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Free Trade, Drug Trade Fall-out

Violence Sweeps Central America

by PAUL IMISON

Mexico City

While Mexico grabs the headlines of soaring murder rates and rampaging drug gangs, the really heavy bloodshed is taking place to the south. The much smaller nations of Guatemala and El Salvador are seeing their worst violence since the civil wars of the 1980s, while Honduras is currently the murder capital of the world with 86 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants; a murder rate nearly five times higher than Mexico’s.

Even relatively peaceful Costa Rica, which boasts the highest standard of living in Central America, has seen its murder rate double since 2004 in a wave of violence that authorities largely attribute to drug-trafficking. As a result, Washington is encouraging its mostly right-wing allies in the region to pursue the same policies of militarization that have devastated Colombia and Mexico.

Central America was originally included in the Merida Initiative security package signed by the Bush administration in 2008, which pledged $1.6 billion of funds to the region over two years; the vast majority of which went to Mexico. Since 2010, aid to the region has been cranked up under the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), an offshoot of the System for Central American Integration (SICA).

As in Mexico, most of the aid goes straight back to the US to provide equipment and training for the region’s military and police forces. Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced a budget of $1 billion for CARSI, including a US contribution of $300 million. The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) will stump up much of the remainder in loans.

It’s a profitable business, of course. One of Latin America’s most right-wing figures, ex-Colombian president Alvaro Uribe, is currently touring Central America on behalf of Virginia-based security firm Continental Security & Interactive Solutions (CIS). Uribe, who continues to reward Washington for its uncritical support of his harsh regime, is promoting the use of Blackwater-style private security companies to fight crime.

The US and Colombia will jointly train Central American police units at a new base in Panama – where the infamous School of the Americas was once located. The stated goal of the as-yet-unnamed academy is to train the region’s police forces in border patrol, anti-narcotics operations and “combating undocumented persons”.

CARSI naturally comes wrapped in lofty rhetoric about “citizen security” and “strong, capable and accountable governments”. But Central America is a region wracked by poverty, made worse by the recent liberalization of its economies towards NAFTA-style “free trade”. Twenty years after the bloody conflicts of the Cold War era, civil resistance is still met with violence by the same military, police and private security forces that the Obama administration wants to bolster.

“Drug War” Revamped

The recent upsurge in violence in Central America undoubtedly has links to the illegal drug trade. According to Washington, 84 per cent of the known cocaine trafficked from South America to the US now passes along the Central American corridor, up from just 23 per cent in 2006.  Last May, the massacre and beheading of 27 people on a farm in Peten, Guatemala, was linked to Mexican drug gang the Zetas, which has carried out similar atrocities at home.

By now, it’s well-documented that the “drug wars” in Mexico and Colombia have been utter failures both in terms of defeating the trade and making those countries more secure. Mexico has seen at least 50,000 gang-related murders since President Felipe Calderon militarized the war on drugs in 2006. Aided by a political culture of corruption and impunity, the gangs themselves have become militarized and the flow of drugs continues unabated.

As such, the crackdown on organized crime has deeper roots in US policy on Latin America. While Washington has lost much of its influence in South America over the past decade thanks to a wave of progressive, independent governments, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean nations (minus Cuba) are locked into lucrative free trade agreements worth billions to US investors.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was implemented across most of the region in 2006 (Panama signed a separate free trade deal with the US last year). A spin-off of the NAFTA model, which has left Mexican agriculture in ruins through subsidized imports, CAFTA was, in many ways, a consolation prize for Washington after a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas was blocked by left-leaning countries in 2003. As with NAFTA, widespread protests and political opposition to CAFTA are scarcely reported in the US mainstream.

It’s no coincidence that a meeting of representatives from Mexico, Colombia and Central America to discuss regional integration took place just days before the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) in Venezuela; a new regional bloc that seeks to counterbalance US dominance in the hemisphere.

There have been numerous studies linking neoliberal policies like NAFTA and CAFTA to the growth of the illegal drug trade, from Mexican farmers turning to marijuana crops in the face of US competition to redundant Costa Rican fishing trawlers left with little choice but to smuggle cocaine.

The same policies have also led to widespread displacement of people in rural areas at the mercy of major mining, energy and agro-industrial corporations. In Mexico, Colombia and Central America, social and labor organizations demanding a say in the matter have fallen victim to violent attacks by security forces, paramilitaries and criminal gangs.

“Our Bastards” 

Honduras is currently the clearest case of “strong, accountable” Central American governments carrying out violent repression of their citizens. The country has seen a brutal crackdown by security forces since President Manuel Zelaya was deposed in a coup d’etat supported by the Obama administration in June 2009. After US-backed Porfirio Lobo assumed the presidency in 2010, human rights abuses escalated sharply as the Right sought to purge dissent.

Along with its stratospheric homicide rate, Honduras has been billed as the most dangerous country in the world for journalists by Reporters Without Borders and seen some 120 political, social and labor activists murdered in the last two years. To the astonishment of human rights defenders, Washington has repeatedly praised Lobo’s government for its “democratic governance” and “commitment to reconciliation”.

As in the Cold War era, the removal of Manuel Zelaya by Honduran elites was entirely a result of policies that clashed with the interests of big landowners and US investors. Aside from proposing a referendum to rewrite the constitution (portrayed by the Right as an attempt to cling onto power indefinitely), Zelaya’s government wanted to raise the minimum wage, redistribute land in a region dominated by the lucrative palm-oil business, and opposed mass privatization of its public utilities.

The pattern can be seen throughout the region. Guatemala’s new president, Otto Perez Molina, has immediately called for the military to assume police powers, claiming police forces around the country have been infiltrated by drug gangs like the Zetas. A former general and graduate of the School of the Americas, Perez Molina played a prominent role in the violent repression and torture of citizens in the 1980s as the country’s bloody Civil War was reaching its zenith.

Outgoing president Alvaro Colom went so far as to claim that the Zetas control “seven or eight provinces [or] 35-40 per cent of our territory.” Following the Peten massacre last spring, however, Mexico’s Secretariat of Public Security cited links between the organization and former and current members of the Kaibiles, Guatemala’s US-trained Special Forces. It should come as no surprise given that the Zetas were founded by mercenaries from Mexico’s own Special Forces unit.

Perez Molina and other figures poised to join his cabinet have also been instrumental in hampering the progress of the UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), formed to combat corruption and finally bring human rights abusers of the Civil War period to justice. The new president has unbelievably claimed that no massacres, human rights violations or genocide took place during the thirty-year conflict, which left 200,000 Guatemalans dead or disappeared.

In El Salvador, Washington refused to release CARSI funds to the country until President Mauricio Funes found himself a new security minister. The outgoing Manuel Melgar is a former commander of the FMLN, the guerrilla group-turned-political party which led the nation’s struggle against dictatorship during its own civil war. Washington preferred another former general, David Munguia Payes, for the role; the first military officer appointed to a senior civilian position since the country’s 1992 peace accords.

The US appears intent on restoring to power the same military figures that carried out widely-documented atrocities in Central America during the Cold War. This time the excuse is not Soviet expansion but drug-trafficking, yet the real enemy remains the same – independent, social democratic governments that want to put the needs of their citizens ahead of the interests of foreign investors.

The “Drug War” policy does not hold when one looks at the disaster wrought on Mexico since troops were sent onto the streets in 2006. But it’s been highly profitable for the US defense industry as well as reconsolidating Washington’s influence in what it has always considered to be its “backyard”.

Paul Imison lives in Mexico City. He can be reached at paulimison@hotmail.com