Home The Washington Diplomat January 2012 Central America: World’s Most Dangerous Place Fights Back

Central America: World’s Most Dangerous Place Fights Back

Central America: World’s Most Dangerous Place Fights Back

The last few months have been downright horrible for Central America. Torrential rains lashed the region for 10 days in mid-October, leaving 105 people dead and causing billions of dollars in damages to countries whose fragile economies are already suffering the effects of the global economic downturn.

The misery for average families has been compounded by a steep drop in remittances that once flowed freely from the United States — home to millions of working-class centroamericanos, both legal and illegal, who’ve been slammed by the U.S. recession.

Photo: Lawrence Ruggeri
From left, Ambassadors Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro of Honduras, Muni Figueres of Costa Rica, Francisco Roberto Altschul Fuentes of El Salvador, and Francisco Obadiah Campbell of Nicaragua recently spoke at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation on improving security in Central America, whose seven nations are among the most violent in the world.

As if that’s not enough, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently made official what Central America’s 43 million inhabitants have known for a long time: their seven nations are among the most violent on Earth.

UNODC, in its first-ever Global Study on Homicide released in October, showed that the world’s most dangerous countries —ranked by 2010 murder rates per 100,000 inhabitants — are Honduras (82.1); El Salvador (66); Cote d’Ivoire (56.9); Jamaica (52.1); Venezuela (49); Belize (41.7); and Guatemala (41.4).

The rising homicide rates in Central America and the Caribbean are “near crisis point,” according to the report, which attributes the rise to the use of firearms. It also notes that in countries with high murder rates, especially involving firearms, such as in Central America, one in 50 males age 20 will be killed before they reach the age of 31 — several hundred times higher than in some parts of Asia.

Earlier this year, Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of the U.S. Southern Command in Miami, declared that “the northern triangle of Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — has become probably the deadliest zone in the world outside of active war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The bloodshed, fueled increasingly by Mexican drug cartels using Central America as a transit point, makes Mexico itself (with a murder rate of 18 per 100,000) look tranquil by comparison — even though drug violence in Mexico seems to be grabbing all the headlines.

“This is a regional phenomenon,” said Francisco Roberto Altschul Fuentes, El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States. “In a sense, we are victims of our own geography. We’re right in between South America, where the drugs are produced, and North America, where the drugs are consumed. So the drugs have to come through our countries.”

But the spiraling violence is also caused by the rise of gangs (maras), which have about 70,000 members throughout the region.

As UNODC states in its global homicide report: “Increases in the activities of drug trafficking groups have no doubt played a role in the escalation of homicide, but in some Central American countries there are other important contributing factors such as the lethal violence perpetrated by gangs…. Mara gangs and drug trafficking groups have traditionally been quite distinct, although the former may also sometimes act as local drug distributors and possibly as contract killers for some of the latter.”

a4.cover.chart.storySurprisingly, the record-breaking violence hasn’t deterred investors — at least not yet. According to the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Panama received $1.426 billion in foreign direct investment in the first six months of 2011, up 17 percent from the year-ago period. Costa Rica, meanwhile, received $1.057 billion (up 45 percent); Honduras $486 million (up 15 percent); Guatemala $485 million (up 54 percent); El Salvador $376 million (up 1,404 percent) and Nicaragua $284 million (up 30 percent).

In fact, a recent report by the United Nations showed that the poverty rate in Latin America is at its lowest level in 20 years, dropping from 48.4 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2010.

To that end, the San Salvador-based Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA), an influential bloc that promotes regional integration, has identified not the economy but climate change and insecurity as the two biggest challenges facing Central America today.

SICA has outlined 22 specific projects aimed at reducing violence in Central America. These fall within broad categories such as preventing crime, building up the region’s prison and rehabilitation systems, and strengthening regional institutions.

The issue has also begun to attract more attention on Capitol Hill and among Washington think tanks. It’s no surprise the region’s drug-related violence has become fodder for the Heritage Foundation, Brookings Institution, Inter-American Dialogue, American Enterprise Institute and the Hudson Institute — with no less than 12 conferences on this very subject scheduled over the next two months.

In September, the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control — co-chaired by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) — issued a 55-page report urging the Obama administration to make security in Central America a greater priority across all U.S. government agencies.

“This report does not call for large amounts of new foreign aid. Instead, it encourages the State Department and U.S. law enforcement agencies to focus on key programs that have proven to be effective both in Central America and in other areas of the world,” said the document, which specifically calls for:

• Expansion of first-rate, vetted law enforcement units that work with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) — such as those in Guatemala and Panama — to all seven countries in the region.

• Elimination of unnecessary red tape by allowing security assistance destined for Central America to be managed directly by each of the U.S. embassies in Central America, rather than the U.S. Embassy in Mexico.

• Establishment from existing resources of narcotics affairs sections in U.S. embassies in Central America, particularly in Honduras and El Salvador.

• Increased support for witness, judge and prosecutor protection programs in Central America that would help empower individuals to utilize their countries’ justice systems.

• Greater encouragement of extraditions of high-level criminals from Central America to the United States.

• Collaboration with all seven countries to map the causes and sources of violence to better understand the interactions between Mexican and local drug trafficking organizations, transnational youth gangs and other illegal criminal networks.

Some efforts have been made toward greater U.S. security cooperation and assistance. At a SICA conference in Guatemala City over the summer, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged some $300 million as part of the Central America Regional Security Initiative and the Mérida Initiative, up from $260 million in 2010.

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Yet the sheer scale of the problem remains daunting. That $300 million remains a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $400 billion that transnational criminal organizations take in annually. In fact, the value added of cocaine shipments that pass through the Central American isthmus is more than 100 times the funds allocated to the region under the Mérida Initiative for 2011, according to the World Bank.

As Caitlin Watson recently wrote in “Central America’s Costly Drug Dilemma” for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, until recently, U.S. funding for antidrug efforts had focused on interdiction. “However, those efforts have generated only episodic success. Consistently reducing trafficking and attendant ills in Central America will demand an integrated multinational approach with an emphasis on strengthening justice institutions and civil society as well as decreasing America’s still considerable appetite for drugs,” she wrote, adding that, “Colombia’s emerging role as a source of security training and assistance to the Central American countries offers a hopeful example of burgeoning regional cooperation.”

Yet the Colombia model, predicated on a military approach to dismantling criminal and rebel networks, also generates controversy, with critics arguing that the never-ending war on drugs is beginning to look too much like a real war. As the New York Times reported in the November article “D.E.A. Squads Extend Reach of Drug War,” commando-style squads known as Foreign-Deployed Advisory Support Teams, first launched to combat Taliban-linked drug trafficking in Afghanistan, have quietly expanded to countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

“The evolution of the program into a global enforcement arm reflects the United States’ growing reach in combating drug cartels and how policy makers increasingly are blurring the line between law enforcement and military activities, fusing elements of the ‘war on drugs’ with the ‘war on terrorism,'” wrote Charlie Savage in the Times article.

Despite high-profile successes capturing drug kingpins and disrupting major smuggling routes, the increasing militarization of the drug war raises troublesome concerns. For one thing, any form of U.S. intervention is likely to be seen as an encroachment of national sovereignty. There’s also the danger of an American backlash if any U.S. agents are hurt or killed in another country. And while professionalizing foreign troops is a lofty goal, many Central American militaries have notorious histories of human rights abuses, sometimes worse than the drug traffickers themselves.

Above all, outfitting a nation with the latest helicopter or surveillance equipment to take out the cartel leader du jour (whose successor is often waiting in the wings) doesn’t address the many deep-seated issues behind the drug trafficking industry and the rampant crime that it fuels, from the need for legal and judicial reforms in transit nations, to corruption and poverty, to America’s insatiable demand for drugs.

The response will have to be both wide-ranging and tailored to each nation’s individual circumstances. So here’s a look at Central America’s nations, as viewed by their ambassadors in Washington and other experts searching for ways to battle the onslaught of drugs and crime that have made the region a front line of violence.


With barely 330,000 people inhabiting a country larger than El Salvador, Belize is Central America’s most sparsely populated nation — making it especially difficult to police.

Photo: Larry Luxner
The deserted beaches of Geoff’s Caye are a 16-mile boat ride from Belize City. The many uninhabited islets off the coast of Belize provide a tempting target for regional drug traffickers.

Like its vastly bigger neighbor, Guatemala (which still claims 60 percent of its Belizean territory despite years of talks aimed at resolving the issue), Belize shares a land border with Mexico and is increasingly becoming the smuggling route of choice for Los Zetas and other ruthless Mexican drug cartels.

Nestor Mendez, the country’s ambassador in Washington, said the violence has begun to hurt Belize’s reputation as a tranquil vacation getaway known for white-sand beaches and scuba diving.

“Some people have referred to our peculiar situation as being victims of geography. But that’s nothing new. What’s new is the magnitude of the problem,” Mendez told The Washington Diplomat. “Over the last five or 10 years, the capacity of organized traffickers seems to have exceeded the capacity of governments to adequately confront the challenges. We don’t have any verifiable evidence of the presence of cartels in Belize, but considering our large territory and small population, it’s possible to assume they have a presence in our country.”

In fact, recent drug and weapons seizures near Belize’s 251-kilometer-long border with Mexico show that the Zetas and other drug cartels are forging new smuggling routes through Central America’s only English-speaking nation.

In November 2010, Guatemalan drug lord Otoniel Turcios Marroquín — who’s allegedly linked to the Zetas — was captured in Belize and turned over to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He had been sought by the United States since 2003 for allegedly smuggling 1,600 kilos of cocaine, which was subsequently distributed on the streets of New York.

Photo: OAS
Ambassador of Belize to the United States Nestor Mendez

After the Zetas beheaded 27 people in a farmhouse in Petén earlier this year, Guatemalan authorities reported that a diplomatic vehicle with Belize license plates had been used by Zetas members and found on the ranch. Police said the four-wheel-drive had been stolen from a driver assigned to an outpost of the Organization of American States along the disputed Guatemala-Belize border.

“Everybody knows what the Zetas are doing in El Petén,” said Mendez. “It’s no secret that over the last three or four years, we have had increasing incursions into our territory.”

Belize has 450 offshore keys and islets, most of them uninhabited. Stories of drug-toting tourists are common in this country once known as British Honduras; every day, backpackers are busted with packs of cannabis in their pant pockets.

“Many have been arrested for openly smoking marijuana on the keys such as San Pedro and Caye Caulker,” said Belize News 5 analyst José Sánchez. “They think it’s OK.”

The biggest concern, of course, is for the larger amounts of hard drugs that pass by undetected. Belize not only has seen increases in cocaine trafficking, but in marijuana and precursor chemicals en route to Mexico as well. In 2010, Belize seized 97 metric tons of marijuana alone.

“The government has always taken a very aggressive position on dealing with drug traffickers. We have dedicated a lot of our internal security capacity to deal with drugs and gun violence. We have roadblocks in strategic places throughout the country where vehicles are stopped and searched,” said Mendez. “But we’re extremely under-resourced in comparison to our neighbors. Our police force is very small, and so is our army.”


In Costa Rica, 527 people were killed in 2010, giving the country a homicide rate of 11.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. While that’s still twice as high as the U.S. homicide rate of 5 per 100,000, it also means that Costa Ricans are less likely to be murdered than their counterparts anywhere else in Central America.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Costa Rica also abolished its army in 1948, and has by far the region’s highest literacy rate and per-capita income.

Photos: Larry Luxner
A police officer inspects a motorist’s ID at a highway checkpoint outside San José, Costa Rica. Despite a shortage of uniformed security personnel and the absence of a military, Costa Rica enjoys the lowest homicide and crime rate in Central America.

But those accomplishments — which have turned Costa Rica into the so-called “Switzerland of Central America” — bring little comfort to Muni Figueres, San José’s ambassador in Washington.

“We lived in peace for so long that we kind of fell asleep at the wheel on the security front,” said Figueres, speaking Nov. 16 at a Heritage Foundation forum on security in Central America that also featured the ambassadors of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Honduras (pictured at Heritage above).

“We did have the intelligence to create a number of police forces that take care of law enforcement,” she said. “Looking back, we’ve concluded that that was a good move because it prevented concentration of power and corruption. We don’t face a crisis of corruption in the police force, but we do face the need to significantly strengthen it.”

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, whose government is pushing for a proposed “security tax” to bring down violence, recently invited Colombia’s former president, Álvaro Uribe, to San José to explain to lawmakers how a similar tax passed in 2002 helped rescue his country from the depths of despair.

“In Colombia, we knew that it was necessary to increase security resources, so we established a new tax for the wealthiest sectors of the country,” Uribe told Costa Rican legislators, conceding that despite initial resistance to the tax, most businesses agreed to pay, given Colombia’s grave security issues at the time.

Within a few years, Colombia saw dramatic improvement. During Uribe’s eight years as president, the homicide rate plummeted from 68 per 100,000 inhabitants to 32 per 100,000. Meanwhile, national police forces doubled from 70,000 to 140,000, and Colombia’s reputation was transformed. “The tax didn’t only increase security, but it also increased education, health and social well being,” Uribe said. “Those who paid the tax were rewarded by improvements in the national economy.”

Ambassador of Costa Rica
to the United States
Muni Figueres

Figueres — the daughter of one former Costa Rican president and the half-sister of another — said that while Colombia is definitely a success story, “it’s still an originator of drugs, a transit point. They have achieved fantastic results, but the problem has been shifted north rather than eliminated. We absolutely have to stop this, and we need all the equipment we can get.”

At the moment, Costa Rica’s national police force makes do with fewer than 300 vehicles. The National Coast Guard, which patrols 1,290 kilometers of Caribbean and Pacific coastline, has only 26 boats. As for aerial patrols, demilitarized Costa Rica possesses only one helicopter and six airplanes.

“There is no way we can adequately confront national security issues and drug trafficking with such a lack of resources,” said Mauricio Boraschi, vice minister of national security issues and director of Costa Rica’s Drug Control Police. “If this country is going to solve these problems, we’re going to have to dig into our own pockets and fund the fight. It will require an investment in security this country historically has never had to match.”

If passed, Costa Rica’s proposed “Impuesto a las Personas Jurídicas” tax would levy an annual $300 surcharge on every one of the country’s 485,000 businesses, large and small. The tax would raise approximately $145 million annually, with half that amount going toward improving security forces and acquiring equipment, vehicles and training.

“This will go through in the next few months,” Figueres predicted. “We’ve received no objections from the private sector, because there’s a sense of urgency on the need to go ahead.”

In the meantime, she said, “we are creating a school for policemen for the first time and doubling the number of police officers, providing them with equipment and technology to hope to catch up with the tremendous advantages that drug traffickers and organized criminals have over us.”

In addition, “we’re financing the judiciary to enable it to intercept communications in a way we did not know how to do before,” Figueres explained. “We’re getting ourselves equipped to better monitor what goes on. We’re also installing electronic scanning equipment at the border and, in cooperation with Panama, exchanging information and doing joint operations.”

Finally, she said, “we’re creating fast-track courts in which if a crime is committed in front of many witnesses and there’s no doubt about the guilt, then there’s a process whereby the supposed criminal is tried quickly. We have created victim and witness protection programs, and we’re upgrading our legislation on human trafficking and smuggling.”

Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, who said he hopes legislators “make the right decision with the best interests of the country in mind,” already has plans for how the potential tax bonanza will be distributed.

Topping his list are patrol vehicles. Costa Rica has about 270 police vehicles, which explains the increased sense of insecurity on the streets and notoriously slow response times to crimes in progress. In some rural areas, depending on the terrain, police can take several hours to arrive at a crime scene.

Said Figueres: “We’re sort of betting on the institutional strength we’ve inherited and are building on it, while sticking to our core principles of respect for human rights.”

But the ambassador conceded that “we don’t know if any of this is going to work. Whether a disarmed democracy like Costa Rica can really defend itself is a thesis we’ll have to prove.”


El Salvador is by far Latin America’s most densely populated country. It’s also one of the most violent: 4,085 of its 6.3 million citizens were murdered in 2010.

Photos: Larry Luxner
Congested traffic fills the streets of La Unión, El Salvador, which is Central America’s most densely populated country, and one of its most violent.

In one especially horrifying incident, 20 passengers traveling in a microbus north of San Salvador were burned alive by two gang members in retaliation for the murder of their friend at the hands of the rival Mara Salvatrucha, also known as the MS-13. Last month, the two defendants were found guilty and sentenced to 66 years in prison.

It was a case that galvanized the people of El Salvador, who have been plagued by civil unrest and poverty for years. Yet poverty and crowding alone cannot explain the skyrocketing violence. Consider that more people were killed last year in El Salvador than in desperately poor Bangladesh, whose 164 million inhabitants are squeezed into an area the size of Wisconsin.

Despite its skyrocketing homicide rate, Ambassador Francisco Roberto Altschul Fuentes told The Diplomat that his country has not yet been taken over by Mexican drug cartels or criminal organizations, both of which are increasingly partnering with one another.

“The cartels have made some incursions into El Salvador, but to say they have a foothold there is not true,” said Altschul. “However, that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.”

Because of geography — and the fact that El Salvador is the only country in Central America that doesn’t have a Caribbean coastline — El Salvador’s security needs are different.

“Unlike Guatemala or Honduras, we have certain advantages. We are a small, densely populated country, so there are no places like Guatemala’s Petén or the north coast of Honduras where you can have clandestine airstrips. But that doesn’t mean we’re not doing anything. We have a base at Comalapa Airport to detect aerial traffickers,” said Altschul.

“We’ve also been working very hard at cleaning up corruption in the national police. And we’ve done a lot of work in prisons. Even from jail, gang leaders were ordering extortions,” he continued. “One prison, Zacatecoluca, was so bad that in one night, all the guards were fired and replaced immediately by another contingent of guards. We’ve also introduced cell-blockers; a direct result is that extortions have declined by 30 percent.”

Since President Mauricio Funes took office in June 2009, spending on security has jumped dramatically and now accounts for just over 3 percent of the country’s current budget.

This past June, El Salvador hosted the 41st General Assembly of the Organization of American States. The theme of the three-day gathering was “Citizen Security in the Americas,” and it came just two months after the historic visit of President Obama, who pledged $200 million to help El Salvador fight drug trafficking and gang violence.

That’s independent of the U.S. program called the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Yet since that program’s establishment in 2008, funds allotted to CARSI’s seven members amount to $361 million — less than a third of Mexico’s share of counternarcotics assistance.

Ambassador of El Salvador
to the United States
Francisco Roberto Altschul Fuentes

The irony is that Central American nations have confiscated more than three times as much cocaine as has Mexico — about 100 metric tons per year.

“The international crisis has hit us hard, particularly in El Salvador because of our dollar economy,” said Altschul. “But even in the middle of this serious economic situation, we’re doing our share and making efforts to solve this problem.”

Altschul says Colombia’s success in reducing violence linked to drug trafficking is a shining example for El Salvador; that’s why Funes recently met with Uribe to see what lessons could be applied to Central America.

One such lesson is a security tax of the same type now being debated in Costa Rica.

“El Salvador is considering a tax only on the top 1 percent of the wealthiest population. It would affect no more than 2,000 Salvadorians. It would be transitory, lasting only until the end of Funes’s term, and it would raise $150 million per year,” he said.

The government would like to get the approval of Congress for the move. “Nobody likes more taxes, but they are probably paying more in private security than they would with this new tax,” the ambassador reasoned. “It would be earmarked only for security programs, so this money wouldn’t go into the general budget.”

Altschul said El Salvador cooperates very closely with the DEA as well as the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. El Salvador has more of its citizens living in the United States — about 2.5 million — than any other Central American country.

More than 80 percent of these salvadoreños have some sort of legal status here; tens of thousands fled to the United States during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, in which 75,000 people died. They were eventually granted legal status through NACARA (Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status), which has been extended periodically due to earthquakes and other natural disasters.

Yet each year, U.S. authorities deport thousands of Salvadorans, many of them with dangerous backgrounds and a long history of involvement in gang warfare. The deportations are aimed at stemming the growing gang violence in the United States, although conversely, they contribute to the crime wave back home.

“Organized crime, drugs and gangs need weak institutions in order to survive, so it’s in our interests to strengthen our institutions,” said Altschul. “This is a fundamental issue for us. Of course, organized crime and drug trafficking do not respect borders or laws. They move from one country to another, so apart from what any effort individual countries can make, we must have a regional, comprehensive approach to the problem.”


On Nov. 6, retired right-wing general Otto Pérez Molina, promising a crackdown on violent crime, won Guatemala’s presidential election with 54.5 percent of the vote — becoming the first military man to lead Guatemala since the country’s return to democracy in 1986.

Pérez, 60, won the runoff after promising voters he’d deploy troops on the streets and boost the size of Guatemala’s understaffed, corrupt-ridden police force.

Photos: Larry Luxner
Guatemala’s Tikal National Park is located in El Petén, a sparsely populated department that has become a haven for Los Zetas and other murderous Mexican drug cartels.

Yet military experts say Mexican drug cartels such as the Zetas control 40 percent of the territory of Guatemala, which, like El Salvador, is still suffering the effects of a brutal civil war that raged for 36 years. That explains to some extent why Guatemala — Central America’s largest nation in both size and population — remains such a brutal place.

“Unfortunately, after the 1996 peace accords, we did not follow the blueprint to improve security in our country, and although our homicide rate has been statistically going down in the last 37 months, we are still among the highest in the hemisphere,” said Julio Armando Martini Herrera, who was appointed Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States in August.

“Among the many problems we faced was that we lacked a sustained and systematic plan to reinsert ex-combatants (both from the guerrillas and the army) into civilian life, which ultimately contributed to what was then a relatively small network of organized crime,” he explained. “This has developed into what today is the biggest threat to security in the hemisphere — drug-fueled organized crime.”

Martini told The Diplomat that drug trafficking organizations alone rack up more than $100 million a year as payment for hauling narcotics through Guatemala. Even so, he says his country has made “significant steps” to strengthen judicial institutions, combat organized crime, and fight poverty among its poorest citizens (some 40 percent of Guatemala’s 14.3 million people are indigenous, one of the highest percentages in Latin America).

At present, Guatemala struggles with a 30 percent unemployment rate and annual per-capita GDP of under $3,000 — making the easy profits of the drug trade very tempting to those in desperate straits. At the same time, Guatemala spends only 1.4 percent of its budget on security and law enforcement, compared to the regional average of about 2 percent.

“One of the reasons the president-elect won the vote is that he put a lot of emphasis during his campaign on the security issue,” said Martini, Guatemala’s former vice minister of foreign affairs. “The whole country is looking for a solution.”

Recently, Guatemala’s Congress passed the Asset Forfeiture Law, which aims to confiscate assets acquired by criminal organizations and use them to combat those very same illicit networks. Since 2008, claims Martini, seized assets have come to around $10 billion, though that number cannot be independently verified. He said that six out of the 10 most-wanted Guatemalan narco-traffickers are now behind bars and awaiting extradition to the United States.

Ambassador of Guatemala
to the United States
Julio Armando Martini Herrera

In addition, said the envoy, Guatemala is reforming its police force and has boosted its size by 50 percent in the last eight years, while increasing police salaries by 33 percent since 1996. Martini said he expects to have a 60,000-man police force over the next five to 10 years, “with professional, trained and vetted personnel who can provide the security that is essential to our development.”

Yet even if the new president is able to boost tax collection to 14 percent of GDP from the current 11 percent, as Pérez suggested in a post-election press conference, security consultancy Stratfor has concluded that a full-fledged confrontation with organized crime “will require significant help, most likely from the United States.”

The Zetas, armed with rocket-propelled grenades and even their own jungle airstrips, have been more aggressive than any other drug cartel in expanding to Guatemala and other countries, where their path is made easier by underfunded and ill-equipped armed forces compared to the Mexican military.

Last December, the government imposed martial law in the northern department of Alta Verapaz for several months and had some success in halting cartel advances. President Álvaro Colom, who hands over power to Pérez on Jan. 14, told the Economist magazine that since then, only a few illicit flights have landed in Alta Verapaz, where “before it was like an international airport.”

But in El Petén, which abuts Guatemala’s 871-kilometer-long border with Mexico, it’s been far more difficult to take back what the Zetas have seized; in short, prevention has better success than dislodging once a foothold has been gained.

El Petén, which covers one-third of Guatemala, is difficult terrain for counternarcotics. Inhabited by only 500,000 people, its northern half has long been home to smugglers, and dense tropical forest cover makes clandestine runways hard to locate. The remote department was the site of the May 2011 massacre in which 27 people were beheaded.

Yet Guatemala is not a failed state, insists the embassy’s civil attaché, Edgar Villanueva.

“When you talk about a failed state, you talk about a state that has absolutely no control over its own territory. The election itself proves that Guatemala is not a failed state, and that although it faces significant challenges, things have not gotten to the extent that there is no state presence over anything,” Villanueva told us.

“There is a state presence in Guatemala; municipal authorities still function. The reason it feels that it’s getting out of hand is the fact that drug trafficking networks have such large amounts of money, and their influence on government structures is very big. So until we’re able to tackle the source of funding and the demand for drugs, it will be very difficult to defeat this.”


Home to some of Central America’s most impressive Mayan ruins and its most beautiful offshore islands, Honduras is more recently grabbing headlines as the murder capital of the world.

Photo: Larry Luxner
An armed security guard patrols a banana plantation south of San Pedro Sula. Last year, Honduras was ranked the world’s most dangerous country, with a homicide rate of 82.1 per 100,000 inhabitants — and San Pedro Sula is considered one of the most violent cities in the country.

In the last 10 years, the country’s homicide rate has nearly tripled, from 31 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006 to just over 82 per 100,000 in 2010. Put another way, says the Honduras National Commission for Human Rights, an average of 20 people are killed every day in Honduras. Ten years ago, the daily homicide rate was 8.7.

“We are facing an epidemic,” said Ramón Custodio López, the country’s national commissioner for human rights. “To think that in 10 years, the national average for homicides has grown by over 11 murders per day is harrowing. Our security systems have been simply unable to control the fierce escalation of crime caused by drug trafficking and gangs.”

Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro, Tegucigalpa’s ambassador in Washington, said that traditionally, the country’s geographical position has been one of its main competitive advantages — given the fact that Honduras has land borders with three other countries and 10 maritime borders in the Caribbean and Pacific.

“But in the past few years, this competitive advantage has turned into a curse. We are lodged between countries to the south that supply the drugs, and the world’s biggest drug market to the north,” said Hernández, speaking at the Heritage event.

Moreover, the first cocaine-processing lab ever discovered in Central America was found in Honduras earlier this year, raising fears that the region will eventually become a processing point for drugs, in addition to a transit zone.

“As a result of the shifting of drug routes from the Western Caribbean and Pacific to our region, 95 percent of the drugs coming from South America to North America now transit Central America,” Hernández pointed out. “With this shift in routes, our crime rate has skyrocketed, and the economic burden for Honduras is appalling.”

He noted that the total cost of crime and violence comes to almost 10 percent of his country’s GDP. “According to a recent study published by UNDP, over the last five years Central America has increased its security expenditures by 38 percent to reach almost $4 billion in 2010,” said the ambassador. “Think of what this amount could do to combat poverty in our countries.”

Indeed, rural poverty in Honduras ranks among the worst in Latin America. Some 53 percent of the nation’s 7.6 million people live in rural areas, and it’s estimated that 75 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line. Its alarmingly high rates of infant mortality, child malnutrition and illiteracy make it the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere after Haiti.

In early November, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo launched a crime-fighting initiative known as “Operation Lightning.” It involves the deployment of 2,000 army and 14,000 National Guard troops to the area of San Pedro Sula — the country’s second-largest city — as well as to the capital of Tegucigalpa, about 240 kilometers to the south. Later that month, the Honduran Congress approved the use of the army to fight drug cartels, similar to the methods employed in Mexico.

“Operation Lightning will install a large police presence in the areas and sectors of high conflict,” said Lobo. “Hundreds more officers will be monitoring, supervising and evaluating these regions. Urgent action is required in this country and we hope Operation Lightning will provide a solution.”

But human rights activists fear the solution may compound the problem. As recently as 2009, the Honduran military helped to oust leftist President Manuel Zelaya in a widely condemned coup.

Yet leaders are clearly grasping for ways to stanch the violence, and the public has so far supported the use of soldiers to do so. In 2010, more than 1,800 murders were reported in San Pedro Sula and the nearby Caribbean port city of Puerto Cortes. Crime is so bad in San Pedro Sula that Honduran media outlets have dubbed it the “Ciudad Juarez of Central America.

Photo: OAS
Ambassador of Honduras
to the United States
Jorge Ramón Hernández Alcerro

“We don’t want open war between our security forces and the drug traffickers. In our case, we could avoid that by effectively preventing drugs from entering our country,” said Hernández. “This is why I refer to the urgent need for high-ticket air and naval equipment and sophisticated detection equipment and information-gathering technologies that my country doesn’t have.”

Honduras hopes to tap into CARSI funds, though according to Hernández, only 18 percent of the $361 million allocated by Congress has actually been disbursed. Another potential source of money could come from a so-called “security tax” on companies, which the ambassador said “comes at high political cost for our executive branch and Congress.”

“Honduras has also passed laws against money laundering and asset forfeiture, and a communications intercept law is now pending in Congress. We have invested in police training and high-security detention facilities. We’ve captured increasing amounts of cocaine, nearly 12 tons just this year. One of our last seizures came from a makeshift sub that was transporting 7.5 tons. And cash confiscation last year came to $14.7 million.”

But Honduras won’t see progress unless it tackles another serious problem: corruption.

“We as a country have to recognize that we are a part of a very fragile society in Honduras,” said former security minister advisor Alfredo Landaverde. “The country is penetrated by corruption across all sectors. It is rampant in the police, in business and in politics.”

Within the past 12 months, 176 police officers have been arrested on suspicion of being linked to drug trafficking organizations. Only one week after Operation Lightning kicked off, members of the Honduran government as well as top ministers, law enforcement officials and educators announced the formation of a Truth and Reconciliation Committee to reduce instances of institutional corruption.


The United States and longtime Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega — who on Nov. 6 was re-elected president of Nicaragua for another five years — have distrusted each other for decades. Yet when it comes to cooperation in the fight against drugs, relations between Washington and Managua couldn’t be better.

Photos: Larry Luxner
Boats crowd the harbor at Brig Bay, Corn Island, a major transshipment point for narcotics smuggled along Nicaragua’s sparsely populated, English-speaking Caribbean coast.

Francisco Obadiah Campbell, Nicaragua’s ambassador here and a longtime activist in the leftist Sandinista party, said his country will do whatever it takes to get rid of narco-traffickers.

“We have had extraordinary success in interdicting drugs. Our navy is recognized as being the most effective in Central America, because we work very closely with our neighbors and with the United States and its various institutions,” said Campbell, speaking Nov. 16 at the Heritage seminar.

“It is important that we strengthen institutions in Nicaragua to be more effective in this fight against drug trafficking. That means our police must become even better.”

Despite Ortega’s historic friendships with such figures as Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and North Korea’s Kim Jong-il, the 66-year-old socialist has embarked on a clearly capitalist path that’s given Nicaragua the fastest growing economy in Central America. It’s also the only country in Central America to not only recover the free trade zone jobs it lost during the 2008-09 global economic slump, but to surpass previous employment highs in that sector (also see “Nicaragua’s Capitalist Comrade Consolidates Political Power” in the November 2011 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Revenues from free-zone operations, tourism and the export of subsidized oil from Venezuela are being used to beef up the country’s defense and security budget, which is the lowest in Central America.

Even so, last year, the United States named Nicaragua, Honduras and Costa Rica as major drug trafficking nations; Nicaragua in particular is a key transit point for cocaine shipments bound for Mexico. Drug runners, known in Spanish as transportistas, utilize the Corn Islands off the Atlantic coast as a refueling stop. Other areas of concern are the Río San Juan and the waterways surrounding Lake Nicaragua, in the southwest.

Nicaragua has already enjoyed impressive success in the war on drugs. In 2010, according to the State Department, its police and military confiscated 17.5 tons of cocaine, nearly double that of 2009. In addition, it destroyed thousands of marijuana plants and arrested more than 1,800 suspected drug traffickers.

In mid-May, police burned 861 kilos of cocaine seized by the Nicaraguan Navy from a fishing boat in the Caribbean — marking the country’s largest drug haul since the Navy confiscated 1,643 kilos of cocaine in January.

Ambassador of Nicaragua
to the United States
Francisco Obadiah Campbell

Nicaragua and Costa Rica have even agreed to establish liaisons to fight traffickers operating in the uninhabited border area of forests and wetlands along the Río San Juan, despite a bitter dispute over ownership of a 17-mile stretch of that river that both countries have asked the International Court of Justice to resolve.

In September, the Navy established a new battalion tasked with apprehending drug smugglers off its Caribbean and Pacific coastlines. The first of its kind in Nicaragua’s naval history, it consists of three companies totaling 300 sailors and represents a troop increase of 74 percent in the Navy’s war on drugs.

The battle against drug traffickers has also brought spoils to Nicaragua’s armed forces. Last year, its soldiers confiscated 24 vehicles, seven airplanes, 34 boats, 96 weapons and nearly $5 million in cash. The police, meanwhile, captured 175 vehicles, 113 weapons, 14 boats, two planes, one helicopter and nearly $2 million in cash.

“But we have to be clear,” Campbell stressed. “For this strategy to be successful, we need to simultaneously combat our fundamental historic threat: poverty. Invariably, no matter how effective we might be, a part of those drugs will make it to the Nicaraguan coastline.”

Campbell was born and raised in the town of Bluefields, along Nicaragua’s predominantly English-speaking Caribbean coast, so he knows the region quite well.

He pointed out that even if the new naval battalion stops 80 percent of marijuana and cocaine from washing up on Caribbean shores, some drugs will manage to seep through. And because Nicaragua doesn’t have an air force, it can’t stop the air drops that smugglers frequently use to get even locals hooked on the stuff.

“Planes can take off from Caribbean islands and clandestine airstrips, and by the time we respond, they’ve already made their drop and returned to wherever they came from. The drugs make it to communities along Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast,” Campbell said.

“These villages are inhabited by poor, isolated people of African descent where the government doesn’t have any presence. They live a life of subsistence farming, growing food and fishing. Drug traffickers find safe haven in these communities. Traffickers come in, and all of a sudden, there is hope and access to money. That’s how they’re able to exploit them,” he continued.

“We must find ways of eliminating vulnerability, creating opportunities in those communities, and denying drug traffickers the social base they need in order to move their products from south to north.”

About the Author

Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.