Despite rise of Mexican cartels, Colombian traffickers still strong in Central America

Although much has been made of Mexican cartels' spread into Central America, they have not supplanted Colombia-based drug traffickers, who are still highly active in the region.

By , Guest blogger

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    An alleged drug trafficker steps out from a bus to be escorted to a media presentation at a police station in Bogota, Colombia, on Nov. 21, 2011. Despite the increasing influence of Mexican cartels in Central America, Colombian drug traffickers are still highly active in the region.
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The prevailing wisdom on the hemispheric drug trade is that Colombian traffickers have been eclipsed in Central America by the rise of their Mexican counterparts, but Colombian groups remain a significant force in the region.

In recent years many analysts have emphasized the fact that Mexican cartels are increasing their influence in Central America, edging Colombian drug trafficking groups out of the isthmus. The influence of the Zetas has been especially well documented, with the Mexican drug gang dominating the region’s headlines.

After the group massacred 27 farm workers in the Peten region in May, officials in El Salvador announced that the Mexican cartel had links to local traffickers, and Nicaraguan police declared in October that the Zetas were attempting to recruit members of the country’s security forces. But while the Zetas have been the most visible actors in what Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom has called an “invasion” of Mexican drug gangs, the phenomenon is not limited to the group. The Sinaloa, Tijuana, and Gulf cartels are also known to be deepening their ties in the region, although their incursion has attracted less attention.

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Still, while it is true these organizations are spreading their tentacles into Central America, this trend tends to be exaggerated by analysts and the media alike. Colombia-based groups remain highly active in the region, using it as a base for drug shipments and money-laundering schemes. Just last week, Colombian authorities announced that they had broken up a laundering ring associated with Daniel Barrera Barrera, alias "El Loco," which had established several front companies in Honduras.

According to police, the 14 individuals arrested were part of a scheme to use Colombian mining companies as cover for payments to the Popular Revolutionary Anti-Terrorist Army of Colombia (ERPAC). The money came from profits from sending massive drug shipments from Honduras to the US. The incident fits with the March discovery of a cocaine hydrochloride (HCl) processing lab in the Central American country, which also likely belonged to Barrera’s organization.

The high-profile Maximiliano Bonilla Orozco, alias "Valenciano," who was one of Colombia's most powerful drug traffickers up until his November 27 arrest, is also known to have stretched his influence into Central America. Before officials located him in the northern Venezuelan city of Maracay, it is suspected that he hid out in Panama, among other Central American nations.

Other Colombia-based drug trafficking groups also operate in the region. InSight Crime has spoken with Colombian anti-narcotics officials about the extent of their reach into Central America, and compiled a map based on this information. As illustrated, the main actors are Barrera, the Rastrojos Comba brothers, and elements of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The red placemarks indicate areas where Colombian authorities claim the FARC sell cocaine base, whereas the yellow markers are transfer points used by either the Rastrojos or Barrera, who frequently coordinate their efforts. The blue marker in Panama shows where authorities placed alias "Valenciano" in 2010.

The exclamation point markings in Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic indicate areas where officials have uncovered cocaine processing labs. These are another potential sign of Colombian influence in the region, as they suggest that the increased pressure on traffickers in the South American country has caused them to move their raw material north.

--- Geoffrey Ramsey is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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