April 22, 2010
During a 2008 research junket to Guatemala, I motored across the country with a young Guatemalteco named Evi. Mid-trip, as we curved down into the alpine basin containing Guatemala City, I was struck by the vaulting skyscrapers, the tree-lined boulevards, the vaguely Bauhaus apartment complexes. When we passed through the Zona Viva, with its Biltmore and Hooters and Mezza Luna, I commented on how chi-chi and vibrant the city looked compared to San Salvador, which I'd visited two years earlier during another research trip, a capital with a distinctly more Third World feel.
Evi nodded grimly. "Narcodólares," he said. Drug money.
A few days later a nun I befriended echoed the observation. "A lot of those high-rises are empty," she told me. "And a lot of the newer banks around town have no visible customers." The country had taken considerable steps backward in the twenty years she'd been there. "What was once a fairly straightforward civil war has become a mix of organized crime, rank corruption and a bankrupt judicial system. And, strange as this sounds, the bloodshed's worse."
The daily news is filled with Grand Guignol tales of drug-linked carnage in Mexico, but in Central America the murder rate is four to five times higher, and as few as 2% of those killings get solved. A growing disaffection with democracy simmers, with upsurges of vigilantism and the old regional scourge, death squads. Among the poor, capitalism seldom fares better, as NAFTA and CAFTA resemble the same old glad-handing promises favoring the same old elites, devastating small farming communities throughout the region and offering nothing in return but poverty-level wages in maquiladoras now facing stiff Chinese competition. Despairing of corrupt and feckless politicians, unwilling to live and die in squalor, people vote with their feet.
As we enter the next phase of our national scrum over immigration, we should remember that. People leave this stunning part of the world not just because of gringo opportunity. They're often running from the disintegration of daily life in their homelands, a devastation abetted by three U.S. addictions: drugs, cheap stuff, and cowboy posturing on crime.
Ironically, the forty-year stalemate in our war on drugs has managed to deepen corruption in a region which institutionalized it centuries ago. Worse, thirty years of "getting tough" on crime has helped create the two great regional Frankensteins: transnational gangs and paramilitary mafias.
Looking for an ally in the drug war in the early 1990s, the U.S. recruited Guatemala's notorious intelligence unit, G-2. Little that happened in Guatemala went unremarked by G-2, with its anthill of informants, its wire-tapping powers, its mandate to oversee passports and infiltrate political organizations. It also ran its own kidnapping and murder racket, targeting "subversives." The U.S. took a gamble, hoping the better angels in G-2 would prevail, fighting the cartels instead of joining them. That gamble did not pay off.
Similarly, in El Salvador, former military officers once in our confidence now control the port of Acajutla, a major cocaine transshipment center.
The organized crime directorates in both Guatemala and El Salvador are notoriously corrupt, and the former chief of Guatemala's unit masterminded the brutal killing of three Salvadoran diplomats in a botched drug takeoff. (He and his accomplices were subsequently murdered in their prison cells days later.)
Mexico's trajectory follows a similar arc. In the late 1990s, the Gulf Cartel coaxed thirty members of a commando unit trained by the U.S. in counter-drug operations into switching sides, and Los Zetas was formed. Their small arms and explosives expertise, along with their tactical sophistication, instantly made them the most formidable dogs in the pit, forcing the other cartels to escalate their own recruitment of police and military strays. And as Mexico's drug war intensified, Los Zetas joined forces with corrupted members of the Kaibil Corps, Guatemala's elite special forces unit, commandeering vast tracts of land along the Guatemala-Mexico border for poppy and marijuana cultivation, clandestine meth labs, training compounds, airstrips.
These dons and narco-dragoons, with drug money for largesse, have become de facto governments in some areas, providing social services, doling out patronage. Drug money buys more than mayors and police chiefs, it funds small business loans, builds playgrounds, finances restaurants and car dealerships and daycare centers. The Guzman cartel showers nearly $3.8 billion a year on Sinaloa alone, twenty percent of the state's economy, double that of all its factories combined; directly or indirectly, the drug trade employs nearly a fifth of the state's 2.6 million souls.
Then there's the gangsa cancer germinated here, not Mexico or Central America. Through ill-considered deportation policies enacted in the mid-1990spolicies still championed by anti-immigrant partisanswe exported the gangs to a region lacking the economic or institutional stability to handle them. They've metastasized into transnational crime groups in their own right, providing an army of foot-soldiers for the cartels, who use them for murder, extortion, kidnapping, car theft, retail drug sales, human trafficking.
Despite some success against the Gulf and Juarez and Tijuana cartels, it seems far more likely, given the billions involved, that Mexico's war on drugs is designed to pick a peaceable winnerprobably El Chapo Guzmán's Sinaloa Federationnot dismantle the industry. The light touch afforded this cartel, plus the focus on armed confrontation not money laundering prosecutions, suggests as much. And success just pushes the targeted cartels, most notably Los Zetas, southward into Guatemala and beyond, where governance is even weaker and impunity more endemic, deepening the problem throughout the Middle Americas.
Back home, plowing through research of the written sort, I discovered Hal Brands, an analyst at the U.S. Army War College. He argues that the current supply-side approach in the drug war, with its flagship Plan Colombia and its Mexican cousin, the Merida Initiative, cannot succeed, not with the regional Gordian knot of poverty, corruption, weak institutionsand immigration. He proposes a more integrated approach, addressing all these factors at once. I know a nun and a young Guatemalteco who'd concur. As we struggle with "comprehensive" immigration reform, we'd be wise to hold that thought.
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