Honduran officials report that Mexican drug traffickers are expanding their activities in the country and forming links with local bosses in four different provinces, fuelling concerns that organized crime is overwhelming the region.
According to Prensa Latina, Security Minister Oscar Alvarez said that the Sinaloa Cartel and the Zetas have been detected in Ocotepeque, Copan, Colon and Atlantida. The four northern states form much of the Atlantic coastline in Honduras, as well as a large chunk of the border with Guatemala. The Mexicans, Alvarez said, move freely throughout these regions, but rather than seeking to take over areas, the foreign gangs are working through already existing networks of local bosses to increase their presence and expand their operations.
This comes weeks after the discovery of a cocaine-processing lab, which are typically found in the Andean producer nations. This is the first such finding in Central America, and suggests a threat that is mutating. Currently, an estimated 400 tons of cocaine pass through the region on an annual basis, but Central America has not historically been a cocaine-processing region. Alvarez says that the goal for Honduras is to prevent Mexican gangs from laying down enduring roots in the country.
Authorities say that the Honduran cocaine lab was operated by the Sinaloa cartel. Arms stores belonging to the same group have also been captured in Honduras. The shift of cocaine processing from the Colombia, Peru and other Andean nations to Central America could fundamentally shift the economics of the cocaine supply chain. Rather than the South Americans controlling two vital steps in the process—i.e. the collection of the coca base and its processing in laboratories to produce crystallized cocaine—the Colombians would be left just supplying the base. This, in turn, would allow the Mexicans to derive significantly more profit, because instead of buying kilos of cocaine for up to $3,000, they can pay just $1,000 for the base and process it themselves, before selling it in U.S. for up to thirty times that amount.·
Furthermore, this would shorten the distance that the cocaine needs to travel, which would both lower the transportation costs and decrease the chance of seizure. As a major center of operations, Central America is all the more appealing because the weaker law-enforcement agencies mean that there is less chance that expensive cocaine will be seized, which further reinforces the profitability of a northward shift.·
The threat from organized crime to Central America is arguably more serious than in any other region of the Western Hemisphere. The isthmus has been a vital trafficking route ever since the restriction of the Caribbean route connecting the Colombian jungles to the retail markets in Miami and the rest of the United States. However,·the past decade has brought about a particular significant deterioration of security in Central America, with murder rates in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador among the highest in the world.
The incursion of Mexican drug traffickers has been most widely reported in Guatemala, as the Guatemalan government has struggled to prevent the incursion of the Zetas into states like Alta Verapaz and Peten. (Of course, there have also been reports that, far from combating them, elements of the Guatemalan governments are actually selling arms to groups linked to the Zetas.) Street gangs in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador like MS-13 and M-18 have also forged stronger links with the Mexican gangs.·
The economic cost of the rise in criminality on the region is steep as well; a recent World Bank estimate placed the economic costs of insecurity of in Central American at 8 percent of regional GDP.
That challenge is made more daunting by the woeful lack of institutional capacity in many of the countries. Central American law-enforcement institutions fall well short of Mexico’s and·Colombia’s, to say nothing of those United States. One cause of this is the lack of spending on security agencies, which, in turn, is a product of paltry tax collection: according to the IMF, Central America’s tax collection rate stands at 16 percent, roughly on a par to sub-Saharan Africa.
In response to this ongoing obstacle, Alvarez previously announced that he and other regional officials would seek an aid package from the U.S. similar to the Mérida Initiative and Plan Colombia.