Mexico's principal drug trafficking organizations have moved 90 percent of their US-destined cocaine trafficking operations to Central America, indicates a new UNODC report.
As a result of the aggressive strategy towards organized crime maintained by Mexico over the last seven years, the country's two principal cartels, the Pacific Cartel [an alliance of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Gulf Cartel] and the Zetas, have moved 90 percent of their US-bound cocaine trafficking operations to Central America. Their fight to control plazas has also spread to Central America, making Mexican organized crime the "principal criminal problem" in the region.
The report "Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean," published by the United Nations (UN) at the end of last year, states the following: "After 2006, the year that the Mexican government implemented its new national security strategy, it became more hazardous for traffickers to ship the drug directly to Mexico, and so an increasing share of drug shipments began to transit through Central America," and would later enter Mexican territory through land entry points.
As a result, according to the UN, Guatemalan territory is now disputed by both Mexican criminal groups, via four local gangs. Belize is considered the Zetas' zone of operation. In El Salvador, the principal drug trafficking organization is the Pacific Cartel, which also has branches in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. In addition, since the 2009 coup in Honduras, the country has been used by both groups as a port of arrival for drugs from Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia.
The new war in Guatemala
The UN reports that since Mexico's security strategy "pushed the front lines of drug trafficking towards the south", Guatemala has become a "botteneck" through which 90 percent of the cocaine brought by Mexican groups to the US passes, creating "new plazas" along the border with the Central American nation, where local gangs were co-opted by the Zetas and the Pacific Cartel to fight for territorial control of the country.
Via the group known as the Lorenzanas, the Zetas now control cocaine trafficking through Guatemala's five largest provinces -- Peten, Huehuetenango, Quiche, Alta Verapaz, and Zacapa -- along a route that plows through the country all the way from the Honduran border to the Mexican border.
In addition, another four municipalities along Guatemala's the border with Honduras and with access to the Pacific Coast -- Chiquimula, Jutiapa, Jalapa, and Santa Rosa -- were conquered by the Zetas, who ended the rule of local criminal group known as the Leones.
At the same time, the Pacific Cartel boasts control of the province of San Marcos, which borders Mexico and which hosts one of Guatemala's principal maritime ports. Via another local criminal organization known as the Mendozas, the Pacific Cartel also dominates the province of Izabal, which borders Honduras and Belize on one side, and provides access to the Gulf of Mexico, and on the other side is surrounded by the provinces under the Zetas' control. Chapo Guzman's organization is currently fighting with the Zetas for control of Huehuetenango.
This fight for control of specific points in Guatemala, particularly those along the border with Honduras and El Salvador, have converted these two countries into the states "with the highest homicide rates in the world (82 per 100,000 inhabitants in Honduras and 65 per 100,000 inhabitants in El Salvador, in 2010)." According to the UN, "Given the competition between groups allied with the Zetas and the Pacific Cartel, it is highly likely that these deaths are attributable to disputes over contraband and trafficking routes."
It is worth highlighting that, according to the UN, in these ten provinces where the Mexican cartels have a presence, which make up more than half of Guatemala's territory, organized crime transported 330 tons of cocaine to Mexico in 2010 alone, valued "at wholesale prices" at around $4 billion. That is $1 billion more than what all of Central America invested that same year in the fight against organized crime.
"Cocaine gold rush"
The principal territorial dispute of the Mexican cartels in Central America may be over control of Guatemala, but this does not mean that they do not have interests in the rest of the region.
After Guatemala, for example, the most important Central American country for the Mexican mafias is Honduras, a country in which the 2009 military coup detonated "a kind of cocaine gold rush," as described by the UN.
"Direct cocaine flows to Honduras grew significantly after 2006, and strongly increased after the 2009 coup," according to the study, and in particular, air trafficking from the Venezuela-Colombia border region.
In fact, it is estimated that in 2010, nearly 15 percent of the cocaine sent by air to the US landed first in Honduras, a country to which drugs also arrive by maritime routes, and are later sent to the north of the continent in small aircraft.
Just like in Guatemala, in Honduras "the territorial nature of drug trafficking has given special importance to land ownership, and many large landholders, including commercial farmers and ranchers, are prominent among the traffickers. Plantations and ranches provide ground for clandestine landing strips and cocaine storage facilities. They also provide sites for training and deploying armed groups," according to the report.
It is worth noting that, according to the UN, of the 330 tons of cocaine that entered Mexico via Guatemala in 2010, 267 passed first through Honduras, where 62 clandestine landing strips were found in 2012 alone.
Due to the increase in seizures of cocaine in Belize, "is is believed that the Zetas are active [in this country]," whose border with Guatemala is controlled almost completely by this Mexican group, says the report.
And although Belize is a "secondary route" for cocaine trafficking, says the UN, the value of this business reached $74 million, which represented five percent of Belize's Gross Domestic Product (GDP), in 2010.
In that same year, Belize had the eighth highest homicide rate in the world (42 per 100,000 inhabitants).
In El Salvador, meanwhile, the main drug trafficking group, the Perrones, has an alliance with the Pacific Cartel, for whom they move cocaine coming from Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. This group, moreover, carries money from Chapo to Panama.
Another group of transporters established in El Salvador is the Texis Cartel, which performs commissioned work for both Mexican cartels, and which is known "for its wide network of complicity with high level politicians, security forces, judges and prosecutors."
Epilogue: short-term risks
The UN report concludes that the principal mover of violence in Central America "is not cocaine, but change: change in the negotiated power relations between and within groups, and with the state." One example of this was the broadside offensive launched against the cartels by the Mexican government in 2006.
"Any change in the status quo, even when it is the result of the necessary and legitimate action of law enforcement agencies, can contribute to instability and violence between territorial groups," concludes the UN, for which reason, "For progress to be made, the risk of aggravating violence in the short term must be taken into account," a phenomenon that occurred in Mexico, first, and now in Central America as well.