In La Cuadra’s July / August, 2011 edition (Volume V, Issue 4), founder and copublisher John Rexer wrote a penetrating piece on the extent, nature and interconnectedness of the international market for narcotics with the rest of the global economy. In that piece, he reported that illegal drugs represent the fourth largest sector of the world economy, behind only agricultural products and oil, and roughly equal to the international market for the manufacture and sale of electronics. Further, he reported how the illicit revenue from the trade of illegal drugs enters, and in large part supports, the entire world financial system. The numbers are staggering, with just one bank, Wachovia, having laundered over 300 billion dollars of Mexican Cartel profits through its enterprise and when discovered, paid less than 2% of one year’s profits in penalty. These illegally generated resources, in no small part, prevented a solvency crisis in the world banking system in 2008.
Now in Guatemala, President Otto Perez Molina has floated the idea of the decriminalization of the drug trade in Central America, an idea roundly dismissed by President Barack Obama of the United States at the recent Summit of the Americas held in Cartagena, Colombia. Regardless of how the legalization proposal is resolved in the short and long term, President Perez has reinvigorated the debate, and La Cuadra decided that we wanted to provide our readers with a primer on the extent and processes of drug trafficking work in Latin America today.
Fortunately we were able to tap the great knowledge and skills of Julie Lopez, who has been writing on organized crime and the trafficking of drugs and weapons in Latin America for years.
This story, in fact, was delivered only days after she returned from giving testimony on these matters to the United States Congress.
We asked her to, in essence, provide our readers with an introductory course in the business. Call it Drug Trafficking: 101.
On April 3, 2012, Guatemalan authorities displayed their latest trophy in the War on Drugs: Walther Overdick, handcuffed and behind bars in a jail cell. This man was the main contact in Guatemala for the Zetas. The Zetas, once the security wing and muscle of the Mexican Gulf Cartel formed their own cartel in January 2010, parting from (and becoming competitors with) their former employers. Yet, despite the highly charged and potentially catastrophic confrontation with Overdick, “The arrest was made without a single shot being fired,” said Mauricio López Bonilla, Guatemalan Minister of Interior — highlighting the effectiveness of how the military and the national police fight drug distribution in Guatemala. You could count on the fingers of one hand how many gun battles have occurred between authorities and traffickers in the last four years — a far cry from the more confrontational approach in Mexico during the past decade.
Overdick, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), had opened and helped to maintain cocaine distribution routes through Honduras in recent years. In 2009, after the Guatemalan government deployed military forces to the northern department of Petén, much of the cocaine traffic was rerouted to neighboring Honduras. Overdick is charged with helping to facilitate this operation.
The political turmoil in Honduras, partially caused by the June 28, 2009 coup that ousted President Manuel Zelaya, contributed to the process. There is some indication that drug trafficking in Honduras had increased since 2006, when Zelaya came to power, but it undisputedly became worse after the coup.
The reasons are self-evident. Security forces in Honduras, both military and civilian, were deployed to counter actions in opposition to the coup, many of which took place in urban areas. Thus, leaving areas previously patrolled in counter-narcotics actions unattended. A drug-trafficking boom followed, as did an increase in gang activity. This upheaval and the disruptions that followed have been linked to an increase in homicide rates in the country. In 2011 homicides soared to 86 per 100,000 inhabitants — the highest in the world.
That is lesson number one: the drug trade moves, almost seamlessly, from areas of high counter-narcotics activity to areas of low counter-narcotics activity, and associated levels of violence travel in its wake.
Although Honduras has plenty of its own home-grown traffickers, some of the most significant arrests in recent police operations have been Guatemalans, all of whom have been accused in U.S. courts. In May 2008, Jorge Mario Paredes was arrested in San Pedro Sula and sent the very next day to Miami, and then New York, where he was tried, convicted and sentenced to 31 years in prison in April 2010.
In May 2011, Mario Ponce was arrested in San Pedro Sula after the helicopter in which he flew made an unscheduled stop before arriving in that city. Authorities were waiting for the helicopter’s crew when it landed. After traces of cocaine were found in the chopper (suggesting that it had been used to transport a sizeable shipment), the pilot, a second man and Ponce were arrested. Seven months later, Ponce was extradited to Miami.
Last March 13, Juan José Véliz Pineda was arrested in San Pedro Sula and extradited to New York ten days later. Honduran authorities identified him as a Ponce close associate, although they are being prosecuted in different jurisdictions.
That is lesson number two. Drug traffickers work in an international arena, and it regularly takes international cooperation between governments to bring about justice — particularly given the weak and corrupt judicial systems in many Central American nations.
A Maze of Routes:
South American producers have sent drugs to the United States any way they can for more than 30 years. The drug flow (mostly cocaine, but in the last few years also synthetic drugs like Ecstasy and methamphetamine) gushes like water from multiple fire hydrants, and once in the system will follow any available path. As we’ve seen, that will inevitably be a route that offers little resistance. If and when impediments arise, the system corrects.
Shipments are often sent by boat on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans to Mexico. From there they are transported (by land or sea) to the United States. For shipments that arrive in the United States by water routes, traffickers employ ordinary fishing boats — convenient for their anonymity, speed boats — useful for their evasive capabilities, and submersible vessels — useful for both their tonnage capacity and their near-invisibility. Some of the submarines being employed by narcotraffickers can carry up to five tons (10,000 pounds) of cocaine in a single run.
Air transportation is also employed from Colombia and Venezuela. The aircraft land mostly in Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico, with fewer cases reported between Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. As we have seen, after the 2009 military deployment to northern Guatemala, many flights were diverted to Honduras, but the rule of thumb is that the flight paths will follow whatever routes are least likely to be patrolled. 2010 saw a marked increase in trafficking flights through Haiti, following in the chaos resulting from the January earthquake in that nation.