The extensive media coverage given to violence in Mexico suggests that the country is the main battleground in the struggle between governments and the drug trade. Meanwhile, Guatemala, Honduras, and Costa Rica are more frequently associated with tourism or bananas than with cocaine and cartels. However, in actuality, Central America is more center stage for drug business than Mexico. If it is to have any hope of winning the war on drugs, the United States must provide extensive financial support to the governments of Central America that so desperately need it.
Almost all cocaine comes from the Andean nations of Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia, and the largest consumer of the powder is the United States. The countries that lie between the two regions are, by accident of geography and force of the market, a pathway for the illegal substance flowing from south to north. Mexico and Colombia have traditionally served as the main centers of operation for drug trafficking. However, since they have fought back against the drug industry, the cartels that control cocaine markets have recently begun to shift their attention to a more vulnerable target, Central America.
An understanding of historical context is necessary to appreciate why the region needs financial assistance. Three decades ago, Central America was one of the last battlegrounds of the Cold War. In the name of fighting communism, the United States attempted to overthrow democratically elected left-wing governments as it actively bolstered right-wing military dictatorships. This extensive warfare left a culture of violence and a series of democratic, but highly corrupt, regimes unable to spur development. Persistently, high crime eats away at the region’s societies; Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala have some of the highest murder rates in the world, and the numbers only get worse with each passing year. The region’s social indicators rank among the world’s most dismal. To provide just one example of how impoverished these nations are, Guatemala actually suffered a famine two years ago that left 500 dead.
The drug cartels have swept into a place where lawlessness is already endemic, offering large numbers of hungry, uneducated youths a living in exchange for carrying out dirty business. Already, 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the U.S. passes in transit through Guatemala. The police forces of the isthmus have fought back valiantly—each year, operating on shoestring budgets that barely total a combined $4 billion, they capture 100 tons of cocaine. Mexico, where thousands have died in the conflict between the army and cartels, barely captures a third of that. But 200 tons of cocaine still slip through Central American countries each year, most of which end up in the U.S., becoming America’s problem.
To solve this problem, the United States needs to work with the governments of Central America. It has taken some steps in the right direction. Last year, Secretary of State Clinton pledged $300 million to bolster security in the region. While a positive gesture, this amount is far less than the $1.3 billion the Clinton administration spent to fight the cocaine trade in Colombia a decade ago. The situation in Central America today is at least as dire as that in Colombia in the 2000s. And, to be realistic, the current aid to Central America is a negligible amount of money viewed in terms of total federal spending. Pumping a billion dollars into the region would hardly register in the Treasury’s books, but it could, if used well, create dramatic change for the better. It would be a shame not to extend a helping hand when doing so would cost so little.
In addition, the U.S. should take a long-term view, and not merely provide aid for security. Although cartels can be fought violently, the smartest way to beat them is to address the systemic poverty that allows them to grow. By funding education and health care in the region, the U.S. would, in the long run, deny cartels their easy access to manpower and create good will among Central American people.
A generation ago, the United States hurt Central America by trying to do too much. Ironically, today it may hurt the region by not doing enough. Hopefully, the U.S. government will recognize that the desperate situation in the isthmus requires urgent action. By addressing the cocaine trade at its root, the U.S. can both stem the flow of illegal drugs to American cities and aid developing countries.
Jorge A. Arraya ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House.