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The Mexican Drug Cartel Threat in Central America

Released on 2012-10-12 10:00 GMT

Email-ID 51396
Date 2011-11-17 11:02:21
From [email protected]
To [email protected]
List-Name [email protected]
Stratfor logo
The Mexican Drug Cartel Threat in Central America

November 17, 2011

Readers Comment on STRATFOR Reports

By Karen Hooper

Guatemalan President-elect Otto Perez Molina told Mexican newspaper El
Universal on Nov. 9 that he plans to engage drug cartels in a "full
frontal assault" when he takes office in 2012. The former general said
he will use Guatemala's elite military forces, known as Los Kaibiles, to
take on the drug cartels in a strategy similar to that of the Mexican
government; he has asked for U.S. assistance in this struggle.

The statements signal a shifting political landscape in already violent
Central America. The region is experiencing increasing levels of crime
and the prospect of heightened competition from Mexican drug cartels in
its territory. The institutional weakness and security vulnerabilities
of Guatemala and other Central American states mean that combating these
trends will require significant help, most likely from the United

From Sideshow to Center Stage

Central America has seen a remarkable rise in its importance as a
transshipment point for cocaine and other contraband bound for the
United States. Meanwhile, Mexican organized crime has expanded its
activities in Mexico and Central America to include the smuggling of
humans and substances such as precursor chemicals used for manufacturing
methamphetamine. Substantial evidence also suggests that Central
American, and particularly Guatemalan, military armaments including M60
machine guns and 40 mm grenades have wound up being used in Mexico's
drug conflict.

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Colombian cartels transited directly to
Miami. After U.S. military aerial and radar surveillance in the
Caribbean effectively shut down those routes, Mexico became the last
stop on the drug supply chain before the United States, greatly
empowering Mexico's cartels. A subsequent Mexican government crackdown
put pressure on Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) to
diversify their transit routes to avoid increased enforcement at
Mexico's airstrips and ports. Central America consequently has become an
increasingly significant middleman for South American suppliers and
Mexican buyers of contraband.

The methods and routes for moving illicit goods through Central America
are diverse and constantly in flux. There is no direct land connection
between the coca-growing countries of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. A
region of swampy jungle terrain along the Panamanian-Colombian known as
the Darien Gap has made road construction prohibitively expensive and
thus barred all but the most intrepid of overland travelers. Instead,
aircraft or watercraft must be used to transport South American goods
north, which can then be offloaded in Central America and driven north
into Mexico. Once past the Darien Gap, the Pan American Highway becomes
a critical transportation corridor. Honduras, for example, reportedly
has become a major destination for planes from Venezuela laden with
cocaine. Once offloaded, the cocaine is moved across the loosely guarded
Honduran-Guatemalan border and then moved through Guatemala to Mexico,
often through the largely unpopulated Peten department.

Though precise measurements of the black market are notoriously
difficult to obtain, these shifts in Central America have been
well-documented - and the impact on the region has been stark. While
drug trafficking occurs in all Central American countries to some
extent, most violence associated with the trade occurs in the
historically tumultuous "Northern Triangle" of Guatemala, El Salvador
and Honduras. No longer receiving the global attention they did when the
United States became involved in their Cold War-era civil wars, these
countries remain poverty stricken, plagued by local gangs and highly

The violence has worsened as the drug traffic has increased. El Salvador
saw its homicide rate increase by 6 percent to 66 per 100,000
inhabitants between 2005 and 2010. At the same time, Guatemala's
homicide rate increased 13 percent, to 50 per 100,000 inhabitants.
Meanwhile Honduras saw a rise of 108 percent, to 77 per 100,000
inhabitants. These are some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

In comparison, the drug war in Mexico caused murder rates to spike 64
percent, from 11 to 18 deaths per 100,000 between 2005 and 2010.
Conservative estimates put the number of dead from gang and military
violence in Mexico at 50,000. These numbers are slightly misleading, as
Mexican violence is concentrated in scattered pockets where most drug
trafficking and competition among drug traffickers occurs. Even so, they
demonstrate the disproportionate impact organized criminal groups have
had on the societies of the three Northern Triangle countries.

Guatemala's Outsized Role

Increased involvement by Mexican cartels in Central America inevitably
has affected the region's politico-economic structures, a process most
visible in Guatemala. Its territory spans Central America, making it one
of several choke points on the supply chain of illicit goods coming
north from El Salvador and Honduras bound for Mexico.

Guatemala has a complex and competitive set of criminal organizations,
many of which are organized around tight-knit family units. These family
organizations have included the politically and economically powerful
Lorenzana and Mendoza families. First rising to prominence in trade and
agriculture, these families control significant businesses in Guatemala
and transportation routes for shipping both legal and illicit goods.
Though notorious, these families are far from alone in Guatemala's
criminal organizations. Major drug traffickers like the well-known Mario
Ponce and Walther Overdick also have strong criminal enterprises, with
Ponce reportedly managing his operations from a Honduran jail.

The relationship of these criminal organizations to Mexican drug cartels
is murky at best. The Sinaloa and Los Zetas cartels are both known to
have relationships with Guatemalan organized criminal groups, but the
lines of communication and their exact agreements are unclear.

Less murky, however, is that Los Zetas are willing to use the same
levels of violence in Guatemala to coerce loyalty as they have used in
Mexico. Though both Sinaloa and Los Zetas still need Guatemalan groups
to access high-level Guatemalan political connections, Los Zetas have
taken a particularly aggressive tack in seeking direct control over more
territory in Guatemala.

Overdick facilitated Los Zetas' entry into Guatemala in 2007. The first
indication of serious Los Zetas involvement in Guatemala occurred in
March 2008 when Leon crime family boss Juan Leon Ardon, alias "El
Juancho," his brother Hector Enrique Leon Chacon and nine associates all
died in a gunbattle with Los Zetas, who at the time still worked for the
Gulf cartel. The fight severely reduced the influence of the Leon crime
family, primarily benefiting Overdick's organization. The Zetas most
flagrant use of force occurred in the May 2011 massacre and mutilation
of 27 peasants in northern Guatemala intended as a message to a local
drug dealer allegedly tied to the Leon family; the Zetas also killed and
mutilated that drug dealer's niece.

MS-13 and Calle 18

In addition to ramping up relationships with powerful political,
criminal and economic players, Sinaloa and Los Zetas have established
relationships with Central American street gangs. The two biggest gangs
in the region are Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Calle 18. The two groups
are loosely organized around local cliques; the Mexican cartels have
relationships at varying levels of closeness with different cliques. The
U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that there are 36,000 gang
members in Honduras, 14,000 in Guatemala and 10,500 in El Salvador.

They were formed by Los Angeles gang members of Central American origin
whose parents had immigrated to the United States to escape the region's
civil wars. After being arrested in the United States, these gang
members were deported to Central America. In some cases, the deportees
spoke no Spanish and had no significant ties to their ancestral
homeland, encouraging them to cluster together and make use of the
skills learned on the streets of Los Angeles to make a living in Central
America via organized crime.

The gangs have multiplied and migrated within the region. Many have also
returned to the United States: U.S. authorities estimate that MS-13 and
Calle 18 have a presence in as many as 42 states. Though the gangs are
truly transnational, their emphasis is on controlling localized urban
turfs. They effectively control large portions of Guatemala City,
Guatemala; Tegucigalpa, Honduras; and San Salvador, El Salvador.
Competition within and among these gangs is responsible for a great deal
of the violence in these three countries.

In a March statement, Salvadoran Defense Minister David Munguia Payes
said his government had evidence that both Sinaloa and Los Zetas are
active in El Salvador, but that he believes MS-13 and Calle 18 are too
anarchic and violent for the Mexican cartels to rely on heavily.
According to Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla, Mexican cartels
primarily hire members of these gangs as assassins. The gangs are paid
in drugs, which they sell on the local drug market.

Though limited in their ties to the Mexican cartels, the prevalence of
MS-13 and Calle 18 in the Northern Triangle states and their extreme
violence makes them a force to be reckoned with, for both the cartels
and Central American governments. If Central American street gangs are
able to better organize themselves internally, this could result in
closer collaboration, or alternately serious confrontations with the
Mexican cartels. In either case, the implications for stability in
Central America are enormous.

The U.S. Role

The United States has long played an important, complex role in Latin
America. In the early 20th century, U.S. policy in the Western
Hemisphere was characterized by the extension of U.S. economic and
military control over the region. With tactics ranging from outright
military domination to facilitating competition between subregional
powers Guatemala and Nicaragua to ensuring the dominance of the United
Fruit Company in Central American politics and business, the United
States used the first several decades of the century to ensure that
Central America - and by extension the Caribbean - was under its
control. After World War II, Central America became a proxy battleground
between the United States and the Soviet Union.

On a strategic level, Central America is far enough away from the United
States (thanks to being buffered by Mexico) and made up of small enough
countries that it does not pose a direct threat to the United States.
U.S. interest in the region did not end after the Cold War, however, as
it is critically important to the United States that a foreign global
competitor never control Central America or the Caribbean.

The majority of money spent combating drug trafficking from South
America to the United States over the past decade has been spent in
Colombia on monitoring air and naval traffic in the Caribbean and off
the Pacific coasts, though the U.S. focus has now shifted to Mexico.
Central America, by contrast, has languished since the Reagan years,
when the United States allocated more than $1 billion per year to
Central America. Now, the region has been allocated a total of $361.5
million for fiscal years 2008-2011 in security, economic and development
aid through the Merida Initiative and the Central America Regional
Security Initiative (CARSI). The Obama administration has requested
another $100 million for CARSI. Of this allocated funding, however, only
18 percent has been dispersed due to failures in institutional
cooperation and efficiency.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has facilitated most
U.S.-Central American security cooperation. The DEA operates teams in
the Northern Triangle that participate in limited counternarcotic
operations. They are also tasked with both vetting and training local
law enforcement, a particularly tricky - and most likely doomed - task.
As the failure of Guatemala's highly vetted and lauded Department of
Anti-Narcotics Operations shows, preventing local law enforcement from
succumbing to the bribes and threats from wealthy and violent DTOs is a
difficult, if not impossible, task.

The DEA's limited resources include five Foreign-deployed Advisory and
Support Teams worldwide. These are the agency's elite operational teams
that are equipped to train foreign law enforcement and military
personnel and to conduct support operations. Originally established to
operate in Afghanistan exclusively, the teams have been deployed to
several countries in Central America, including Guatemala and Honduras.
These teams are designed to be flexible, however, and do not represent
the kind of long-term commitment that would likely be necessary to
stabilize the region.

Central America's Challenge

Central America has no short-term escape from being at the geographical
center of the drug trade and from the associated violence. Unless and
until technologies shift to allow drugs to flow directly from producer
to consumer via ocean or air transport, it appears likely that Central
America will only become more important to the drug trade. While the
drug trade brings huge amounts of cash (admittedly on the black market)
into exceedingly capital-poor countries, it also brings extreme

The billions of dollars drugs command create an insurmountable challenge
for the regional counternarcotic campaigns. The U.S. "war on drugs" pits
the Guatemalan elite's political and financial interests against their
need to retain a positive relationship with the United States, which
views the elites as colluding with drug organizations to facilitate the
free passage of drugs and key figures in the drug trade.

For the leaders of Central America, foreign cartel interference in
domestic arrangements and increasing violence is the real threat to
their power. It is not the black market that alarms a leader like Perez
Molina enough to call for greater involvement by the United States: It
is the threat posed by the infiltration of Mexico's most violent drug
cartel into Guatemala, and the threat posed to all three countries by
further Central American drug gang destabilization, which could lead to
even more violence.

Looking Forward

The United States is heavily preoccupied with crises of varying degrees
of importance around the world and the significant budget-tightening
under way in Congress. This makes a major reallocation of resources to
Guatemala or its Central American neighbors for the fight against
Mexican drug cartels unlikely in the short term. Even so, key reasons
for paying close attention to this issue remain.

First, the situation could destabilize rapidly if Perez Molina is
sincere about confronting Mexican DTOs in Guatemala. Los Zetas have
proved willing to apply their signature brutality against civilians and
rivals alike in Guatemala. While the Guatemalans would be operating on
their own territory and have their own significant power bases, they are
neither technologically advanced nor wealthy nor unified enough to
tackle the challenge posed by heavily armed, well-funded Zetas. At the
very least, such a confrontation would ignite extremely destabilizing
violence. This violence could extend beyond the Northern Triangle into
more stable Central American countries, not to mention the possibility
that violence spreading north could open up a new front in Mexico's
cartel war.

Second, the United States and Mexico already are stretched thin trying
to control their shared 2,000-mile land border. U.S. counternarcotic
activities in Mexico are limited by Mexican sovereignty concerns. For
example, carrying weapons and operating independent of Mexican
supervision is not allowed. This hampers the interdiction efforts of
U.S. agencies like the DEA. The efforts also are hampered by the United
States' unwillingness to share intelligence for fear that corrupt
Mexican officials would leak it.

Perez Molina's invitation for increased U.S. participation in Guatemalan
counternarcotic operations presents a possibility for U.S. involvement
in a country that, like Mexico, straddles the continent. The Guatemalan
choke point has a much shorter border with Mexico - about 600 miles - in
need of control, and is far enough north in Central America to prevent
insertion of drug traffickers into the supply chain between the blocking
force and Mexico. While the United States would not be able to stop the
illicit flow of cocaine and people north, it could make it significantly
more difficult. And although significantly reducing traffic at the
Guatemalan border would not stop the flow of the drugs to the United
States, it would radically decrease the value of Central America as a
trafficking corridor.

Accomplishing this would require a much more significant U.S. commitment
to the drug war, and any such direct involvement would be costly both in
money and political capital. Absent significant U.S. help, the current
trend of increased Mexican cartel influence and violence in Central
America will only worsen.

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