The U.S. Government estimates that 90 percent of the illicit drugs entering its borders passes through the Central American Isthmus and Mexico. Of this, close to half goes through Central America.
Functioning as a transshipment point has had devastating consequences for Central America, including spikes in violent crime, drug use and the corroding of government institutions. Mexico receives most of the media attention and the bulk of U.S. aid, but the Northern Triangle – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – has murder rates five times as high.
While Mexico is having some limited success dealing with its spiraling conflict, vulnerable States in Central America are struggling to keep the organized criminal groups at bay, even while they face other challenges such as widespread gang activity. U.S. and Mexican efforts to combat the drug cartels in Mexico seem to have exacerbated the problems for Central America, evidenced by ever increasing homicide rates. "As Mexico and Colombia continue to apply pressure on drug traffickers, the countries of Central America are increasingly targeted for trafficking, which is creating serious challenges for the region," the State Department says in its recently released narcotics control strategy report.
Problems are particularly acute in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, three States with vast coastlines, large ungoverned spaces and the greatest proximity to Mexico. However, geography is only part of the problem. Armed conflicts in Guatemala, El Salvador and parts of Honduras between 1960 and the mid-1990s laid the foundations for the weapons trafficking, money laundering and contraband traffic that we are witnessing today. Peace accords in Guatemala and El Salvador, and police and military reform, only partially resolved deep-seeded socio-economic and security issues, and, in some cases, may have accelerated a process by which drug traffickers could penetrate relatively new, untested government institutions.
Despite the gravity of the problem, Central America has had little regional or international cooperation to combat it. Examples of cross-border investigations are few. Communication between law enforcement is still mostly done on an ad-hoc basis. Efforts to create a centralized crime database have failed. Local officials are equally frustrated by the lack of international engagement and policies that often undermine their ability to control crime, especially as it relates to alleged gang members.
Regional governments also face mixed messages from both the international community and their local populace, further hampering their efforts to combat rising criminal activity. A push for free trade in the region, for example, means more infrastructure, less centralized government control and unfettered borders, all important parts of any organized criminal operation. Long histories of the governments' abuse of authority, repression of political movements and outright murder of political opponents, make locals weary of giving authorities more power to monitor their private lives in an effort to root out crime.
The role the region plays is simple, but the consequences are devastating. Smugglers in Central America serves one vital purpose: to transport drugs between South America and Mexico. For that reason, they are known in the region as 'transportistas.' Increasingly, however, these organizations have also taken on the role of local distributors and, in some cases, the suppliers of marijuana and poppy, for the production of heroin, as well as importers and suppliers for the raw ingredients of synthetic drugs that are manufactured in Mexico, Nicaragua and possibly Honduras.
Last year's indicators tell part of the story. Guatemala eradicated a record 1,300 hectares of poppy in 2009, while Colombia eradicated 546 hectares. While estimates of its poppy production are still far lower than Mexico's, Guatemala has presumably supplanted Colombia as the second highest producer in the region. Guatemala also seized twelve metric tons of pseudoephedrine. Honduran authorities seized three million pseudoephedrine pills. Drug consumption, in particular powder and crack cocaine, is also up substantially and has governments in places like Costa Rica and Panama concerned. Consumption often correlates to drug trafficking organizations' (DTO) activity since the managers often pay the local 'transportistas' in product who distribute it themselves or parcel it out to the street gangs to distribute.
Nonetheless, the "transportista" organizations' main function on a regional level remains that of receiving, storing and transporting the drugs safely, mostly to Mexico but sometimes directly to the United States. The transporters tend to come from similar backgrounds and operate in similar spaces. They are, by and large, thieves or experts in contraband. Before working with DTOs, they had prior knowledge of the routes and contacts in the right government circles to move or sell their illicit products. Increasingly in Honduras, some are reportedly emerging from the landed classes—sons of large cattle owners and other agri-business.
They have, over time, expanded their businesses to include illegal drugs, as well as other operations that also facilitate the movement of drugs such as human smuggling. They operate in border regions and coastal areas. Some even have dual citizenship, which facilitates their movements and, at times, their ability to avoid law enforcement. They are beholden to larger organizations, at one time Colombian now mostly Mexican, but their relations with these organizations are fluid. They tend to work with whomever pays and, up until recently, did not appear to be swallowed by the often bloody conflicts that envelop their employers in Colombia and Mexico.
In Guatemala, three traditional families have reportedly long dominated the transport business: the Mendozas, Lorenzanas and Leones. The Mendozas concentrate on the Petén province, the Lorenzanas in the central highlands and along the eastern border near Honduras, and the Leones in Zacapa province, along the Honduran border. On the western edge of the country, a trafficker identified as Juan Alberto Ortíz López is believed to control the critically important San Marcos province, along the Mexican border and the Pacific coast. A smattering of smaller groups operate along the Pacific Coast and central highlands, including several that are operated by Otoniel Turcios and Hearst Walter Overdick, both of whom appear on the DEA's shortlist of the country's top traffickers.
In Honduras, the "transportistas" are, by and large, locals who have some experience trafficking contraband, stealing automobiles or rustling cattle. Although several intelligence sources mentioned that large landowners are increasingly entering the business, these landowners appear to be more important as infrastructure than personnel. Nonetheless, as in Guatemala, it is usually a family trade. Two of the more infamous transporters are Nelson and Javier Rivera, former car thieves and cattle rustlers. They run the so-called Cachiros gang, which stretches from Colón along the northern coast to the Gracias a Dios province in the East and the Olancho province to the south. Other, lesser known groups appear to operate in Yoro, Olancho and Cortés.
There's a substantial crossover of transport groups in the region, especially in the south of Honduras where the country reaches the Fonseca Gulf. There, longtime transporters such as Reynerio Flores Lazo and Jose Natividad Luna trafficked in dairy contraband before entering the drug trade. Flores eventually ran his own fleet of trucks that moved contraband and later drugs from Panama to El Salvador. Luna figured out creative ways to conceal the origin of his cheese along the border area before branching into concealing drugs through the region. Both are dual citizens. Flores was arrested last year in Honduras.
Other smaller operations exist in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. These groups operate in abandoned regions along the coastlines and border areas. Like their counterparts in the Northern Triangle, they reportedly take orders from more powerful organizations. Of these three countries, evidence of the most DTO activity is in Panama, due to its proximity with Colombia. Costa Rica and Nicaragua appear to be more way stations than transit points. These groups' activities include providing intelligence, temporary storage and transportation assistance, including trucks or human mules to move the drugs via commercial aircraft out of the countries' international airports. Panama and Costa Rica also offer attractive local drug markets as well as numerous possibilities to launder money.
This report is based on six weeks of field research by the author in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador in late 2009 and early 2010. See also "International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Volume I, Drug and Chemical Control March 2010," U.S. Department of State.