A panel discussion Monday at the Wilson Center highlighted the interconnectedness of organized criminal groups in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
The panel speakers highlighted the ways in which local organizations, often aided by military and civilian authorities, maintain a kind of "freelance" partnership with the Mexican drug-trafficking organizations (DTOs). The event was sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin America Program.
Thanks, in part, to geography, the Northern Triangle countries are now playing key roles in the smuggling of drugs, guns and undocumented migrants. All three nations have been deeply penetrated by Mexican cartels, who control the upper levels of the region's criminal networks. But while local criminal groups – including the Perrones in El Salvador, the "transportistas" in Honduras and the "Maras" in Guatemala, among others – are increasingly in collusion with DTOs like the Sinaloa cartel and the Zetas, the Mexicans are not interested in demanding total loyalty from their local allies.
In El Salvador, the primary role of low-level criminal groups is as transporters, or overseers of the domestic drug market, said analyst Douglas Farah.
"The Meixicans aren't that interested in establishing a huge presence," he said during the discussion. "They're not there for control. They have enough control through the Perrones, through the other [local] groups, that they're able to do what they need to do without establishing a massive presence."
Likewise, in Honduras, security consultant James Bosworth said that "micro-cartels" as small as 10 to 20 people are moving cocaine by land and sea to Guatemala. Other low-level gangs contract out their services to the Mexican cartels, protecting drug shipments and acting as "muscle."
"The Mexican cartels do not trust the gangs to actually move [the product] so they just kind of freelance them out," he said.
In Guatemala, where, in contrast to El Salvador and Honduras, the Zetas have established territorial control, there is a complex network of alliances between the foreign cartels, the local traffickers, and corrupt authorities, often from the military. But few of the business relationships are clear-cut alliances between Mexican and local actors, said freelance journalist Julie Lopez.
As noted in a previous report by InSight Crime, half of the cocaine that enters the United States from Mexico travels first through the Northern Triangle. Drug trafficking in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras has contributed to a spike in violence and crime, leading to homicide rates five times as high as Mexico's.