Seized cocaine is incinerated in Honduras

The US State Department's newest drug report states that the majority of cocaine that enters the US first moves through Central America, an assertion that raises important questions about the effectiveness of US anti-drug programs in the region.

The State Department's recently released annual drug report, the 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR), is presented in two volumes: one focused on "Drug and Chemical Control" and the other on "Money Laundering and Financial Crimes." (InSight Crime has already provided a breakdown of the money laundering report as it regards Latin America.)

In its volume on drug control, Belize, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama were all listed (among others) as major illicit drug producing and/or drug-transit countries -- as defined by parameters laid out in the report.

 

The State Department's own reports in recent years suggest such a transition in drug routes towards the Caribbean has not only failed to materialize, but that Central American routes have actually increased in popularity.

Among the report's findings, perhaps the most significant for Central America was that, during the first half of 2015, around 90 percent of cocaine destined for the US market first transited through the Mexico/Central America corridor. This represents an increase over 2014, when an estimated 86 percent transited Central America (the remaining 14 percent traveled via the Caribbean), and is up from 80 percent in 2012.

While the 2016 report considered all Central American nations as major drug transit countries, Honduras is worth extra scrutiny. The country has consistently been a focal point for US anti-drug efforts. According to US estimates, the volume of cocaine that transited Honduras to the United States over the first half of 2015 decreased by 40 percent compared to 2014.

The "vast majority of cocaine" smuggled through Honduras arrives "via maritime conveyance" to Honduras' Caribbean coast, the report adds.  

In neighboring countries, the State Department report said that "hundreds of metric tons (MT) of cocaine are smuggled through Guatemala" every year, with 2015 drug seizure statistics on level with those from 2014. Authorities in El Salvador also seized double the amount of cocaine in 2015 than they did in 2014.

Among Caribbean nations, the Dominican Republic stood out as the most important drug transit country. According to the report, approximately six percent of illicit South American drugs destined for North America and Europe pass through the country, primarily entering via maritime routes.

InSight Crime Analysis

While the 2015 US State Department report appears to emphasize Central America as the main corridor for US-bound cocaine, nonetheless, in recent years, top State Department officials have predicted with fairly consistent regularity that drug traffickers would begin returning to Caribbean drug routes popular in the 1980s.

This pending shift was predicated on stricter border enforcement and drug interdiction efforts in Central America and Mexico, many of which receive US funding and support.


If Central America has indeed remained the preferred transit corridor for drug traffickers, this goes against recent reports alleging drug trafficking is decreasing in the region.


However, the State Department's own reports in recent years suggest such a transition in drug routes towards the Caribbean has not only failed to materialize, but that Central American routes have actually increased in popularity.

Granted, such changes may slowly play out over an extended period of time, with macro-level trends in preferred routes being relatively unobservable over the immediate to near-term. And drug interdiction figures alone cannot be considered the only reliable way to track popular drug routes.

However, if Central America has indeed remained the preferred transit corridor for drug traffickers, this goes against recent reports alleging drug trafficking is decreasing in the region. 

This is most apparent in Honduras' case. In late 2015, Honduran officials, supported by their US counterparts, claimed to have eliminated nearly all drug flights into the country. Previous State Department estimates suggested almost 80 percent of all cocaine smuggling flights leaving South America passed through Honduras.

If accurate, assertions Honduras' cocaine air bridge has been shut down -- or at least severely impeded -- may explain the State Department report's finding of a 40 percent decline in cocaine shipments through the country. But the report does not explain how Honduras, a key link in Central America's drug trade, saw a decline in drug trafficking while Central America on the whole saw an increase.

 

That Central America remains the dominant corridor for cocaine shipments to the United States calls into the question the efficacy of US anti-drug programs in the region, such as CARSI.

"I'm not sure how both of those statements can be simultaneously true unless there was a massive (over 35 percent) decline in cocaine trafficking, which I haven't seen reported," James Bosworth, a partner at Southern Pulse, told InSight Crime.

In its summaries for other Central American nations, however, the State Department report does not provide numbers demonstrating either an increase or decline in cocaine trafficking to account for the difference. As Bosworth also observed, the report has "a whole chapter dedicated to the methodology of drug production estimates," but provides "no methodology for how they do drug transit estimates," something he said should be included in future reports.

Such questions over methodology -- and discrepancies in reported drug transit estimates -- throws doubt on the reliability of the figures provided by the State Department.

Moreover, that Central America remains the dominant corridor for cocaine shipments to the United States calls into the question the efficacy of US anti-drug programs in the region, such as the State Department's Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). One of the five pillars of CARSI is: Disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband to, within, and between the nations of Central America. In addition to security assistance provided under CARSI, the United States has also been targeting illicit trafficking routes in Central America's coastal waters under Operation Martillo.

If effective, such programs would presumably have displaced trafficking routes to the Caribbean, as US officials previously predicted.

Sarah Kinosian, a Program Officer at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) with expertise on regional security policy programs, offers a partial explanation for why this has not happened. Kinosian told InSight Crime "there seems to be recognition that CARSI wasn't working in general." Part of the problem, Kinosian said, has been "too much focus on interdiction, equipment, and training," and not enough on corruption and other factors "that allow drug trafficking to happen."