Like other Central American nations, international drug crime is threatening

The Drug Cartels Long March on El Salvador

By —— Bio and Archives--April 20, 2014

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More than two decades after the civil war in El Salvador ended, the nation remains fractured—a situation being worsened by increasing drug cartel presence and influence. In its recent presidential election, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the governing left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) barely defeated Norman Quijano of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (Arena). With more than three million votes cast, the margin of Ceren’s victory was only 6,364 votes, or 51.1 to 49.9 percent.


Despite fraud allegations and a subsequent legal challenge by Quijano, an electoral court upheld the narrow victory for Ceren and the UN monitors certified the election results as valid. There are concerns that El Salvador could become another Venezuela, with American support for Arena over the past decade potentially leading to fresh political instability in light of their close loss in the latest election. The memories of paramilitary groups and death squads are ever-present.

While it has dropped significantly over the past few years, El Salvador’s 2012 homicide rate is still above where it was a decade ago, ranking third behind Honduras and Belize and at a level twice that reported in Mexico. The precipitous drop in the murder rate between 2011 (69.9/100,000 population) and 2012 (41.2) is so abrupt that it will require 2013 data to confirm whether it is a real trend or merely a statistical anomaly. Seventeen percent of homicides are now by gangs or organized criminal groups, up from only just over one percent in 2008. The nation has become known as “El Caminito,” or the little pathway, in reference to its position along the drug cartel pipeline from South to North America.

Money laundering is rampant

While the cartels used to employ speedboats or even submarines to traffic drugs directly from Colombia up to Guatemala and Mexico, improved sea lane patrols have forced much of the cartels to move their product up through overland routes in Central America—and thereby directly through El Salvador. A new American funded highway through the country assists in the land transport. Money laundering is rampant given that the US dollar has been the official currency since 2001, and many of the gangs operating in the nation are derived (via American deportees) from the USA as well, especially Los Angeles. The Zetas, one of Mexico’s primary cartels, is active and has training camps there.

The civil war’s legacy lives on in the drug trade. The Los Perrones used to smuggle Honduran cheese into El Salvador, but have now shifted to drugs with an alliance to the Sinaloa (a.k.a., Pacific) cartel and the Gulf cartel. Other former civil war groups are now being actively trained and deployed by the Mexican cartels for drug trafficking, such as the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the 18th Street gang. MS-13, which has upwards of 30,000 members spread from Central America up into the USA and Canada, was designated a “transnational criminal organisation” in 2012 by the US Treasury. In a bizarre twist, a MS-13 international operative was caught in 2013 running the “It’z a Kid’z World Party Planning and Rental” business—which rents ponies, bouncy castles, and food stands for kids parties—in Palm Beach County, Florida. The Guatemalan trafficker Jorge Mario Paredes-Cordova was also established in El Salvador before his arrest and conviction on drug-related charges.

Government corruption by the cartels is increasing

Government corruption by the cartels is increasing. An officer in the army’s elite special forces was arrested by the DEA near Washington, DC, during November 2010 trying to sell military-grade weaponry for drugs and money. Numerous other government officials have been linked to the cartels. The drug trafficking Texis Cartel in El Salvador includes policemen, soldiers, judges and federal congressmen, as well as other well-known businessmen and politicians. Development funds from the United States Millennium Challenge Corporation program with El Salvador to construct the Northern Longitudinal Highway are also apparently being funneled into the cartel network.

Tackling the cartel problem in Central America will be challenging. The drug cartels command annual revenues in the billions of dollars, which is greater than the individual GDPs of the small nations. While government officials claim that the cartels don’t yet have outright control over regions of El Salvador, others disagree. The Texis Cartel appears to control a large region in the northern half of the nation, and is developing alliances with MS-13. Even after arresting 9,600 drug trafficking suspects between 2008 and 2012 and currently holding 9,000 gang members in prison, as well as the high-profile arrest of Sinaloa cartel member Claudio Reinaldo Corea Mendoza in 2013, the Salvadoran authorities have still not made a sizable dent in the problem. There are an estimated 27,000 gang members on the streets.

Mexican cartels are looking to buy army-grade weaponry in El Salvador

Now the Mexican cartels are looking to buy army-grade weaponry in El Salvador from police and military forces, including assault rifles, anti-tank grenades, rocket propelled grenade launchers, light anti-tank weapons, and shoulder-fired SA-7 anti-aircraft missile launchers, as well as smuggling them in from abroad. Gun buy-back programs are backfiring, since the gangs use the cash obtained for older weapons to just purchase newer, more advanced, systems. The Salvadoran justice system isn’t functioning as a significant deterrent at times, with murder sentences as short as one year being reported.

In early 2012, it was reported that the government and cartel gang proxies had struck a deal to quell the violence. Both sides quickly and vehemently denied the report, but some hypothesize the potential agreement resulted in the substantial homicide rate drop from 2011 to 2012. A more skeptical analysis by the International Assessment and Strategy Center (IASC), a Washington-based think-tank, argues that the reduction in violence “may be nothing more than a smokescreen hiding MS-13’s criminal expansion ... allowing [the cartels and their gangs] to regroup, branch out and form new alliances.” In short, the “truce” may simply be good business and thereby further losses in the war against the cartels masquerading as victories.

El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras “triangle” considered “the most violent non-war zone on the planet.”

The drug cartels have disrupted this region so much that the so-called El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras “triangle” is now considered “the most violent non-war zone on the planet.” Potential linkages exist between senior members of the FMLN party—some who were trained in Russia and Cuba—and local gangs, the FARC from Colombia, Venezuelan Chavistas and their oil interests, as well as the Italian mafia. However, the rise of the cartels also took place under the prior Arena administration. Economic growth has steadily declined since the early 1990s, and is now at one of the lowest levels in Latin America. Poverty is rampant and includes up to half the population, government debt is increasing, and bond agencies are reducing the nation’s credit rating. Since many of the Salvadoran gangs get paid “in-kind” rather than cash by the cartels for moving the product, the local gangs have had to develop a local drug market in order to recover hard revenues. Consequently, drug use rates among El Salvador’s population have become an increasing concern and another indirect effect of the cartel pipeline running through this country.

Along with other Central American countries, El Salvador faces a long battle against the drug cartels. Unfortunately, the prognosis is not promising and the state of hemispheric security is in decline.


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Sierra Rayne -- Bio and Archives | Comments

Sierra Rayne holds a Ph.D. in Chemistry and writes regularly on environment, energy, and national security topics. He can be found on Twitter at @srayne_ca

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