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

By Nick Miroff and William Booth
Washington Post staff writers
Tuesday, July 27, 2010; A01

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.

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."

Over the past two years, Guatemala's top anti-narcotics official, two national police chiefs and the former president have been arrested on charges related to drug trafficking or corruption. Two former interior ministers are fugitives. In May, the Guatemalan president appointed, then removed after international protests, an attorney general who U.N. prosecutors say has ties to mobsters.

In Honduras, where a military coup last year toppled the president, Mexican cartels have established command-and-control centers to orchestrate cocaine shipments by sea and air along the still-wild Caribbean coast, often with the help of local authorities, according to DEA and U.N. officials. Ten anti-narcotics officers were caught smuggling 142 kilos of cocaine last July. In December, Honduras's drug czar, Gen. Julián Arístides González, was killed after trying to shut down clandestine landing strips allegedly operated by Mexico's Sinaloa cartel.

Police in El Salvador say traffickers are cultivating ties to street gangs such as MS-13 and 18th Street, building alliances that could eventually help those groups mature into international syndicates.

"Organized crime has penetrated the government," said Jeannette Aguilar, a crime expert at San Salvador's University of Central America, citing recent arrests of police commanders and prominent politicians. "We've made strides toward democracy, but this threatens to reverse that progress."

According to Steven S. Dudley, a consultant for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the high homicide rates signal the expanding presence of Mexican drug cartels. Investigators are finding more corpses bearing marks of torture or execution in well-coordinated hits by assassins armed with high-caliber weapons, trademarks of Mexican crime gangs.

The newspaper El Diario de Hoy in El Salvador recently counted 35 bodies found in plastic bags over a six-month span.

A U.N. report found that the highest homicide rates were not in the largest cities, but in provinces with strategic value to drug traffickers: along borders, coasts and jungles.

Some victims had ties to the drug trade; others were simply in the way. In Honduras, in the Caribbean province of Atlantida, one of every 1,000 residents was murdered last year.

Central American migrants, interviewed at three shelters as they crossed Mexico on the way to the United States, said they left their countries not only because of economic desperation but also to escape soaring violence.

Undermining democracy

The expansion of cartel power in the Northern Triangle threatens to undermine democratic gains made since the end of civil conflicts here in the mid-1990s. Analysts say the lucrative profits of the drug trade wield powerful influence in these countries, where half the people live in poverty.

"The Guatemalan government is weak, and the drug cartels provide services that the state does not," such as health clinics, soccer fields and schools, said Fernando Giron Soto, a researcher at the Myrna Mack Foundation, a human rights organization in Guatemala City whose doors are guarded by armed sentries. "It's the same thing that Pablo Escobar used to do in Medellin" during the 1990s in Colombia, he said.

In many areas of the Northern Triangle, police are ineffective, if they exist at all, experts say. Guatemala and Honduras have fewer than half as many police per capita as Mexico, U.N. data show. In Guatemala, as many as seven of the country's 22 provinces appear to be under the control of criminals, according to the International Crisis Group report.

The region is awash in weapons left over from the Cold War, making it an important source of arms for the Mexican cartels. Before Guatemalan gun laws changed last year, anyone could legally buy up to 500 rounds of ammunition a day, said Sandino Asturias, a crime analyst for the Center for Guatemalan Studies.

A special U.N. prosecutor's office has been working in Guatemala since 2007 to break the country's culture of impunity, but it faces enormous obstacles. Of 6,548 murders last year, 423 suspects were arrested. However, that was a significant improvement over the previous year, when 128 homicide arrests were made, Asturias said.

Booth reported from Mexico.

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