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AQ Feature

Homegrown Solutions to Central America's Narco Nightmare

Washington's drug war distorts Central American priorities, but some homegrown steps are worth considering.
Barrio 18
The new normal: A child walks past Barrio 18 graffiti in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Credit: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters

Six months after getting elected on a tough-on-crime platform, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández blamed his country’s spiraling crime problem on U.S. drug policy. Washington’s strategy of pouring funds into drug interdiction efforts — first in Colombia, then in Mexico — had actually pushed cartels and gangs to safer havens in Central America, he charged. President Hernández added that drug trafficking was the “root cause” of Honduras’ staggeringly high murder rate, and drove thousands of locals to seek safety and a better life abroad.

“A good part of (migration) has to do with the lack of opportunities in Central America, which has its origin in the climate of violence,” he said in a July 2014 interview with Mexico City’s Excelsior. “And this violence, almost 85 percent of it, is related to the issue of drug trafficking.”

He may have overstated the case, but not by much. The violence sweeping the region is closely linked to the activities of Central American gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18. Some of them have matured from neighborhood thugs into ruthless transnational cartels whose mushrooming power and wealth have destabilized most governments in the region.

President Hernández’s solution? In the interview, he asked the U.S. for additional funds to pursue enforcement-led strategies like the counternarcotics operations in Colombia and Mexico. He argued, in effect, for the same militarized strategy that he earlier dismissed as the root of the problem.

Central American governments have long responded to the region’s political instabilities and high crime rates with military action and harsh penal regimes, an approach dubbed mano dura, or heavy fist. They applied similar methods to the drug crisis, and Washington has gone along. Almost a decade ago, the U.S. launched the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). CARSI extended antidrug funding already allocated to Mexico under the Mérida Initiative to prosecute the drug war in Central America. Its goal was to bolster law enforcement and security forces to take the fight to the gangsters.

Hernández’s latest appeal for more of the same aid only underscores what until recently was Washington’s one-dimensional approach to the drug trade in Latin America — an approach that has been a dismal failure. The formula is tragically familiar. Take the case of Plan Colombia, a $9 billion initiative mounted in the 1990s to disrupt drug production and supply in that country. As part of the plan, U.S. authorities pursued military solutions to extinguish drug trafficking organizations. They also required “partner countries” to pony up financial contributions, as well as provide access for U.S. forces to local facilities. But the overwhelming evidence is that Plan Colombia — and others like it — had virtually no effect on curbing the supply, transit or demand of cocaine.

There’s no reason to assume it would work elsewhere. To paraphrase Simón Bolívar, the war on drugs is tantamount to plowing the sea.

But, perhaps as a reflection of the growing pressure in the U.S. to rethink the “War on Drugs,” nonmilitary strategies have started emerging. These are at least partly being driven by concerns about the tens of thousands of Central Americans, including children, who have fled the violence in their countries since 2014. In response to the humanitarian crisis, the Barack Obama administration floated what Vice President Joe Biden calls a “Marshall Plan for Central America.”

A More Nuanced Remedy?

The plan includes provisions to tackle the systemic problems that have turned the region into a breeding ground for drug violence and organized crime. It focuses on mostly traditional development challenges, including youth unemployment, weak governance, high rates of impunity, concentrated poverty, and lack of access to education. It echoes President Hernández’s diagnosis, but offers a more nuanced remedy.

Last year, the U.S. Congress earmarked $1.1 billion for prevention programs in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala aimed at addressing what one State Department official defined as the “underlying factors” driving migration out of Central America. While the plan includes security cooperation, equal weight is given to measures ranging from economic integration to modernizing the region’s electricity grid.

The new money is partly a response to the angry partisan domestic debate in the U.S. fueled by the unaccompanied minor crisis. Yet it also presages the beginning of a healthier and more constructive approach in Washington to Central America’s drug-induced chaos.

The idea of pursuing a more balanced approach to drug policy is catching on. Retired four-star U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, who headed the U.S. Southern Command (2006–2009), recently advocated for a differentiated strategy. He urged support for interdiction, but also education and job alternatives. More controversially, he urged greater experimentation with regulated drug markets at home. Writing in Foreign Policy last year, he pointed to the growing movement to legalize recreational and medicinal marijuana in an increasing number of U.S. states as a sign that change was in the air.

There is one inescapable fact behind these positive developments: Without fundamental changes in U.S. drug policy, up to and including regulating the domestic sale, distribution and consumption of narcotics, it will be almost impossible for Central American governments to separate themselves from the drug trade.

Organized crime groups have used their illicit profits to corrupt and intimidate local authorities. Governors, mayors and police, as well as judicial, customs and penal officials, have all been implicated in drug corruption. The adage “plata o plomo” (accept a bribe or face a bullet) has evolved to an entirely new level. Thanks to their bankrolling of leading politicians and bureaucrats, cartels and gangs now operate with little fear of prosecution. Some of them are parlaying their growing financial and political power into markets that extend beyond drugs into weapons trafficking, human smuggling and the illegal organ trade. The prohibitionist approach to drugs ensures that these illicit businesses and networks won’t just survive, but will thrive.

But Central American governments don’t have to wait for the U.S. to shift gears.

A growing number of governments across the Americas are endorsing drug policies that address both demand and supply. Besides stepping up criminal justice measures that target transnational organized crime through new enforcement and sentencing strategies, they have started doubling down on harm reduction.

In Colombia, Mexico and Uruguay, for example, experiments with regulating drugs and with expanding public health approaches to address addiction are underway. Slowly, but unmistakably, the hardline mano dura strategies that have wrought so much havoc are making way for softer — and smarter — approaches. For Central American nations to exploit the shift, however, they will need to undertake a massive overhaul of their justice and health care systems — which in turn will require substantial investment.

If U.S. officials genuinely care about significantly reducing the drug trade in Latin America — and in Central America in particular — they would do well to introduce measures to get it under control. Supporting deep reform can produce better results over the long term than a war without end.

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Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Foundation. He also advises the Global Commission on Drug Policy

Paiz is a research fellow at Fordham University and the vice president of the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Central America, Drug Policy, Security