Watching as the drug cartels penetrate the highest levels of government in some Central American countries, I can’t help but ask myself if the United States’ war against drugs has only served to push the front lines of battle first from Colombia to Mexico, and now from Mexico to Central America. Is this effort succeeding in reducing the scope and success of the drug lords, or is it merely forcing them to hopscotch about from one country to another?
Last week, during a 48-hour visit to Guatemala for a business conference, I switched on the television in my hotel room and learned that the president of that nation, Álvaro Colom, had just fired his Minister of the Interior, Raúl Velásquez, on charges of corruption. Velásquez had been the fourth minister of the interior fired in just over two years. Two of his predecessors had also been kicked out of office for alleged links to drug trafficking.
But that wasn’t all. The next day, I learned that Colom had also just fired the National Police Chief Baltazar Gómez as well as the head of the nation’s anti-drug unit for their alleged role in the theft of 700 kg of cocaine that had been seized the previous year.
Gómez’s predecessor, Porfirio Pérez, had been kicked out of office in September after being accused of stealing $300,000 from smugglers. And one of the more recent predecessors of Perez, in turn, Adan Castillo, was caught on tape accepting a $25,000 bribe from a DEA informant in 2005.
Drug trafficking is nothing new in Central America. But, as recognized by the US Department of State in its annual Narcotics Control Report released last week, drug trafficking has soared in Central America ever since the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderón, launched his own Washington-backed war against drugs three years ago.
“As Mexico makes greater progress against the criminal organizations operating within its territory, there is growing evidence that the drug trafficking organizations in Mexico are establishing their presence in [bordering] regions, particularly in certain Central American countries,” the report stated.
Intrigued by this phenomenon, I requested an interview with President Colom, and asked him if he also found a correlation between the Mexican government offensive against the cartels and an increase in the levels of corruption and violence linked with drug trafficking in Guatemala. “When President Calderón is successful, I have problems,” Colom responded with a smile of resignation. “Either we fight together as a region against drug trafficking, or we lose,” he said.
According to Colom, the war against the cartels that is taking place in Mexico is not the only reason why the cartels are relocating to Central America. The virtual dismantling of the Guatemalan Army after the peace accords in 1996 that ended the civil war reduced the number of armed forces in the nation from 54,000 to 12,000 soldiers in the following years. This left the north of the country without protection, Colom explained.
“Do you think it’s worth it for the United States to continue spending billions of dollars in the fight against drug trafficking in Latin America, seeing as how the cartels are managing to simply move their operations from one country to another?” I asked Colom.
“Yes,” the president said. “Last year alone we seized more cocaine and synthetic drugs than in the previous four years combined. Just imagine how many lives were saved by the tons of drugs that we confiscated.”
Here’s my opinion: I agree that we shouldn’t simply throw in the towel and do nothing about this mess. But I think it’s also very clear that after having invested $14 billion in the past four decades in anti-narcotic programs in Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Mexico, and other countries in the region, Latin America continues to be the largest exporter of cocaine and marijuana to the United States.
It’s true that in recent years the United States has appropriated an increasing proportion of its resources to drug education and prevention programs within its own borders, and it’s also apparent that the percentage of the United States population that consumes drugs has diminished.
But something more needs to be done. Perhaps, the hour has come for Washington to seriously consider the decriminalization of the personal consumption of marijuana, as was suggested last year by ex-Presidents Fernando Henrique Cardos of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico and César Gaviria of Colombia. This would free up enormous resources that could be used to more effectively combat more dangerous drugs like heroin and cocaine.
As things stand at the moment, the US war on drugs is going nowhere. All it’s doing is pushing the cartels from one country to another, without hampering their ability to operate wherever their temporary headquarters may be.
Translation: Ryan Croken.
Ryan Croken is a freelance writer and editor based in Chicago. His essays and book reviews have appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Z Magazine and ReligionDispatches.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.