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The War Down South
Few things are more depressing on the foreign policy front than the drug war taking place south of the border. Most Americans should know that it’s more than about Mexico.
Catching up on reading, I long wanted to excerpt a piece Ted Galen Carpenter did for the January/February 2012 issue of The National Interest. Mr. Carpenter is a contributing editor at the publication and senior fellow at the Cato Institute. His latest book, The Fire Next Door: Mexico’s Drug Violence and the Danger to America, is slated for September 2012.
“In a December 2009 Time magazine interview, Honduran antidrug czar Julian Aristides Gonzalez stated that in the six years he had held the post, he saw the presence of the Mexican cartels explode. He made a glum assessment: ‘Almost all of the big Mexican organizations are carving out territory here. And when they run into each other, they will fight over it.’ He might have added that the cartels would not hesitate to eliminate any official who tried to impede their operations. Aristides Gonzalez himself was assassinated shortly after giving his interview to Time….
“Indeed, the marked deterioration of the security environment in the region seemed to begin in 2008, when the Zetas, a cartel that originated with special-forces units in Mexico’s military trained by the United States to combat the drug traffickers, defected to the Gulf cartel. Later, the Zetas broke with their new employer and became a competing trafficking organization. Local traffickers in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador invited the Zetas in, partly to provide protection but also to help professionalize their operations. It was not long, though, before the Zetas displaced the locals and took over. And once that occurred, other Mexican cartels – especially La Familia and the Sinaloa and Gulf cartels – also moved in, lest their ruthless competitor gain control of all the lucrative trafficking routes through Central America.”
The U.S. government had pledged $300 million in aid but Carpenter writes the funds “were simply repackaged under the new Central America Regional Security Initiative approved by Congress in September 2010.”
“But regional leaders emphasize they will need much more money than Washington is talking about. The seven countries have proposed twenty-two economic and security initiatives that would cost at least $900 million. They stress their countries cannot afford those initiatives on their own. ‘For us, it is the difference between life and death,’ Guatemalan president Alvaro Colom asserted.
“Colom perhaps takes the cartel menace more seriously than his Central American colleagues. In late 2010 and early 2011, he declared a state of siege in Guatemala’s mountainous northern state of Alta Verapaz, near the border with Mexico. That area was a major corridor for the transportation of drugs from South America through Honduras and eventually into Mexico. The Zetas operated with such impunity that before the siege declaration and the deployment of several thousand troops, the cartel’s heavily armed gunmen effectively controlled the streets of several towns in Alta Verapaz and even imposed curfews on the inhabitants….
“According to Leonel Ruiz, Guatemala’s federal prosecutor for narcotics offenses, the Zetas now control four other states and nearly half of Guatemala’s territory….
“Significant portions of Honduras and El Salvador also have fallen under cartel penetration…El Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes reveals that the Zetas are bribing elite police units with $5,000 monthly payments to cooperate with the cartel and to steal high-powered weapons and grenades from the military. In the spring of 2011, nearly a dozen El Salvadoran soldiers were arrested trying to sell two thousand grenades to traffickers.
“Honduran president Porfirio Lobo contends that in his country drug-gang members now outnumber police officers and soldiers.”
“The primary reason the cartels are so powerful both in Mexico and Central America has to do with the fundamental principles of economics. There is a huge demand for drugs, especially in the United States but also in Europe and, increasingly, in other portions of the world. When such a robust demand for a product exists, it is an economic certainty that profit-seeking entities will try to fulfill that demand. Prohibiting commerce of a product does not negate that dynamic; it merely perverts it. Instead of legitimate businesses engaging in lawful competition, the trade falls into the hands of elements that don’t mind breaking the law and assuming all the other risks entailed in operating in a black market. Often, that means the most ruthless, violent individuals and organizations come to dominate the trade.
“Because of the black-market risk premium, profit margins are far wider than normal, filling the coffers of illicit traffickers and giving them ample financial resources to challenge competitors and either corrupt or neutralize law-enforcement authorities. That is what happened in the United States during the Prohibition era, when the government tried to ban alcoholic beverages. That is what is happening today, especially in the Western Hemisphere, with the prohibition of marijuana, cocaine and other drugs. And the major beneficiaries are the Mexican cartels.
“Washington can continue to pursue a prohibitionist policy regarding these drugs, but the costs, already worrisome, are rising. The growing turmoil in Mexico indicates how severe those costs might become, but they could get even more painful in Central America, given the greater weakness and vulnerability of Mexico’s southern neighbors. Clinging to the current policy could lead to an entire region in which ruthless drug cartels become dominant political players. U.S. leaders need to ponder whether they really wish to risk having Central America turn into a collection of narco-states. If not, they need to reconsider the entire prohibition strategy. Providing more generous security and economic assistance to beleaguered Central American governments is merely putting a Band-Aid on a malignancy.”