By Virginia Comolli, Research Analyst
Amidst a rise in narcotics interdictions in Mexico, the country’s drugs cartels have increasingly looked to Central America for the transhipment of narcotics from Latin America to the United States. Local criminals across the region have readily adopted the cartels’ business model, precipitating Mexican-style military counter crime and narcotics operations from several Central American governments.
In recent years Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, and to a lesser extent Nicaragua and Costa Rica, have experienced growing narcotics-related activity and violence. Violence levels were already four to five times those of Mexico with 700,000 gang members estimated to be operating in the region, remnants of decades of sharp social divisions and civil wars.
Statistics are very alarming: according to the World Bank more people suffer violent deaths from criminal activity in El Salvador and Guatemala today than did during the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s. The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) confirms the same worrying trend: in five of the eight Central American countries homicide rates have increased over the past five years, with homicides doubling in Honduras between 2005 and 2010.
Most of these countries are poor, with high unemployment and poor education levels, and there are worries that the violence could significantly impact on their economic development, especially in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras).
In response to this security crisis, governments in the Northern Triangle have decided to follow Mexico’s lead and deploy the military to counter criminals and drug traffickers (Other Latin American countries have also started to adopt this approach. See Brazil’s Operation Agata 2 and Ecuador’s special army brigade).
In Guatemala president-elect and former army general Otto Pérez Molina recently promised to deploy 2,500 troops against Mexican drug cartels operating in the country as well as hire an additional 10,000 police officers.
This was not the first time the government had decided to take a militarised approach to organised crime. Around 500 troops joined forces with the civilian police on the streets of Guatemala City in July 2010, prompted by a string of violent incidents including an arson attack on a bus in the capital. In December 2010, the army was granted special powers to enter Alta Verapaz (northern Guatemala) to regain control over the province that had fallen into the hands of Mexican cartel Los Zetas. The cartel had moved its operations into Guatemala a year earlier as a result of Mexican President Felipe Calderon’s increased security efforts.
In neighbouring Honduras, President Porfirio Lobo launched Operation Lightning in early November 2011. This involved the deployment of hundreds of troops alongside counter-insurgency police in the capital Tegucigalpa and in San Pedro Sula, a city in northern Honduras, with the view of expanding the operation to other critical areas. This move, which has been heavily criticised for effectively militarising public security, has brought about a 90% reduction in violence in the capital and 50% in San Pedro Sula, according to the presidential office.
However sceptics argue that the only true improvement has been the reduction in human right abuses and violence by the notoriously corrupt police as they have been occupied by the operation. The Honduran government recently arrested 176 officers in a corruption purge after a group of officers were accused of killing two students.
The Honduran Congress has voted in favour of amending the constitution to reform the armed forces so that they may play a greater law enforcement role. In practice, this would grant the army certain police powers, such as search and arrest, during emergency situations. Troops could also now be used for counter-narcotics, counter-terrorist, and counter-trafficking duties on a permanent basis.
More troops will soon be involved in counternarcotics operations when a $2million US-funded naval base is inaugurated in December. The base, set to be jointly manned by American and Honduran forces, will be the second of its kind following the establishment of a naval base in Caratasca in April 2010, also tasked with intercepting drug cargoes, including the ever more popular semi-submersible vessels used by traffickers.
El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes, under growing public pressure to tackle organised crime and violence more effectively, ordered a six-month army deployment into the worst affected regions in 2009. In May 2010 he announced that he would extend by an additional year the army deployment in support of the police against organised crime. He also pledged to increase the number of zones patrolled by the army from 19 to 29 to thwart a wide array of criminal activities, including drug and human trafficking, and deployed troops to over 60 border areas that had been unguarded up to that point.
El Salvador also suffers from a significant police corruption problem. According to Inspector General Zaira, in 2010 274 officers were arrested for involvement in crime with another 232 arrested in the first eight months of 2011, one every day.
As violence reaches unprecedented levels and governments lose control of swathes of territory, they face increasing pressure to take decisive action. With police forces tainted by accusations of corruption and brutality (and suffering from chronic understaffing, lack of training and insufficient equipment) and vigilante groups proliferating as a result of government inability to repress cartels and gangs, countries in the Northern Triangle may feel that there is no other option than to deploy armies against organised crime. Defence expenditure in all three Northern Triangle countries has increased.
But soldiers are not trained to deal with civilians and giving additional powers to the army has resulted in both corruption among army ranks and competition between the armed forces and the police. In a region of the world where military rule has brought misery to millions of people, extending military powers could generate substantial instability (especially where there has recently been a military coup d’etat, such as Honduras (2009), and where no real oversight mechanism is in place).
One should also not forget the lessons from Mexico. President Calderon’s militarised approach has prompted an even more violent and brutal response from cartels, often at the expense of the civilian population. What is more, Calderon’s war on drugs has produced a fragmentation of the major criminal syndicates which, in practice, has only partially weakened them and made violence both more unpredictable and more difficult to contain.