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The War Closer to Home

9:15 AM, Oct 22, 2012 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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“Mexico is rapidly becoming as important to the U.S. economy as China,” writes Financial Times columnist Edward Luce. Indeed, “Mexico is now vying with China as the manufacturing hub of choice for U.S. and other multinational companies—it is as economically integrated with the U.S. as any two members of the eurozone are to each other.” 

Given how much bilateral trade and investment has grown in spite of all the drug violence, imagine how much faster it would grow if that violence were permanently reduced. (The Mexican finance ministry believes that organized crime trims roughly 1 percentage point from Mexico’s annual GDP growth.)

If we have reason to be cautiously optimistic about Mexico, the same cannot be said about Central America’s “northern triangle,” which spans El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Mexican cartels, including the Zetas, have moved into these countries and fueled a disastrous rise in drug-related murders. Honduras now has the highest homicide rate in the world, and El Salvador was close behind until its two largest street gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, declared a truce earlier this year. (On October 11, the U.S. Treasury Department labeled MS-13 a “transnational criminal organization.”) Back in May, conservative Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, a former general, told the New York Times that, “if there are no innovations, if we don’t see something truly different than what we have been doing, then this war is on the road to defeat.”

The Central American drug violence has received much less attention from U.S. media outlets than the bloodshed in Mexico. For example: How many Americans realize that the U.S. military recently set up three forward bases in Honduras? How many realize that 200 U.S. Marines were deployed to Guatemala this past August? At the time of their deployment, Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes told the Associated Press, “This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it’s certainly the largest footprint we’ve had in that area in quite some time.”

It has been estimated that the Zetas control perhaps 80 percent of the territory in Guatemala’s northernmost state of Petén. They also have a major presence in the neighboring Guatemalan states of Alta Verapaz and Izabal. Along with other criminal organizations, the Zetas have benefited from Guatemala’s weak legal institutions and corrupt police forces. “According to official figures,” notes Human Rights Watch, “there was 95 percent impunity for homicides in 2010.”

Writing in Americas Quarterly, Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue argues that the United States should address the security breakdown in Central America by applying the lessons of Plan Colombia, the aid program launched under President Clinton. “Central America is sliding into ungovernability, just as Colombia was in 2000, and Washington has a similarly high stake in preventing that catastrophe,” Shifter explains. Moreover, “Governments in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are all keenly seeking broader and more sustained levels of cooperation with the U.S.—a fortuitous alignment of interests not seen for many years in the region.”

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