Opinion

Commentary: Never-ending 'War on Drugs' hits Central America

Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.
Andres Oppenheimer is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

While Mexico’s bloody war against the drug cartels is making headlines worldwide, there is a little-known fact that is sounding alarm bells among U.S. and Latin American officials: Central America’s drug-related violence is far worse than Mexico’s.

Even Costa Rica, a country known as “the Switzerland of Latin America” for being an island of peace and prosperity in its region, is feeling anxious about the rising tide of drug-related murders.

I was surprised to learn during my visit here that crime has suddenly become the No. 1 concern among Costa Ricans. Despite the fact that Costa Rica was proclaimed by a recent global poll as the country with the happiest people on earth —something that almost everyone here reminds visitors with a mixture of pride and self-depreciating humor — there is nervousness in paradise.

The average homicide rate of the five Central American countries is 43 people per 100,000 inhabitants a year, more than twice that of Mexico. Honduras and El Salvador have the highest murder rates in the world, according to a new United Nations Global Study on Homicide.

Last year, the homicide rate in Honduras was of 82 people per 100,000 inhabitants, in El Salvador 66, in Guatemala 41, and in Costa Rica 11. By comparison, the homicide rate in Mexico was of 18, and five in the United States, the U.N. study said.

In an interview at the presidential palace, Costa Rica President Laura Chinchilla made no effort to hide Costa Rica’s worries. While stressing that her country is still an exception when compared with the rest of Central America’s crime rates, she said that homicide rates have doubled in Costa Rica over the past 10 years.

Much of the rise in Costa Rica’s murder rate is due to fights among drug traffickers, she told me. But if what happened in Colombia and Mexico is any indication of what may happen next in Costa Rica, drug traffickers will soon start trying to extort government officials, and murdering those who don’t accept their money, she said.

“Of course I’m concerned,” Chinchilla said. “If I project some of the trends we are seeing in Costa Rica into the future, I can’t help seeing ourselves in the mirror of what has happened in other societies in Central America, and in the rest of Latin America.”

She added, “I’m trying to be ahead of the curve, because this is a problem that once it takes root in society, it creates enormous social traumas and social costs.”

U.S. officials say Costa Rica, like other drug transit countries, has good reasons to be alarmed. Ninety-five percent of all cocaine reaching the United States is currently passing through Central America, they say.

William Brownfield, the U.S. State Department chief of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, says Central America has already surpassed Mexico as the greatest drug-related security threat to the United States. And no country that is used as a transit point can escape an escalation of the drug cartel’s operations, he said.

“History shows us that it’s physically impossible for a country to remain exclusively as a transit point,” Brownfield told me earlier in the week.

Drug transit countries become drug consuming countries for the simple reason that drug traffickers pay their contacts with cocaine or heroin, rather than with cash. And their local contacts later sell these drugs at home, he said.

My opinion: Despite Washington’s claims to the contrary, the drug cartels’ move from Mexico to Central America is evidence that despite some successes, the decades-old U.S. anti-drug strategy is not working.

First, after the U.S.-backed plan Colombia, the drug cartels fled to Mexico. Now, after the U.S.-backed Plan Merida, they are moving into Central America. Next, if there is a serious offensive against them in Central America, they will move into the Caribbean, or somewhere else.

It’s time to start a serious discussion on whether to legalize marijuana, and use the proceeds for education and drug prevention in the United States, Europe, Brazil and other big drug consuming nations, as well as to help drug producing and transit countries fight their most violent cartels.

Otherwise, we’ll be continuing to spend billions of dollars and engaging in bloody wars, only to keep pushing the drug cartels from one place to the next.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at aoppenheimer@miamiherald.com. Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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