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Central America emerges as transhipment nexus for drugs flowing to USA

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By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — A generation ago many Central American countries faced death and destruction from aggressive left-wing insurgencies battling governments in places like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. Today while these countries have evolved into reasonably representative democracies, a new tide of violence “born of transnational organized crime and drug trafficking,” plagues the region according to UN officials.

“Highly sophisticated criminal threats in the region are eroding economic development, corrupting legal and political process and undermining confidence,” according to General Assembly President Nassir Al-Nasser of Qatar. He warned, “These threats risk unraveling gains made in development in the region, and leading to social and political upheaval.” During an important if overlooked Assembly debate on “Security in Central America”, the

Honduran Navy officers patrol in Patuca river, near Ahuas, a remote community in La Mosquitia region, Honduras, on May 21. / Rodrigo Abd / AP

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon stated, “The armed conflicts that once burned through the region are no more. Political violence has been greatly reduced. Democratic processes are being consolidated.” Yet the notorious Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras “face rising levels of violence fueled by transnational organized crime and drug trafficking.” As Ban stressed, “Caught between drug producing countries in the South and some of the major consumer countries in the North, proximity has encouraged criminality.”

Look at the geography. Central America connects Latin America with North America, lucrative markets from illegal narcotics. Central America abuts Mexico, itself a major overland route for drugs flowing into the USA’s porous southern border.

The largely poor and undeveloped Central American countries not only provide a conduit for narcotics flows but also host smuggling gangs and experience drug-related violence. Ban Ki- moon related, “The region is now home to the highest homicide rates in the world; 39 murders per 100,000 citizens in Guatemala, 72 per 100,000 in El Salvador and 86 per 100,000 in Honduras, which is more than ten times the global average.”

Again it’s location, location, location.

“Central America is a bridge to North America, but the Americas are also a staging post for Europe,” Ban said, adding, “Today cocaine consumption in Europe is almost equal to that in North America.” According to the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua are “key transit countries for smuggling drugs primarily destined for the United States.”

Interestingly the INCB adds that much of the violence stems from Mexican cartels, “under pressure from the Mexican authorities” who have moved their operations south of the (Mexican) border.

The presence of cartels and trafficking has resulted in soaring homicide rates, gang violence and crime rates. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) states that many of these countries serve as transit points “ for the main consumer markets in North America and Europe…for the North American market, cocaine is typically transported from Columbia to Mexico or Central America by sea and then onwards by land into the United States and Canada.”

U.S. Drug enforcement authorities estimate that nearly 90 percent of cocaine entering the country crosses the U.S./Mexican land border. While Columbia remains the primary source of cocaine in Europe, there’s increased shipments form Peru and Bolivia.

Addressing the General Assembly meeting, Paola Severino, Italy’s Justice Minister warned “Transnational organized crime jeopardizes the security of citizens, undermines the stability and legal institutions of States, and hinders economic and social growth.” While most of the harmful effects are reserved for “vulnerable regions, where they destabilize States from within” such groups can “create asymmetrical shocks at the international level.”

Both Minister Serverino and Ban Ki-moon stressed the need to prosecute drug kingpins and as importantly to “identify, trace seize and confiscate criminal assets.” Beyond drug crime and violence, there is the human trafficking and people smuggling aspects which are part of illegal immigration from Mexico into the USA.

Secretary General Ban recalled “In our time, Central America has traveled a long road to peace and reconciliation. We must do our utmost to help the region secure a better future.” Part of that better future entails not only stifling the supply of narcotics from the South, but as importantly, reducing the demand for drugs in North America and Europe. But that’s easier said than done.

John J. Metzler is a U.N. correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He writes weekly for

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