Mexico's Drug War Moves South
While the drug violence near Mexico's northern border has become a major political issue in the United States, less noticed has been the disastrous effect the conflict is having on countries to the south. Drug mafias such as the Sinaloa and Zetas cartels, in search of new territory and looking to escape the Mexican government's crackdown, are increasingly setting up shop in the politically fragile states of Central America.
With the addition of Belize and El Salvador this year, all seven countries in Central America are now on the White House's list of major drug-trafficking states. Sixty percent of the cocaine that enters the United States through Mexico first travels through Central America, according to a Congressional Research Service report. Homicide rates in four of the seven countries have increased significantly in the last five years -- in Honduras, they've more than doubled.
In May, Guatemala saw its worst massacre since the 1996 end of its civil war, when 27 people were decapitated by drug gangs in the country's north. Entire regions are now effectively under the control of the Zetas, Mexico's second-largest drug cartel, which has access to machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and has even built its own airstrips in the jungle. The Guatemalan government launched a major military offensive against the Mexican cartels in the first few months of this year, but failed to expel them. There are widespread reports that a number of Guatemalan politicians are receiving kickbacks from the gangs or otherwise tied up in cartel activity.
Until now, the cocaine itself has been processed almost exclusively where coca is grown in the Andean region of South America. But in March, the first cocaine-processing lab ever discovered in Central America was found in Honduras. In El Salvador, which has also seen its crime rate skyrocket, Sinaloa and the Zetas are believed to have established alliances with local gangs such as the infamous Mara Salvatrucha.
This isn't just Mexico's drug war anymore.
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