GUATEMALA AND HONDURAS
"Every time I go to Guatemala, I find a dead body," says Manuel Orozco, a Central America analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. "Anyone can be a target for any reason."
Over the last three years, narcotrafficking in Guatemala and Honduras has gotten a lot worse. A mere 1 percent of South American cocaine went through Central America as recently as 2007; today, somewhere between 60 and 90 percent does. Cartels from Mexico, feeling squeezed by President Felipe Calderón's war against them, have moved south, while Colombian traffickers have moved north.
And as the newcomers fight with homegrown cartels in Guatemala and Honduras, the result has been bloodshed. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that in Guatemala, "some provinces along key trafficking routes have the highest murder rates in the world." The only place where the violence might be worse? Neighboring Honduras, where drug traffickers had a field day while the country was distracted by last year's coup. In October, the country's drug-trafficking czar, Julian Aristides González, expressed his concern, noting that 10 aircraft full of drugs had landed in the past month -- compared with just 14 from January until the June coup. By December, González had been assassinated. He's not the only one; the country of just 7.3 million sees 15 murders per day.
Both countries' utter inability to combat organized crime has only exacerbated the situation. "In Honduras and Guatemala, the state has very limited control over entire chunks of the territory," says Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica now at the Brookings Institution. "That's what makes them so attractive to organized crime: They are very weak states by almost any indicator." In Guatemala, 15.7 tons of cocaine were seized in 2009 alone, and the drug economy is estimated to be worth twice the country's GDP. Money laundering is commonplace, and in April, the U.S. Treasury extended its sanctions war on drug cartels from Mexico to Guatemala, blacklisting a key family with alleged links to the Sinaloa cartel.
Meanwhile, two Guatemalan chiefs of police have been removed from office in the past year for their alleged involvement in the drug trade. There's a new commission set up to investigate and prosecute high-level infiltration, but with a docket of just 15 cases at any one time, it will take years to make a dent. Down the road in Honduras, the task is equally daunting because, as Casas-Zamora puts it, "a lot of people in the Honduran elite are doing business with drug traffickers."
Things could get worse before they get better. A particular concern is that Central American cartels will move into the production of methamphetamines, following in the footsteps of their Mexican peers. "Part of this incidence of violence and turf wars has to do with securing new facilities," Orozco says. "That's the part that worries me most."
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