Lessons five and six: When one trafficker is killed or one cartel sidelined, another is there to pick up the pieces. Also, the huge profits generated by the trade in illegal drugs has facilitated the creation of countless ways to reintroduce that money into general circulation. The purchase of planes is only one of a thousand methods available.
The Galeano clan (some of whom were former Medellín Cartel associates) was also linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, signaling that the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts are no longer exclusive Gulf Cartel or Zeta turf. In Honduras, local officials say that all these groups operate along the northern coast, where there is enough territory — enough, for now at least — for them not to see the need to fight amongst themselves except in cases of personal vengeance.
In the case of a shipment being intercepted, it is, unsurprisingly, the local workers who pay the price. There are several cases in which vessels carrying cocaine to the United States were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard while attempting to reach the Florida coast. The crews were mostly Hondurans, with a few Colombians. Efforts to chase those culpable higher up the food chain run into the obvious difficulty of these low-level employees having families that remain unprotected from retaliation back home.
Lesson seven may seem self-evident: Kingpins live in fortified castles and work into their business models the loss of pawns and some measure of profit.
In 2010, the DEA released maps that show air, land and maritime routes leaving from South America and heading to different points in Central America and Mexico. Red lines map the times that vessels or aircraft were traced. Sometimes, so many were tracked that the entire coastline of a country is literally lost in a blur of red ink.
One stark realization of the magnitude of the traffic is the observation that the number of flights traced or vessels detected was considerably higher than the number of aircraft, boats and submersibles actually seized.
According to the U.S. State Department, nearly 300 tons of cocaine are trafficked through Guatemala, presumably at least 80 percent of the cocaine reaching the U.S. border. The same source has concluded that Guatemalan authorities only intercept 5 percent of the cocaine moved through the country, while the U.S. only seizes 12 percent of cocaine reaching its southern border.
And in Guatemala, those percentages have not been encouraging. Comparing the seizure rates between 1999 and 2009, the situation has become markedly worse. For every ten kilos of cocaine seized in 1999, only six were seized in 2009. Moreover, Guatemalan numbers differ from those of the U.S. DEA. Although seizures increased in 2011, it was still estimated that interdiction efforts were only stopping 1.6 percent of the overall traffic of cocaine through the country.
Yet, even as unofficial reports indicate that cocaine production and / or trafficking has decreased, consumption does not appear to be dwindling. The United Nations 2011 World Drug Report still identifies the U.S. as the largest cocaine consumer market in the world, with 36 percent of the global total. Europe comes second with 28 percent. The same year, the DEA told the Senate that the purity of cocaine had declined to 49 percent from January 2007 to March 2011 (a 27 percent drop), while the average street price per gram in the United States had increased 87 percent (from $101 to $189).
Purity estimates were based on seized drugs alone. To some experts, these market-shifts signal a decrease in overall cocaine production and / or shipment — which could be viewed as success from the standpoint of interdiction agents, the argument being that an increased scarcity is driving down purity and increasing prices. However, the extent of the impact of a growing market for synthetic drugs on cocaine quality and pricing remains unknown. Might the scarcity in cocaine be due to an increase in shipments of methamphetamine produced and distributed by the same cartels — drugs that are more profitable, more addictive and more deadly?
Lesson number eight: It is enormously difficult to judge success in The War on Drugs, and the state of play in that war is constantly changing.
Intriguingly, the 2011 UN report indicates that Guatemala was one of the few countries where cocaine consumption increased. This might suggest that more of the product is staying in the country. In the 1980s, if not before, traffickers began to pay some distributors with both cash and drugs. The drugs were then sold in the local market for more profit in the pocket of the local distributor. That trend has clearly begun to manifest in Guatemala over the past five years. Since the end of the Guatemalan Civil Conflict in 1996, certain gangs, or maras, began to gain in power on the streets. In the past half a decade, two maras (the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18 organizations) have consolidated their financial and paramilitary power significantly, to become the primary distribution points for local drug sales and large-scale extortion.
In a report published by the Associated Press in March of this year, a government source reported that the Mara Salvatrucha (MS) had forged a partnership with the Zetas. The frightening theory is that the MS would create havoc in urban areas to distract authorities from pursuing the Zetas’ international trafficking routes. In return, the MS would receive more money and drugs for resale at the street level.
However, other than a wiretapped conversation quoted by the source, little evidence suggests that this will mature into a long-term arrangement. After the Associated Press story was published, Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla denied that such an arrangement existed. According to law enforcement sources, there are an estimated 14,000 gang members in Guatemala, with the Mara Salvatrucha making up approximately 25 percent of that total. That math suggests approximately 3500 MS members, meaning that they outnumber the estimated number of Zetas (900 in 2010, with one third being Mexican in origin and the rest Guatemalan, according to the Public Ministry) by nearly four to one.