by Filippa v. Stackelberg
Colombia and Mexico are South America’s main protagonists in the illegal drug trade. Yet, whereas Colombia’s narcotráfico made daily headlines in the 80s and 90s, today Mexico has taken its place and shocks the world with outbursts of brutal, drug-related violence and mass killings.
Recent developments have shown, however, that Mexico’s drug cartels are now moving south, violently taking control of large areas of some of the region’s most vulnerable and unstable nations. Confronted by the rapid spread of violence and the continuing failure of the so-called “War on Drugs”, the United States has drafted up an emergency training plan to confine the drug cartels’ regional expansion and help save Central America before it’s too late.
Based on the experience of previous counter-narcotics initiatives such as Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has now refocused the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), shifting from the main provision of equipment to enforced capacity building, technical assistance and training for police and military forces, in an attempt to stabilise the region. But is this the solution to the problem? There have been many critics of the US’ annual multi million dollar investments in the region, pointing out that the current counter-narcotics approach might be a waste of money and time and will not put an end to drug production but only push it elsewhere.
Plan Colombia might have been considered a success from the perspective of the US and Colombian governments. According to estimates, efficient training and the dramatic expansion of local police forces and military following Álvaro Uribe’s election as president in 2002, led to a 60 per cent drop in cocaine production by 2009. Today the country is no longer exclusively associated with the drug. However, Plan Colombia didn’t eradicate the problem but only succeeded in pushing the drug traffickers towards Mexico.
The drug trade in Mexico originated in the 1980s and was characterised by transport organisations. Mexico was a transshipment point, being a direct neighbour of the US. With the demise of the Colombian Cali and Medellin cartels under Plan Colombia and the closure of the Caribbean cocaine route, the Mexican cartels became the predominant smugglers of South American drugs. Facing this new threat, the US launched the Merida Initiative. Similar to Plan Colombia, the initiative aims at expanding and supplying Mexican security forces with security training on a technological and hands-on basis.
Since Merida, there has been an estimated fivefold increase of the Mexican federal police force. The combination of better intelligence and co-operation with the US has led to the arrest and killing of senior members of almost every big drug gang in the country. However, it has not put an end to the violence. 2010 was the bloodiest year since the beginning of the crackdown with over 10,000 gang-related killings. In 2009, there were 6,587. All signs seem to indicate that the elimination of a cartel capo will not put an end to the problem but simply leave room for a bloody succession struggle between lower ranking gangsters. Thus the provision of citizen safety, the ultimate goal of the Merida Initiative, has not been achieved.
As pressure intensifies on drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia, traffickers have been increasingly looking to Central America as a safe haven. Relatively unstable governments and weak institutions provide an ideal environment for organised crime. Meanwhile, the per capita murder rates have gone up in every country of the region, with Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras being among the highest in the world.
There is hardly any doubt that the drug trade is the cause of this upsurge in violence. In Guatemala, approximately 40 per cent of the total number of homicides is directly linked to the narcotics trade, with some estimates showing that one third of the country is already under the control of criminal organisations. A recently released UN report showed that cocaine seizures in Central America have increased six-fold in the past ten years, resulting in the confiscation of more than 3 times as much of the drug as in Mexico.
The current near-crisis situation in Central America has led to the revision and modification of CARSI. Its objective is to target the region’s main vulnerabilities, such as its marginalised youth, the weakness of its law enforcement institutions and shaky public confidence in its democratic institutions. According to a recent report by Kevin Casas-Zamora in Foreign Policymagazine, two thirds of the CARSI funds go to community-based anti-violence programmes and to improving the capacities of police and judicial institutions. This includes, “the funding of basic tools such as a region-wide fingerprinting system, the creation of vetted units to handle complex multi-national investigations, or the improvement of prosecutorial capacities with regards to complex financial crimes. Unlike the Mexican component of the Merida Initiative, less than 10 per cent of CARSI may be regarded as military assistance.”
Though the shift from predominantly military assistance to the provision of technological and knowledge sharing programmes is an improvement, Merida and Plan Colombia have shown that simply getting rid of cartel members by training and expanding local police and military forces is not the solution to the problem. Capacity building of local law enforcement is a long and difficult undertaking that needs years before it shows a positive effect. Furthermore, the demand for cocaine is there and, where there is a demand, producers will always find the means to supply.Ironically, already in the late 80s a two year study conducted by the National Defence Research Institute of the RAND Corporation, which was funded by the US Defense Department, found that the use of armed forces to stop drugs from reaching the US would be pointless. On the contrary, it might even raise the profits for cocaine cartels and severely jeopardise citizen safety.
Although aid to Central America is vital to help stabilise the region, research by the RAND Drug Policy Research Center indicates that there needs to be a redirection of funds to treatment centres and drug prevention initiatives inside the US. The demand for cocaine in the United States is high. Drug cartels are financed by American consumers and many of their weapons are provided by American arms merchants. The war against drugs should indeed focus on training and knowledge sharing - not just in countries south of the US border but within the country itself. If drug prevention funds within the US weren’t nearly completely absorbed by domestic enforcement - drug busts, jails, and prisons - but more was spent instead on treatment centres and anti-drug education programmes, the demand for cocaine might decrease. After all, where there is no demand there will be no supply.