Decriminalization and the Impact of Drug Trafficking in Central America

Decriminalization, or legalization, of drugs in Central America is a hot topic in El Salvador and Guatemala right now. Last Friday, Inside Story Americas, an Al-Jazeera news program, ran a program on the effects of drug trafficking on Central America, touching on the pros/cons of decriminalization.

The program was in response to comments made last week by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who said he would be open to decriminalizing drugs in an effort to address Guatemala’s security issues. The comments came after a meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes who also said he is also open to the idea. President Funes stated,

“Our government is open to discussion on any proposal or measure which achieves a reduction in the high levels of consumption in our countries, but particularly (to reduce) the production and trafficking of drugs. As long as the United States does not make any effort to reduce the high levels of (narcotics) consumption, there’s very little we can do in our countries to fight against the cartels, and try to block the production and trade in drugs.”

After returning to El Salvador from his meeting with President Perez Molina, President Funes backtracked a bit, saying that he does not favor decriminalizing drugs.

Saving the discussion about the pros and cons of decriminalization or legalization for another blog post, an interesting point of these recent conversations is the growing emphasis on the failure of the U.S. to curb its demand for drugs. Al Jazeera cited a recent government report that found that 22.6 million Americans used illicit drugs in 2010, nearly 9% of the population. While the number of users dropped from 2.4 million in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

The Inside Story panelists said the heads of state in Central America, and even Mexico and Colombia who have talked about decriminalization, may be discussing decriminalization in order to pressure the U.S. into taking more actions to decrease demand. Experts from around the world agree that the “war on drugs,” as it has been fought over the past 40 years, has failed. Even President Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. needs to address the demand issue, and treat the issue as a public health problem.

U.S. policies have yet to change, though. In 2011, the National Drug Control Strategy had a budget of $15.5 billion, and the expenditures were roughly the same as in previous years. Approximately 1/3 ($5.6 billion) of the federal budget for the war on drugs was allocated for treatment and prevention – an increase of $0.2 billion from the 2010 budget. The remaining $9.9 billion was allocated for law enforcement, interdiction, and international support, the same as previous years.

In addition to the well-documented affects on Mexico and South America, the U.S. demand for illicit drugs produced in South America and trafficked through Central America and Mexico have very real consequences in Salvadoran communities.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now comprise the most violent region in the world. While police officials blame 90% of the murders on local youth gangs, other government agencies, recently demoted police officials, and civil society organizations believe the violence is the result of international organized criminals who are trafficking drugs, guns, people, and laundering money. They estimate that only 10-20% of El Salvador’s murders are attributable to local gangs. The high murder rates have resulted in such insecurity in El Salvador that the U.S. aid program, Partnership for Growth, indentified it as one of the country’s two primary barriers to economic growth.

Traffickers use border communities, coastal villages, and other regions to move shipments from South American producers to North American markets. But they don’t just use these communities quietly – they often take them over, corrupting local government and police officials, making sure that local citizens and law enforcement do not interfere with their activities.

Along the coast, traffickers use small villages, ports and tourist destinations to refuel the small boats they use to transport drug shipments by sea. They also use these villages to transfer shipments that arrive by boat to cars and trucks, which then continue the journey north via land routes. Traffickers use communities along El Salvador’s borders with Honduras and Guatemala to move shipments without interference from border agents.

The cartels control these towns by putting local government and police officials on their payrolls. In turn these officials arrange for locals to move and provide security for shipments, and make sure that law enforcement agencies do not interfere. The local government and police officials maintain a culture of lawlessness that prevents political opposition and limits civil society.

One of the best examples of how traffickers work in El Salvador is the Texis Cartel, which was exposed in a report put together by El Faro in May 2011 and a companion video produced by the Washington Office on Latin America. The Texis Cartel ran a land route that trafficked drugs and other contraband from Honduras through northern El Salvador and on to Guatemala.

While it remains unclear how decriminalization or legalization would affect Central American communities, experts and even President Obama agree that the long-term solution must include a decrease demand in the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have yet to shift their priorities, forcing Central and South American governments to discuss other options. And until the U.S. can kick its cocaine problem, the violence will continue and the cartels will continue to control communities throughout the Americas.

Arrest Warrant Issued for Former ISTA President, ARENA Party Executive

This week El Faro reported that the Attorney General’s office of El Salvador issued an arrest warrant for Miguel Tomás López Iraheta, former president of the Salvadoran Institute for Agrarian Transformation (ISTA), as well as Armando Zepeda Valle and Magdaleno Guzmán, also former presidents of the Institute. Each of the men is charged with abusing their power and dereliction of duty. Authorities believe López is out of the country and forwarded his arrest warrant to Interpol.

ISTA is the state controlled land reform institute that is charged in part with implementing land reforms passed in the 1980s and 1990s. The charges allege that López Iraheta gifted state-controlled land to his political allies, personal security personnel, and even his driver. They also allege that plots of farmland were distributed to ISTA employees, which is a violation of the laws governing ISTA that prohibit the distribution of land to government employees. The prosecuting attorney is also seeking the dismissal of eight other ISTA officials for their roles in signing off on the allegedly illegal gifts.

Karla Albanez took over ISTA in 2009 when the current administration of President Mauricio Funes took office. When she took over ISTA she uncovered documents that recorded the distribution of Grade 1 and Grade 2 lands to employees of ISTA, as well as the Presidential House and the Ministry of the Interior during the Administration of President Tony Saca.

Albanez recently commented that “the ISTA law is very clear: the lands distributed by ISTA are for campesinos without land, not for public employees, and the Court of Auditors has made that clear to directors of ISTA.” She also states her belief that both López Iraheta and Magdaleno Guzmán appear to have violated this law. The documentation her office provided to the Attorney General’s office contains sufficient evidence to establish that there was indeed corruption and dereliction of duty. She specifically cites the existence of a list of ARENA party members and activists who were given land by ISTA, noting also that López Iraheta was a member of the National Executive Council of ARENA.

Almost exactly four years before the arrest warrant was issued, López Iraheta resigned from ISTA to dedicate himself fulltime to party activities. He was also accused at the time of authorizing the distribution of part of the La Hoya and Tehuacán-Léon de Piedra nature preserves in the province of San Vincinte as a favor to his unlce Luis Rolando López Fortiz and other ARENA party members.

This case comes less than two months after Salvadoran police arrested former Minister of Health José Guillermo Maza Brizuela on corruption charges stemming from the reconstruction of hospitals in El Salvador.  While these arrests are important first steps, the Attorney General has a lot of hard work ahead of them in prosecuting these cases and securing convictions. Government prosecutors do not have a good track record when it comes to tough political cases, and the arrest of former Presidents of ISTA and the former Minister of Health are as about as political as they come.

Developments in U.S.–Salvadoran Relations

On September 29, 2010, President Funes traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  This was President Funes’ second official visit to D.C.; in March he met with President Obama to discuss multilateral projects, security issues in the region, improving El Salvador’s tax collection system, and how the U.S. could serve as a strategic partner in combating drug trafficking and organized crime (click here for the official White House remarks following the March 2010 meeting).

During the meeting, Secretary Clinton vaguely alluded to enhancing security agreements and encouraging economic growth.  She also highlighted important steps taken to address the issue of financial inclusion, a topic addressed in President Funes’ March meeting with President Obama, namely that of the newly launched Building Remittance Investment for Development, Growth and Entrepreneurship (BRIDGE) initiative.  BRIDGE is an initiative designed to redirect remittances through formal financial channels so banks can leverage remittance flows to benefit society at large.  Secretary Clinton extolled the value of BRIDGE, stating at a September 22 luncheon, “BRIDGE will make it easier for communities in El Salvador and Honduras to get the financing they need to build roads and bridges, for example, to support entrepreneurs, to make loans, to bring more people into the financial system” (click here for full remarks).

Funes reiterated his goals to work with the U.S. to create task forces to combat organized crime and poverty in the region.  While neither leader elaborated on the specifics of said task forces, there already exists a degree of collaborative effort between the two countries.  In 2007, the FBI opened a Legal Attaché office based in San Salvador, headed by Special Agent Leo Navarette, which “[helps] apprehend and extradite gang fugitives; [provides] criminal histories and arrest warrant information on gang associates; and [locates] witnesses to testify at U.S. trials.”  It also works with in-country initiatives to help law enforcement and prosecutors crack down on gangs; including programs like the Central American Fingerprint Exploitation (or CAFÉ), the Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Unit, and the Police Officer Exchange Program (FBI press release, 7/03/08).  The FBI and US State Department also worked together to form the Central American Intelligence Program (CAIP), launched in 2009, which focuses on the intelligence aspect of battling transnational gangs (FBI press release, 8/11/09).

President Funes also thanked the Administration for renewing El Salvador’s Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for another 18 months, until March 9, 2012.  Currently some 200,000 Salvadorans live and work in the U.S. under the TPS designation, which was enacted on March 9, 2001.  A foreign country can be designated for TPS “due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).  Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano approved the 18-month extension “because the conditions that prompted the 2001 TPS designation of El Salvador following a series of severe earthquakes persist and temporarily prevent El Salvador from adequately handling the return of its nationals” (18-Month Extension of Temporary Protected Status for El Salvador).

Earlier in September at the Americas Conference held in Miami, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela said the U.S. continues to focus on four policy priorities in Latin America:  social and economic opportunity, clean energy, safety and democracy (The Miami Herald, 9/14/10).  So far the Obama administration has consistently voiced these regional goals in meetings with high-level officials and seems to have actively taken steps towards realizing them.

To read the full State Department remarks with Secretary Clinton and President Funes, click here.