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Mexican drug cartels bring violence with them in move to Central America

Mexico's fight against drug cartels has been a bloody one for both sides. Dozens of suspected drug gang members and police officers have been killed in gunbattles in recent days.

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Chart shows homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in Central America
By Nick Miroff and William Booth
Washington Post staff writers
Tuesday, July 27, 2010

SAN SALVADOR -- Drug cartel violence in Mexico is quickly spilling south into Central America and is threatening to destabilize fragile countries already rife with crime and corruption, according to the United Nations, U.S. officials and regional law enforcement agents.

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The Northern Triangle of Central America -- Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras -- has long been a major smuggling corridor for contraband heading to the United States. But as Mexican President Felipe Calderón fights a U.S.-backed war against his nation's drug lords, trafficking networks are burrowing deeper into a region with the highest murder rates in the world.

(Photos: Mexican military opens mueseum of drug cartels)

The Mexican cartels "are spreading their horizons to states where they feel, quite frankly, more comfortable. These governments in Central America face a very real challenge in confronting these organizations," said David Gaddis, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

U.S. attention has mostly focused on Mexico. But the homicide rate there -- 14 for every 100,000 residents -- is dwarfed by the murder statistics in the Northern Triangle, where per-capita killings are four times higher and rising.

In El Salvador, the region's most violent country, homicides jumped 37 percent last year, to 71 murders per 100,000 residents, as warring gangs vied for territory and trafficking routes. Police and military officials in El Salvador said cartels are increasingly paying local smugglers in product, rather than cash, driving up cocaine use and the drug dealing and turf battles that come with it.

"The more pressure there is in Mexico, the more the drug cartels will come to Central America looking for a safe haven," Gen. David Munguía Payés, El Salvador's defense minister, said in an interview here.

The amount of cocaine moving through the region has risen sharply, although the overall volume entering the United States is falling. Cocaine seizures in Central America nearly quadrupled between 2004 and 2007, according to the most recent U.N. data.

The United States has allocated $258 million in anti-narcotics assistance for Central America since 2007 as part of the three-year, $1.6 billion Merida Initiative. But a report this month by the Government Accountability Office found that only 9 percent of the money promised under the initiative has been spent and that U.S. officials had no reliable way to determine whether it was making a difference in the drug war.

'A paradise for criminals'

In remote, lawless regions of Guatemala, the Mexican organized crime syndicate known as the Zetas is setting up training camps and recruiting elite ex-soldiers to serve as assassins, arming them with weapons diverted from the country's military arsenals.

Last month, four human heads were left near the Guatemalan Congress and elsewhere in the capital. The national police spokesman, Donald González, said the grisly display was the work of the Zetas and other Mexican traffickers.

"Guatemala has become a paradise for criminals, who have little to fear from prosecutors owing to high levels of impunity," the International Crisis Group, a conflict research organization, said in a June report. "High-profile assassinations and the government's inability to reduce murders have produced paralyzing fear, a sense of helplessness and frustration."


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