BOGOTA, Colombia — Drug-related violence that has wracked some Latin American countries for decades is now lapping at the U.S. shores of the Rio Grande. In response to a government crackdown, rival Mexican drug cartels that have been engaged in internecine bloody turf wars for years have now ruthlessly turned their guns on Mexican government security forces.
In a daring killing last May, gunmen assassinated Edgar Millán, Mexico’s national police chief—the highest-ranking officer killed so far. Mexican narco-violence has claimed 6,000 lives in the past two and a half years, and reports suggest the drug cartels have successfully infiltrated local government bodies and law enforcement agencies.
Guillermo Valdés, head of the Mexico’s intelligence service, offered a dire warning at a recent press conference: “Drug traffickers have become the principal [national security] threat because they are trying to take over the power of the state.”
All of this has led some U.S. media to wonder aloud whether Mexico is on its way to becoming a “narco-state.” An editorial in the St. Petersburg Times implored U.S. authorities to “ensure a Colombian-style narco-state does not take hold in a country that shares a 2,000-mile border with the United States.”
In Latin America, Mexico has similarly descended to the undesired narco-status of being cited—almost unfailingly—alongside drug-ravaged Colombia as a worst-case scenario. Claims of Mexico’s “Colombianization” have been echoed in reports across Latin America.
The newspaper El País in Cali, Colombia—once home to one of the world’s most powerful cartels—recently compared Mexico’s wave of violence to the “era of Pablo Escobar in Colombia.” Seeking leniency in the courts, the Colombian cocaine capo fought a brutal war of attrition in the 1980s against the government, assassinating several high-profile politicians and terrorizing the public.
While U.S. reports express concern about Mexican narco-violence rearing its head at the doorstep of the United States, media in Latin American countries highlight a different reason for worry: Mexican cartels are already there.
In the late 1990s, Mexican drug organizations, allied with their Colombian associates, began a virus-like spread throughout the region, with evidence of their presence as far south as Argentina. If the Colombian cartels were the pioneers of taking the drug trade global, then it was the Mexicans that have inherited it.
César Restrepo, a narcotrafficking analyst at the Bogotá-based Security and Democracy Foundation, explains that Mexican traffickers gained greater control of the drug trade when the Colombian cartels were being squeezed by U.S.-backed Colombian anti-drug forces. “The business changed hands,” said Restrepo. “It’s as if the corporation came under new management.”
For decades, Restrepo explains, Latin American governments, including Mexico’s, saw the drug trade as an exclusively Colombian problem. “Other Latin American countries did not see narcotrafficking as a security problem,” said Restrepo, “so narcotraffickers adapted and installed themselves in these countries, generating complex systems of violence and criminality.”
Besides Mexico, Restrepo cited Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela as countries where the drug trade has already “exploded.” National media coverage shows similar patterns in all of the Central American countries as well as Peru—two areas where the Mexican cartels have gained a solid foothold.
Another reason for concern among local analysts is that Latin America’s transit and producer countries are becoming rabid consumers of drugs that were once shipped almost entirely to the United States and Europe.
Central American countries have become a prime transshipment point for Colombian cocaine on its way to Mexico and the United States. These poverty-stricken countries face not only the violence associated with the drug trade, but also a corrupting web of criminality that infiltrates all levels of government, according to Restrepo.
In an interview with Guatemala’s El Periodico, the country’s former Foreign Secretary Edgar Gutiérrez was asked if Guatemala should “launch a frontal war” on the Mexican cartels operating there. “A declaration of war by Guatemala against narcotrafficking would be ineffective and suicidal,” Gutiérrez responded. “The cartels have infiltrated a good part of the security forces that would be called in to fight them.”
The Pacific coastline of the Americas has also become a prime drug trafficking corridor, linking Peru, Colombia, Central America and Mexico. A joint investigation by reporters from 11 newspapers from Latin America and the Caribbean found that Mexican cartels have gained control of this shipping route “through alliances with criminal organizations” from several countries.
Once a leading producer of cocaine, Peru has become a target of the transnational drug mafias. Late last year, Peruvian media published a series of alarming reports on a spike in violence between warring drug factions throughout the country. Authorities attributed the killings to Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, widely considered the most savage drug syndicate.
An editorial from Colombia’s leading daily, El Tiempo, took note of the Mexican cartels’ involvement in Peru’s narco-violence: “In Peru, they are alarmed by the presence of money and guns from the north.” The editorial went on to note that Peruvians weren’t calling the wave of violence a “Colombianization,” but rather a “Mexicanization” of the country.
The Universal newspaper from Mexico found similar sentiments in Central America. The Mexican daily reported, “Security and police sources from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama have warned of an accelerated process amounting to the ‘Mexicanization’ of drug trafficking in Central America, particularly along the Pacific coast.”
Argentine media were whipped into a frenzy after a spate of broad daylight hits on Colombian and Mexican nationals—including one at a shopping mall. After the incidents, local news Web site Perfil headlined an article, “Power Struggle Between Mexican Cartels Taking Hold of Argentina.”
The investigative piece linked the killings to the growing role of Argentina as a provider of ephedrine, a stimulant used in over-the-counter medicines as well as a key ingredient for the production of methamphetamine—known on U.S. streets as “crystal meth” or “speed.”
As ephedrine has become increasingly controlled and expensive, Mexican cartels that smuggle meth into the United States have turned to Argentina, where ephedrine is cheap and readily available. Argentine media report that the Mexican cartels have shifted from using Argentina as a source for raw materials to a full-fledged producer country of designer drugs destined for Mexico, the United States and Europe.
Comparisons between Mexico and Colombia by Latin America media have also turned to the U.S. government’s response to each country’s role in the drug trade. Washington has provided the Andean country with $5 billion in military aid since 2000 to fight drug production under “Plan Colombia.” And U.S. Congress recently passed the $1.4 billion “Mérida Initiative,” which critics call “Plan Mexico,” to help Mexican and Central American security forces battle the cartels.
As Latin America’s local drug wars continue at a brutal pace, representatives from 25 Latin American countries met in the colonial Colombian city of Cartagena at the beginning of August to outline a regional anti-drug strategy. At the conclusion of the conference, Colombia’s El Tiempo—generally considered a moderately conservative newspaper—published a scathing editorial, criticizing the conference for repeating “the same tired… Washington-inspired policies.”
“It’s alarming,” continued the editorial, “that in Cartagena there was no mention of the need to re-evaluate a strategy that has cost tens of billions of dollars and countless lives without making a significant dent on drug trafficking. Even worse, the current strategy seems to have fed a business whose profitability is based on illegality.”
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