The Washington Post writes a bleak piece on the expansion of Mexican Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs) and their operations into weaker Central America, particularly Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The fact that Mexican cartels are operating with near impunity and using these states as storehouses and recruitment centers is nothing new to most analysts. In fact, it was a logical step for criminal organizations to expand into the vast, sparsely populated and stateless territories of Central America to construct landing strips and warehouses for US-bound contraband. What is new, however, is the adoption of violence that has been typical in Mexico for the last half decade.
It seems that local street gangs MS13 and 18th Street, collectively known as Maras, are starting to expand their operations from simple extortion to drug running and contract killings for Mexican DTOs. Higher caliber weapons are being found at crime scenes as are telltale signs of Mexican cartel involvement, such as torture and the way bodies are disposed.
Beyond local adoption of Mexican violence, perhaps what struck me as most interesting in the article was the mention to a UN report on violence in the region that acknowledges a growth in violence outside of urban centers. Some of the highest murder rates were not in cities, “but in provinces with strategic value to drug traffickers: along borders, coasts and jungles.”
The article continues to paint a dark picture:
Guatemala and Honduras have fewer than half as many police per capita as Mexico, U.N. data show. In Guatemala, as many as seven of the country’s 22 provinces appear to be under the control of criminals, according to the International Crisis Group report.
All of this coupled with the region’s recent history of civil war and violence has led many to surmise that this is the beginning of the end of democratic consolidation in these three countries. Unlike Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are proportionately experiencing more violence, have weaker institutions and resources and are emerging from decades of internal struggle, leaving them awash in Cold War-era weapons.
Politicians and analysts are constantly worried about Mexico because of its geographic and economic ties to the United States. However, it may be Central America that falls first to drug-related violence and criminality. If organized crime prevails over democratic institutions and rule of law, then we could see an explosion in migration from the region as individuals and families escape the violence, similar to what was witnessed during the 1980s.