Mexico's drug war seeps southward, too
From Guatemala to Panama, Central America is becoming a battleground for Mexican cartels.
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Mexican cartels are now heading into the area to recruit, cut deals, and look for new distribution points, according to Panamanian and US officials. And Panama is not alone.
As Mexico's increasingly brutal drug war captures the world's attention, violence from that country's clashing drug cartels is seeping south, putting the whole of Central America at risk, officials say. At the same time, the region's role in land shipments of cocaine has grown as countries have clamped down on air and sea routes.
"Mexico is increasingly looking for routes into Central America," says Edwin Guardia, a top official at the drug prosecutor's office of Panama. "We need to put the brakes on the trafficking so that Panama remains a safe place – and so that we don't become like Colombia was 20 years ago and like what Mexico is experiencing today."
Mexican President Felipe Calderón has sent tens of thousands of security forces across Mexico to wrestle back control of swaths of the country marred by shootouts, beheadings, and death threats. The immediate result has been more violence, with the number of murders reaching more than 6,200 last year. Mexican officials tout this as a sign of success: Groups are splintering under pressure and fighting one another, they say.
Another result, they say, has been the southward reach of cartels as they are forced to diversify into less-risky areas – from relocating marijuana-producing operations to Guatemala to holding negotiations in Panama.
With its proximity to Mexico, Guatemala is bearing the brunt of the pressure, as major drug-trafficking organizations compete for routes into Mexico. There, large firefights have broken out and whole regions of the country are controlled by organized crime. Mark Schneider, senior vice president of International Crisis Group in Washington, who recently carried out a fact-finding trip to Guatemala, says that Mexico's Gulf cartel has moved into territory once dominated by the Sinaloa cartel. "What you have is the same kind of turf battle you are having at the northern border of Mexico," he says.
But their presence reaches all the way down Central America's spine – from Honduras to Panama.
In Panama, the number of Mexicans arrested in drug-related violence shot up by 56 percent between 2007 and 2008, according to the drug prosecutor's office.
Drug traffic through Central America 'ballooned'