Counting the Amount of Cocaine Passing Through El Salvador

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A top drug policy official in El Salvador said they have no official estimate for how much cocaine transits through the country. After registering a record murder rate in 2011, could El Salvador be seeing record amounts of cocaine pass through its borders?

Last year, the US officially dubbed El Salvador a major drug-transit country. It was the last country in Central America to be added to the 22 countries on the blacklist, alongside Belize.

In an interview with La Prensa Grafica, Jorge Cortez, the head of the main anti-narcotics unit of the Attorney General’s office, agreed with this characterization by the US. The country is primarily a stopover point for drug exports heading northwards, he said, and authorities have not identified any transnational cartels with permanent presence inside the country. The country does have a serious gang problem, but groups like the Barrio 18 and MS-13 are thought to primarily handle the retail distribution of drugs, with few links to transnational crime.

According to Cortez, marijuana trafficking routes are found in western and northern El Salvador, while the major routes for cocaine are based along the Pacific coast and some parts of the northern and eastern borders. Cortez identified the El Amatillo border crossing as one of the most vunerable points along El Salvador’s frontiers. The crossing area is described as a “blind spot” where smugglers handle drugs, pirated goods and even animals.

Nevertheless, Cortez added that the anti-narcotics unit had no estimates for how much cocaine may actually be passing through El Salvador. The amount of cocaine reportedly seized in 2011 (over 600 kilos), 2010 (over 120 kilos) and 2009 (3.8 tons) are thought to be just a drop in the bucket. According to another estimate by the US State Department, approximately 400 tons of cocaine are thought to travel each year through Central America’s Eastern Pacific region. The difficulty is trying to approximate how much is transiting through or being stockpiled in El Salvador.

Such information could help shed light on why El Salvador’s homicide rates spiked so dramatically in 2011. Last year, the country saw its highest murder rate since the end of the civil war in 1992. Police say the spread of the domestic drug trade, known as “narcomenudeo,” is responsible, as gang members are frequently paid with drugs and weapons rather than cash.

It seems plausible that the growth of El Salvador’s cocaine transhipment trade is feeding the violence. A similar phenomenon is taking place in Honduras, described as the most important transit point for cocaine heading to Mexico and onwards to the US. But with no reliable estimates for the quantities of narcotics flowing through El Salvador, it is difficult to say whether the drug trade is better or worse compared to its other Northern Triangle neighbors, Guatemala and Honduras.

In the coming year, it may be tough for El Salvador’s anti-narcotic force to reverse these trends, if they lack the resources to fully understand the extent of the problem. Considering that only 34 percent of murders last year have been solved, authorities will have a tougher time arguing that the majority of homicides were related to drug trafficking. Better data on the dynamics of El Salvador’s internal drug trade could better enable authorities to stop the murder rate from climbing any higher.

Estimates related to the drug trade are nebulous figures by nature. But at least such estimates are protection against admitting that the government knows nothing at all. 

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