Having grown up in Guatemala, I’ve witnessed my country’s dramatic increase in crime due to the War on Drugs first hand. For most of my life, drug cartels used Guatemala as a natural pitstop for their smuggling routes. Unattended regions in the north provided the perfect space to refuel their vehicles and airplanes before transporting their products to major consumers in the north like the United States. This route had remained the same since the beginning of the Drug War, but recent developments over the past ten years has diverted even more narcotics and violence to my back yard, highlighting the need for reform in Mexico and the US.
In 2006, former Mexican president Felipe Calderón declared the war on cartels by shifting his country's security strategy, dubbed the Mérida Initiative, and established a major partnership with the US Department of State. From 2008 to 2014, Mexico spent $68.3 billion USD on its own security and public safety programs, plus $2.4 billion from the US. As a result, violence became cruder in Mexican territory, displacing some of the drug flows — most notably cocaine and synthetic products — to the northern part of Central America.
Central American armed forces have received $803.6 millions worth of weapons and training from the United States between 2008 and 2011 under the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Some local efforts in Guatemala have also been pursued to capture local gang members. Combined with Plan Mérida, they have rendered an increase in extraditions of medium and high-level drug lords, most notably El Chapo Guzmán last February.
Although small successes have been made, overall these efforts have been in vain. As a result of the crackdown in the north, violence shifted from México to places with even weaker institutions of governance like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. It is here in my backyard where most of today's territorial disputes between cartels are taking place, yet there is barely a growing recognition among political leaders that the US-led efforts to blockade drug traffic is the core of the problem that it sets out to solve.
The US could have seen this coming. During the Clinton administration, the US similarly funnelled $1.2 billion in military aid and training to Columbia for the South American country to fight its drug war. Just like Mexico a decade later, the plan did little to solve the problem but simply shifted violence elsewhere.
A large part of this problem is a difference of objectives. The US is largely focused in capturing drug leaders and seizure illicit drugs, while the affected countries place a bigger emphasis on reducing drug-related crime and violence. While the US is fond of publicizing captures as achievements of a failed policy, one only needs to take another look to see that violence is nowhere near declining.
The Zetas have effectively secured control of most of northern Central American territory over the last eight years. The arrival to Central America of the Cartel de Sinaloa, the Cartel del Golfo, and the Zetas have proven to be a breaking point in the rise of violence over the last decade in the region. This is largely due to the breakdown of a partnership between the Cartel de Sinaloa and the Zetas — which prompted the latter to develop ties to local organizations in underused territories — as well as the external pressure exerted by Plan Mérida.
Over the last few years, narcos have installed themselves in these countries with weak legal institutions like my own Guatemala, utilizing corrupt police forces to gain control. They have also diversified their operations to other, equally profitable outlooks such as arms trade, smuggling migrants and less overtly, financing political campaigns. It is not exaggerating to say that the drug cartels are challenging the monopoly of violence that Central American states should be able to maintain within their territories.
It is remarkable that over the last few months, several American states as well as entire countries like Uruguay have paved the way for different decriminalization schemes, particularly for marijuana. The benefits these experiments promise are to spend less locking up people who are not hurting anyone, increase tax revenue, and, most importantly, end the black market trade of drugs. The latter is the hardest to achieve, given the partial legalization schemes.
Luckily, public opinion is tilting towards lifting the federal-level prohibition in the US as well as reform in other Latin American countries. As promising as these polls may be, legalization of other drugs like cocaine are still a taboo when it comes to discussing reform. While marijuana is a start, it is only one of many drugs Central American cartels smuggle. With this in mind, the US needs to rethink the big influence of its drug policies in Central America. Failing to will not only render it unsuccessful in achieving its objective of ending drug trafficking, but also create countless more innocent victims in other countries. It’s time to end the War on Drugs.