UN Report Highlights Regional Consequences of Mexico’s Drug War

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) latest report on the state of organized crime in Central America and the Caribbean suggests Mexico’s drug war is pushing organized crime towards her neighbours.

The report, titled “Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment,” (pdf.), released 27 September, provides a comprehensive overview of criminal actors, their smuggling networks and trends in the region.

Among the report’s key findings was the assertion that cocaine trafficking, and the violence associated with it, are the main crime issues in the region. However, while violence is inextricably linked to drug networks, the problem is rooted in weak governance and rule of law, and  the fact that powerful criminal networks compete for power in certain areas.

One of the more interesting assertions is that security policies put in place in Mexico since 2006 have unintentionally shifted trafficking networks deeper into Central America. Increased pressure in Mexico has seen Central America’s importance as a trafficking corridor for US-bound cocaine increase in the past six years, as the UNODC graph on cocaine seizures illustrates (see below). What’s more, Mexican gangs have been “displaced,” with a registered presence in Guatemala and Honduras, where they are seeking to gain greater control of trafficking routes and escape pressure in their home country.

Cocaine seizures

The case of Mexico’s displaced criminal groups and the spread of trafficking activity deeper into Central America reveals that a coordinated international strategy for tackling illicit flows in the region is required “so that one country’s success does not become another’s problem.”

The problem of violence is by no means solely related to Mexican criminal groups, the report acknowledges. Each of the Northern Triangle countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have their own domestic gangs who drive violence levels and make the area one of the most dangerous in the world. To view any of the region’s criminal actors as solely cocaine traffickers is a “fundamental misconception. They are alternative forms of governance.” Given this, simply removing cocaine from the equation will do little to eliminate the gangs and may in fact increase violence in the short term as they fight for other revenue streams, the report argues.

The greatest challenge for governments is therefore wresting territorial control back from these criminal actors. In light of endemic weak governance in the worst hit areas, namely the Northern Triangle, this will require significant institution building and a restoration of trust between populations and the state. Statistics published in the report underscore this, showing that all three Northern Triangle populations were more receptive to the idea of military rule than other countries in the region.

InSight Crime Analysis

This displacement of gangs from their home base is known as the “cockroach effect.” When the light is shone on criminals in one area, they simply move to another. Both the Zetas and the Sinaloa Cartel have a strong presence in Guatemala and reports have begun to circulate in the past two years that they are moving into Honduras. Indeed, the presence of Mexican gangs extends much farther than Central America, with cartels estimated to have a foothold in 16 countries in the Western Hemisphere.

The international cooperation necessary to combat this spread is already in motion. Following April’s Summit of the Americas, leaders unanimously backed the move to create a regional body to combat organized crime which could potentially lay the foundation for greater intelligence sharing between governments and law enforcement agencies.

Though UNODC fully admits the report is not intended to make policy recommendations since such work “would require a dedicated study,” one topic it fails to address is the idea of alternative policies for combating drug trafficking. Prior to the document’s release, the presidents of Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico all called on the United Nations to lead an open discussion on alternative approaches to the current war on drugs, with President Calderon declaring organized crime to be “one of the greatest threats to democracy in the 21st century,” reported the Associated Press

Emphasizing the need for institution building and strengthening governance is a vital step towards countering criminal gangs’ control in the region, since endemic levels of corruption and impunity continue to provide fertile ground for organized crime. However, this will take an enormous amount of time and the propagation of the existing counternarcotics strategy — one which Guatemalan President Otto Perez has openly characterized as a “failure” — in the meantime criminal groups will continue to follow the path of least resistance, and that seems to be parts of Central America and the Caribbean.

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