Central America is receiving more attention in the U.S. news media and from the U.S. government than at any time since the region’s civil wars and domestic insurgencies three decades ago. Unfortunately, the attention is negative. The focus has shifted from the 1980s Cold War battles of President Ronald Reagan’s administration to the violence associated with organized crime, drug cartels and street gangs (maras).
In Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America: Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation, Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler—professors of political science at the University of Louisville—provide those interested in Central America, the drug trade and U.S. foreign assistance in the region with an invaluable tool for understanding the causes and implications of drug trafficking through an analysis of what they term the “bridge countries” of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. The authors intentionally do not include Mexico, which they argue (correctly) involves a different dynamic both in terms of the strength or weakness of the state, and the nature of the drug trade.
Understanding the drug trade phenomenon through these “bridge” states required the authors to develop an innovative research approach that was both wide-ranging and deep. They used every imaginable source of data, ranging from primary and secondary articles and books to court records from the United States and the “bridge” nations and scores of personal interviews over many years to produce an impressive book on a subject that by its nature is opaque: transnational organized crime.
The subtitle, Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation, captures the ingenious means that drug traffickers have adopted to move their product from Central America to its principal markets in North America and Europe. In fact, one of the many useful features of the book is its inclusion of Europe as a major destination for drug trafficking. Many policymakers in Central America and Latin America say the expansion of the drug trade is a direct result of the failure of the U.S. and other consuming countries to deal effectively with their own drug markets. In this book the authors take as a given the demand for drugs in North America and Europe.
The book in many ways takes an encyclopedic approach to drug trafficking. There is substantive information on topics ranging from the drugs transported (including marijuana, heroin and cocaine) to the means of transportation (air, sea and ground) and capsule summaries of the main groups involved in the region—and their relationships with drug cartels elsewhere in the Americas. As the authors note, “The threat of interdiction has caused drug rings to turn to ever more inventive schemes to try to outwit authorities.” That, in turn, raises the question of whether interdiction can be successful. Rather than deterring many traffickers, the authors write, “Interdiction created a dynamic that encouraged additional production of cocaine, more ingenious smuggling methods and the use of numerous drug routes through different bridge states.”
But the most helpful element of the book for future researchers and policymakers is the detailed country-by-country approach. The authors developed an identical set of categories—factors that lead to countries being “bridge” states, the evolution of drug trafficking and drug trafficking routes and organizations—for all five “bridge” countries, even though each chapter can stand on its own for its description and analysis of the particular dynamics of drug transit.
After analyzing the five country case studies, the authors identify what they call “cardinal factors” driving drug trafficking: arms, poverty, over-matched militaries, weak legal regimes, dismal law enforcement, and ineffective cooperative efforts. These factors, combined with the area’s geographic and economic position as a “bridge” between the major drug producers of Colombia and Peru and the major consuming nation of the U.S., result in a situation where they conclude the most the “bridge” states can do is to minimize the “cardinal factors” favoring drug trafficking to encourage the traffickers to move their business to a neighboring state.
That may sound pessimistic, but it’s hard to disagree with. As the authors point out, the immense profits from drug sales, the geographic and political factors of Central America, the minimal assistance provided by other states and the continuing demand for drugs in the U.S. and Europe have produced a combined challenge that policymakers in these “bridge” countries find hard to address.
Walking away from this challenge, however, is not an option. U.S. assistance remains crucial. Since 2008, beginning with the Mérida Initiative for Mexico and Central America, the U.S. Congress had by mid-2012 appropriated $496.5 million for the seven nations of Central America through Mérida and, later, the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). While there are many problems with CARSI—including lack of coordination, U.S. bureaucratic inertia, and a lack of competent and non-corrupt counterpart organizations in Central America—the scale of the region’s crime challenges would probably overwhelm any single official government-to-government program, no matter how well-intentioned.
“The cardinal fact remains that, although with outside assistance the Central American bridge states have been able to disrupt numerous drug transactions and arrest key members of particular drug-trafficking groups, their actions and resources have not nearly sufficed to reverse the flow of drugs through the region,” the authors conclude.
“These bridge states lack the capacities, their deficiencies are too many, and the scope of the problem is too vast for all the countries in the region simply to ‘push the traffickers out,’ as U.S. officials have sometimes urged.”
It should be noted that the analysis does not include either El Salvador or Nicaragua. Nor does it include the phenomenon of Central American street gangs, known as pandillas, or, the most dangerous, maras—because, as the authors note, their role in drug trafficking is tangential at best. However, the maras are in fact a serious security issue in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. While this does not detract from the book’s value, it’s important to remember that drug trafficking is still only a part of the larger, tragic story of contemporary crime and violence in Central America.