By Antonio L. Mazzitelli for Western Hemisphere Security Analysis Center at Florida International University. According to the US Government, over 60 percent of the cocaine intended for the US market transit through Central American. Since the early 1990’s, Colombian and Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) established logistics bases both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Central America, facilitating the movements of large shipments of cocaine. In establishing these routes, the DTOs took advantage of a number of local enabling factors. Among them, the preexistence of well-established smuggling networks, the weakness of law enforcement and judicial structures in most countries in the region, and the overall culture of lawless and impunity resulting from the civil conflicts that marked the paths to democracy of some of these nations. The tough campaigns launched against DTOs by the governments of Colombia and Mexico during the past eight years, coupled with the gradual evolution of both local and foreign criminal organizations (COs) involved in (but not exclusively) cocaine trafficking, seem to have further worsened the situation in Central America.
Old styled DTOs and local “transportistas”1 are increasingly challenged by new criminal groups, usually emerging from the military and claiming specific territories. These new groups are exerting a capillary control over all types of criminal activity taking place in the territories under their control. The confrontation between two different criminal “cultures”– the first, business oriented; the second one, territorial oriented– constitutes a serious threat not only to the security of citizens, but also to the very consolidation of balanced democratic rule in the region.
Mexican DTOs and COs poses a serious threat to Central American, if left unchecked. Responses by national institutions, assisted by their main international partners, will have to be carefully tailored according to the specific feature of the predominant foreign criminal organization operating in its territory. In the case of DTOs, interventions will have to privilege investments in the areas of financial investigations, specialized prosecution and international cooperation, as well as anti-corruption initiatives. In combatting COs (Zetas type), intervention will have to privilege restructuring, professionalization and deployment of local police corps that would then be capable of controlling the territory and preventing the infiltration of external criminal actors. In both cases, governments need to strengthen the intelligence capacity of law enforcement agencies allowing the early identification of the likely threat, its analysis and its subsequent removal. National law enforcement and judicial efforts should also be geared toward the creation of a sincere and mutual beneficial international cooperation (both investigative and judicial) that is built not only on common objectives, but also on the use of common investigative instruments and harmonized procedures.