Central America struggles with drugs

Fueled by a cocaine trade that runs the length of Central America, the region is in danger of being overwhelmed not only by street gangsters but also sophisticated criminals with ties to elite members of society, U.N. officials warned Thursday.

As Central American leaders concluded two days of high-level meetings to negotiate a regional security plan and to seek money from donor nations, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released a report documenting the high cost of drug trafficking in Central America, an impoverished backwater it described as ignored.

In the annual World Drug Report, U.N. authorities described Central America, especially the so-called Northern Triangle of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, as racked by competition over drug trafficking routes to the United States and a legacy of warfare and inequality.

“The region suffers from having one of the most unequal distributions of income in the world, comparable only to southern Africa or the Andean countries,” the report concluded, stating that wealthy, landed families here wield outsize influence.

The report listed a number of national politicians, police commanders and military generals arrested in the past two years for ties to drug traffickers. Several have been freed by judges.

“There is almost greater chance of being struck by lightning than facing justice for crimes committed in Guatemala,” said Eric Farnsworth of the Council of Americas, a business organization promoting free markets.

The economic costs of crime and violence in Central America exceeds $6.5 billion a year, according to the Inter-American Development Bank, about 8 percent of the regional gross domestic product. Companies and individuals in the region are spending $1.3 billion a year in private security.

Pamela Cox, vice president for Latin America at the World Bank, said that in addition to help from international donors, the governments in Central America “also need to mobilize resources themselves.” “They have got to collect more taxes,” Cox said.

Guatemala collects some of the lowest tax revenue in the world, about 11 percent of GDP.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also stressed that the wealthy in Central America need to do much more.

The Central American security plan envisions such humble goals as gathering basic crime data, which is not yet entered on computers.

“There are people here at this meeting who are working for the drug traffickers and relating in real time what is happening here,” said Colombia President Juan Manuel Santos, who advocated setting up a center to investigate money laundering and another to do polygraph screening of police.

After his visit to Guatemala, Mexican President Felipe Calderon returned home Thursday to face an emotional meeting with his harshest critics — family members of the victims of the drug violence that has left more than 35,000 dead. Only 2 or 3 percent of homicide cases end up in court.

The crusading poet Javier Sicilia, whose son was found dead in March, wrapped in duct tape and dumped dead in a car with his friends, told Calderon that he should apologize to the victims. He also said that the military, which Calderon deployed to fight the drug cartels, should be returned to its barracks.

“The problem is that you, Mr. President, think the bad guys are outside and good guys are inside. The problem is that you went to war with rotten institutions,” Sicilia told Calderon in the televised meeting.

“Yes, I wish to ask forgiveness for the victims who have died,” Calderon said. “But I do not regret having ordered the army into the streets.”

Calderon said he wished he had sent more troops sooner.

Julian LeBaron, a leader of a breakaway Mormon sect in the state of Chihuahua, whose brother was killed after he denounced criminals and the failure of the state to protect citizens, told Calderon, “No one has been convicted of the murder of my brother, or for the kidnapping of my neighbors, so please do not offend their memories by saying justice has been done.”

Calderon said the killers of LeBaron’s brother are in jail, although they were detained for other crimes, not his death.

Researcher Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.

William Booth is The Post’s Jerusalem bureau chief. He was previously bureau chief in Mexico, Los Angeles and Miami.
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