Drug Traffickers Upping Use of El Salvador Maritime Routes

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Drug traffickers are reportedly increasing their use of maritime routes to carry cocaine through El Salvador, a sign that criminals continue to adapt in accordance with interdiction efforts. 

Starting in 2014, El Salvador began seeing a shift from land-based drug smuggling to maritime smuggling, the country’s Anti-Narcotics Division Head Marco Tulio Lima told El Salvador.com

Lima attributed this to increased drug detection capabilities at border crossings, such as X-ray machines, and to El Salvador’s limited control over its surrounding waters. While most ships carrying large drug shipments travel 250 to 450 nautical miles off the coast, Salvadoran authorities are only able to patrol roughly 20 nautical miles off the coast.  

Despite these limitations, between February and April authorities seized a total of 1,069 kilos of cocaine off of small boats, and captured numerous local and foreign drug traffickers, Lima said. 

InSight Crime Analysis

In the isthmus, illegal drugs have long moved mostly via the sea. According to El Salvador officials, 89 percent of drugs reaching the United States and Canada travel through maritime routes. A recent book on the subject entitled Mares de Cocaina (Seas of Cocaine) echoes the claim, and a section of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s latest report also highlights the importance of maritime drug trafficking.

This tendency may increase in the near future. With more radar and air interdiction capabilities, flying drugs through Central America is becoming harder. Meanwhile land shipments may be getting easier to detect, as Lima suggested. Additionally, carrying drugs over land generally requires the involvement of other criminal groups, which also increases the cost of smuggling and the chances of betrayal. 

What’s more, authorities have always had a hard time policing the sea. Large-scale maritime interdiction efforts, including ongoing programs like the United States-led Operation Martillo, have failed to stem the tide. 

Despite the uptick, do not expect El Salvador to become a drug trafficking haven like some of its neighbors. With high population density and a short coastline, El Salvador remains a poor-man’s hub when it comes to drug trafficking. 

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