán, carrying 3 tons of cocaine. Colombian and Mexican authorities have since declared that the Golfo Cartel presumably is in the process of establishing routes along with ex-paramilitary groups that have turned their interests exclusively to drug trafficking. Rendón is currently believed to be managing his drug trafficking ring from within Córdoba, Colombia, where he is assembling a private army made up of defecting FARC members and former rival traffickers.
Amassing the Recruits
In Honduras, authorities believe that the top ranking leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, is hiding in the countryside where he is running the cartel’s operations in Mexico by remote control. Former Honduran Minister of Security Óscar Álvarez said in a recent interview in La Prensa that as transnational-organized crime encroaches upon the country, small violent gangs, known as maras, are beginning to join forces with the foreign syndicates. Gang members usually hire on as contract killers, extortionists and drug dealers. Álvarez also claims that the maras eventually could mold into regional drug cartels of their own if their growth remains unchecked.
Transnational incidents include frequent border crossings into Guatemala by the heavily armed and extremely well trained private army of the Gulf Cartel, Los Zetas. Working as enforcers for the Golfo Cartel, Los Zetas have infiltrated Guatemalan territory in order to recruit trained Guatemalan military specialists into their fold as well as protect favored land routes. One particularly bloody encounter in Guatemala left eleven people dead in March, 2008. Guatemala’s proximity to Mexico has transformed the porous 954 mile long border between the two nations into a very important strategic link for the cartels; something the government of each of these countries must urgently address.
Incidents like the aforementioned have not been historically common in Central America as the region’s difficult terrain has made the shipment of drugs from South America burdensome and complicated. As Mexico’s “war on drugs” exerts more pressure on the cartels’ shipment routes and delivery methods, they will seek to more firmly establish themselves in the Central American countries where widespread gang activity, elevated levels of corruption and poorly developed security forces provide a perfect environment for them to thrive.
The increasing security problems, collaboration between the Colombian and Mexican narcotraffickers, and the apparently more pivotal role currently being played by the Central American land routes and various ports facilitating maritime deliveries, have caused the Latin American leaders to recognize the threat these drug trade organizations increasingly represent to the security of their countries. On October 7th, 2008, security ministers from all 34 countries in the Organization of American States (OAS) met in Mexico to discuss the security issues that have risen due to the international drug trade, in what was touted as the “First Interamerican Meeting of Public Security.”
The conference was inaugurated by President Calderón where he called for the nations of the Americas to establish a “common front against international crime and the problems of national delinquency” that have been fueled by the supply and demand abuses encouraged by illegal narcotics. President Calderón stated that according to data from the United Nations and the World Bank, Latin America represents only 8 percent of the world’s population, yet it is victim to 75 percent of world-wide kidnappings. President Calderón claimed that Latin America has the highest homicide rate in the world: 27 murders for every 100,000 people, nearly 100,000 homicides per year. This is five times higher than the global homicide average of 5 murders for every 100,000 people. Six out of the top ten highest global homicide rates belong to OAS member states, with Venezuela (65 homicides per 100,000 people in 2006), El Salvador (55.3 homicides per 100,000 people in 2006) and Honduras (49.9 homicides per 100,000 people in 2006) having the highest figures of the 34 member states.
Later, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, expressed his belief that each country has its own distinct silhouette of delinquency and crime from its drug trafficking. At the OAS meeting in Mexico, Costa was quoted as saying, “Urban violence in the US, biker gangs in Canada, violence and kidnapping in Mexico, pandillas and maras in Central America, thugs in the Caribbean, gangsters in Brazilian favelas, armed groups in Colombia – in every case there is a connection to drugs.” In order to properly address the issue, Costa believes that rehabilitation programs, rejuvenating public services and spaces, and the establishment of stronger security measures could help hard hit urban sectors become and feel more secure.
OAS Secretary General Insulza addressed the recent statements made by Honduran President Zelaya, Argentine President Kirchner and Mexican President Calderón, each of whom hinted at reexamining their country’s laws regarding the criminality of drug possession. Insulza did not shy away from the usually controversial question by stating that, “When a repressive policy does not produce any finite results after thirty years, you have to revise and adjust it. I do not know exactly what direction that revision would take, but one must be found.”
An Uncertain Future
With his closing statements, President Calderón called for a continental-wide effort in order to halt the growth of the drug syndicates. The creation of a shared databank of information of intelligence on transnational drug cartels and a united front against their exploits would be a first step in attacking “not only drug smuggling, but the world’s main market that is found on our continent,” declared Calderón, obviously referring to the United States. Mexico is now part of the Merida Initiative, a three-year security cooperation plan between Mexico, the United States and the countries of Central America (specifically Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti and the Dominican Republic) that was signed into law in June 2008, to fight the threat of drug trafficking and transnational crime in the Western hemisphere. Mexico is scheduled to receive the lion’s share of the aid ($400 million per year), while a miniscule fraction is to be divided up amongst nine other countries ($65 million per year).
As of October 2008, much to Calderón’s disapproval, the U.S. Congress had not yet released the funds, due to concerns that general preconditions had not been specified and agreed upon to protect human rights and prevent funds being pilfered by corrupt officials and/or filtered to those involved in the drug cartels. The Mérida Initiative would supply the recipient country with counternarcotics and counter trafficking equipment, provide the necessary technology for airport and seaport security, encourage better public security through training, and strengthen civilian institutions.
While the OAS meeting could mark the starting point for a new security policy for the hemisphere, its actual consequences and impact, let alone any ultimate outcome, can only be guessed at this time. An integrated cooperative system that works through all countries of the hemisphere would undoubtedly be of help to countries whose security forces have been strained by the strife with organized crime. Finding such a cooperative solution to the growing narcotics-driven insecurity of Latin American countries has become one of the region’s priorities. But due to the all-pervasive levels of corruption that are found in most of these countries the existing situation represents an enormous challenge for Latin America.
The escalating pressure of the Mexican government on organized crime and the vicious reaction by the drug cartels has brought on immense wave of insecurity, fear and anger against crime within Mexico. Other Latin America countries have begun to feel similar attitudes as they come under siege by the large and highly organized drug cartels that move fluidly throughout the Americas irrespective of borders and sovereignty. As Secretary General Insulza stated to the press, a new direction and attitude must be found in order to address the new continent-wide security predicament.
The OAS meeting, and the steadily rising, if nascent, Latin American drug decriminalization movement, suggests a shift away from alignment with normally heavy handed Washington policies towards a more independent region-centric approach to the issue of the economics of narcotics. President Calderón and the insistence on others’ to have the United States become more accountable for the consequences of its citizens’ unquenchable demand for drugs must be addressed. It will clearly take time to see whether a potentially integrative hemispheric pact that includes the United States will produce anything of substance, or if the decriminalization movement will grow any teeth. But what is now clear is the necessity for an alternative to the policies of the past and present. The well organized global underground economy that is now run on the lucrative profits of drug running and other forms of commercialization, shows only signs of expansion. There really is no existing form of containment for its unmitigated growth. The existing form of the war on drugs has been labeled a failed policy by any number of world actors, and Plan Colombia’s counter-narcotics results have been underwhelming. This casts doubt over the “more-of-the-same” approach of the embryonic Merida Initiative. There is not much mystery after all when one says it remains to be seen if a continent-wide, yet potentially corruptible and undertrained security frontline made up of the military and police forces of Latin American nations (as well as the U.S.) will be able to counter a continent-wide, drug-profit rich underground economy run by organized and ruthless, transnational crime syndicates.