Anarco, Lawlessness and Narcotics in Central America
Written by Brecken Denler
ANarco, Lawlessness and Narcotics in Central America
Since the 1980s organized crime groups have taken new form in Mexico and Central America. Under a brokered relationship with Pablo Escobar—the Columbian king of 1980s drug trade—a number of cartels, or non-competing organizations formed.[i] These groups, functioned successfully and without major conflict until in 2006 the government of Felipe Calderón started a new military and police campaign to bring an end to the drug trade and associated violence.[ii] The United States has provided funding and training since the beginning of these efforts in an attempt to reduce domestic supply of illegal drugs.[iii]
Cartels in Mexico have become hardened and violent since the Mexican government increased enforcement efforts in 2006. Since then, the balance of power has shifted from a large number of local cartels to more unified and vicious groups. These gangs’ focus is on profiting in the trafficking of drugs and people across Mexico and the U.S. border.[iv] Recent years have seen violence and corruption increase as many cartels are committed to killing any politician who stands in their way. 2017 was the most violent year on record and that violence has steadily increased.
The United States has invested billions of dollars in Mexican anti-cartel efforts. Unfortunately, due to the demand both for trafficking of people and drugs across the border the cartels continue to gain strength.[v] Despite U.S. efforts to reduce that demand, it mostly remains stable—Americans spent $109 billion on drugs in 2010, roughly the same amount as ten years prior.[vi]
President Trump and the current administration have made mention of one organized crime group more than any other. “MS-13” or the Mara Salvatrucha is a group that is widely operative in Central America and based in El Salvador.[vii] This gang began as a group of Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and has since spread to terrorize a large portion of Central America.[viii] The gang’s structure and philosophy is nebulous, allowing for smaller groups in both the United States and Central America to align themselves to its shifting command structure.[ix] Characterized by violent attacks and initiation rituals, the MS-13 tend to prey on young people from immigrant communities in the U.S., and those living in poverty in Central America.
The U.S. government has long supported local governments in their attempts to control these groups. Domestically, law enforcement under the current administration is widely focused on immigration policy and preventing new gang members from arriving.[x] The gang remains relatively small in the United States, though its power is growing in Central America. It remains a difficult call if we should accredit this limited growth domestically to the efforts of law enforcement.
The war on drugs continues as cartel and gang activity rages in Mexico and Central America. After decades of efforts only one thing is clear, if the United States wants to see change, it must change its own efforts first.
[i] Davis, Kristina. 2016. “A Short History of Mexican Drug Cartels.” Sandiegouniontribune.com. San Diego Union Tribune. October 22. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/border-baja-california/sd-me-prop64-sidebar-20161017-story.html.
[ii] Lee, Brianna, and Danielle Renwick. 2017. “Mexico’s Drug War.” Council on Foreign Relations. Council on Foreign Relations. May 25. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/mexicos-drug-war.
[iii] Tucker, Duncan. 2018. “Mexico’s Most-Wanted: A Guide to the Drug Cartels.” BBC News. BBC. March 27. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-40480405.
[iv] Davis, Kristina. 2016. “A Short History of Mexican Drug Cartels.” Sandiegouniontribune.com. San Diego Union Tribune. October 22. http://www.sandiegouniontribune.com/news/border-baja-california/sd-me-prop64-sidebar-20161017-story.html.
[v] Coyne, Christopher J., Abigail R. Hall, and MOBI. 2017. “Four Decades and Counting: The Continued Failure of the War on Drugs.” Cato Institute. April 12. https://www.cato.org/publications/policy-analysis/four-decades-counting-continued-failure-war-drugs?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI053K7JqB3gIVxEoNCh1J9wIrEAMYAiAAEgIH9vD_BwE.
[vi] Woody, Christopher. 2016. “NARCONOMICS: ‘The Real Drugs Millionaires Are Right Here in the United States’.” Business Insider. Business Insider. March 16. https://www.businessinsider.com/where-drug-money-goes-2016-3.
[vii] “MS-13 Gang: The Story behind One of the World’s Most Brutal Street Gangs.” 2017. BBC News. BBC. April 19. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-39645640.
[viii] Gershon, Liva. 2018. “What Is MS-13, Anyway?” Jstor Daily. July 25. https://daily.jstor.org/what-is-ms-13-anyway/.
[ix] “MS13 In the Americas.” 2018. United States Justice Department. Accessed October 12. https://www.justice.gov/eoir/page/file/1043576/download.
[x] Finklea, Kristin. 2018. “MS-13 in the United States and Federal Law Enforcement Efforts.” Congressional Research Service. August 20. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/homesec/R45292.pdf.