Archive for Drug Trafficking

Violence in Guatemala

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 10, 2019 by dsmith41

Emma Lightizer

In the last half of the twentieth century, Guatemala was defined by its 36-year-long civil war and the genocide it committed against indigenous Maya in the 1980s (Martin). Today, violence against women and indigenous people, drug trafficking, gang activity, and weak or corrupt state and local authorities present persistent risks to people’s personal security.

            Drug-trafficking organizations and Central American gangs are not the same thing, but both do exist in Guatemala. Gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 cause many of the same violent problems in Guatemala as they do in other Central American countries: territory disputes, rape, murder, extortion, and robbery. However, drug-trafficking organizations have a special interest in Guatemala because the country’s position just south of Mexico’s border makes it a crucial pathway for the transit of drugs into the United States (Martínez 46). Traditionally, drug-trafficking work was outsourced to local gang cliques or independent drug traffickers in the country. In recent years, though, Mexican drug-trafficking organizations have built a stronger and more constant physical presence in Guatemala, claiming several towns and cities as their territories (Martínez 163). The introduction of the Zetas, an especially violent Mexican drug-trafficking organization, has greatly reduced citizens’ security in the city of Alta Verapaz as well as the other areas where they operate (Martínez 50).

            Drug-related violence also extends to state and local authorities. For example, in 2013, every police officer present in an entire station was killed in retaliation for the arrest of a drug trafficker’s son (Martínez 145). The “Massacre of Salcajá,” as the event was called, initiated the launch of an investigation, openly called “Operation Dignity,” but it was ineffective in ending the control that narcotraffickers had over the region (Martínez 153). Police and other authorities in Guatemala are often too weak to do much to control drug traffickers, and impunity runs wild as a result.

Instead of getting tangled up with strong organizations, Guatemalan authorities often target weaker, individual drug-traffickers or poor “campesino” farmers they accuse of growing drugs and invading protected forest land (Martínez 64). This gives authorities the advantage of looking like they’re dealing with the problem while simultaneously not risking a firefight with large-scale organizations (Martínez 66). In some localities, this is also the result of corrupt politicians who explicitly work with larger drug-trafficking organizations to secure a monopoly on the trade in their area (Martínez 70). This has meant that many poor and indigenous farmers have been accused of working with drug traffickers and have been kicked off their land and deprived of their livelihoods (Martínez 73).

In addition to these types of violence that affect all Guatemalans, there are particular dangers for women and indigenous people. Guatemala is the country with the third highest rate of femicide globally, and women are also very likely to be victims of rape and domestic violence (Johnson). The impunity that exists for other crimes in Guatemala extends to violence against women, but is perhaps even more intense due to a widespread indifference to the human rights of women. This means that women generally do not receive protection from the state, while they are simultaneously at a higher risk of becoming victims of violence (Johnson). In some cases, local authorities are even complicit or feign ignorance to allow sex trafficking rings to maintain operation. For example, the Barberena ring in southern Guatemala operated for several years while local police officers enjoyed the status of “VIP clients” and took part in the rape and sexual assault of the women held there (Martínez 219).

Indigenous people, and especially Maya, are common targets of kidnapping, assault, and murder (Martin). They are also frequently among those campesinos who are kicked off their land and accused of being narcos. Recent up-ticks in violence against indigenous people, and especially against indigenous activists, have brought about concerns of a return to the cycle of violence that initiated the genocide of Maya people in the 1980s (Martin).


Johnson, Sarah. “Can Health Workers Stop Thousands of Women Being Killed in Guatemala?” The Guardian. March 07, 2018. Accessed May 10, 2019.

Martin, Maria. “Killings Of Guatemala’s Indigenous Activists Raise Specter Of Human Rights Crisis.” NPR. January 22, 2019. Accessed May 10, 2019.

Martínez, Óscar Enrique. A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America. London: Verso, 2017.

Further Reading:

Gangs in El Salvador

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on April 2, 2019 by dsmith41

Margaux Miller

Central to the formation of gangs like Barrio 18 (or ‘Dieciocho’) and Mara Salvatrucha (or MS-13) is the history of civil war in Central American countries. In the late 20th century, a series of Civil wars erupted across the smattering of small countries in Central America. These wars were largely fought in resistance to layers of social, economic, and political inequality, a legacy of the region’s long relationship with colonialism (Grillo, 188). The conflicts proved to be some of the fiercest and bloodiest ever in the Americas, entailing full scale aerial bombardment, scorched earth tactics, and the laying of mass graves. In El Salvador, the fighting was between the leftist guerilla army Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNL) and the U.S.-trained and -financed dictatorship, and left nearly 70,000 people dead, including many innocent civilians (Grillo, 196).

The rampant violence and political instability of the years leading up to and during the Civil War – which last from 1980 until 1992 – caused massive swells of immigrants to flee El Salvador to the United States (Grillo, 196). Most of the migrants were forced to live clandestine lives, due to the limited nature of Reagan-era asylum policy that denied most claims to asylum-seekers (Wolf, 71). Migrant experience was also one of marginalization: a majority of migrants lacked access to education or employment, consistent support networks, and access to state services and validation. Conditions of marginalization produced ethnically-specific Salvadoran gangs in Los Angeles, (including Barrio 18 and MS-13), because gang formation offered secure social identities that mainstream society denied to gang members (Wolf, 70). Notably, the formation of gangs by marginalized, ethnic minorities is not a new phenomenon in the U.S.: gangs date back to the early 1800’s (Ibid).

It was in the late 1980’s that tension and violence between Salvadoran gangs in L.A. started to grow particularly intense. The gangs had gone through processes of change: they had formed connections to other Latino mafias through prison sentences; they had swelled their ranks with new recruits; and they had actively hardened their street identities (Grillo, 200-201). L.A. police forces and the U.S. government were desperate to rid the city of seemingly insatiable, violent gang members. Rather than address the systemic issues that produced gang culture in U.S. cities, authorities began to repatriate gang members to their home nations. U.S. authorities were delighted when the Salvadoran government and the FMLN brokered a peace deal in Mexico in 1993: rather than repatriate Salvadorans to war-torn and violent country, they could return them to their homeland under the guise that the young men would be contributors in building the new democratic state (Grillo, 203). Immigration reform in 1996 stipulated that non-citizens who were doing more than a year in prison and/or committed a minor offense could be repatriated, allowing further repatriation. In dealing with “the immigrant problem”, the U.S. authorities send thousands of Americanized Salvadorans with violent street experience to a country still struggling to grasp stability, where the deportees – in coping with their deportation and marginalization – reproduced gang culture within a new and fragile setting. (Douglas, 56).

Salvadoran gangs have since grown and mutated. One of the central forces behind this has been the implementation of mano dura – or hard hand – policy. The policies put hundreds behind bars, but were still largely ineffective at eradicating gangs. the policies prompted MS-13 and Dieciocho (18) to toughen and increase the risk of their entry requirements, increase their militarization and lethality, diversify their leadership hierarchies, and become more covert in communication and style, in order to reduce infiltration and amplify control. The policies also had the “cockroach effect”: fearing arrest, gang affiliates dispersed to nearby neighboring countries, serving to actually spread gang influence. Murder rates rose due to increasingly fierce competition over territory under governmental fire (Farah, 57-9).

Popular perception of gang activity is often wrapped up with that of drug trafficking organizations, and it can be very difficult to piece apart the two entities. Notably, a relationship between the two does exist. Gang influence is so expansive that drug traffickers – who largely exist in criminal organizations institutionally distinct from gangs – were forced to incorporate gang members into the trafficking process. The geographic positioning of Central America also exposes it to drug trafficking: around 90% of cocaine designated for U.S. markets flows through Central America, deeming it an important “transnational shipment route.,” (Farah, 53, 57). In the past decade, gangs have shifted from being primarily protectors of shipments, to holding larger and riskier roles, which has increased their economic input and allowed for accumulation of larger weapons. It should be noted, however, that gangs and cartels are very different in their capacity for crime, even if some of their criminal activities overlap. Trafficking organizations tend to execute longer-term, advanced strategic violence in the defense of criminal enterprise, while street gangs typically use short term, tactical violence (in crimes such as extortion and kidnapping) that lacks logistical sophistication. In short, street gangs tend to be weaker in organization than myth makes them out to be (Wolf, 82-84).

In 2013, a covert truce was brokered by the Salvadoran federal security minister David Munguía Payés in attempts to quell rampant violence between ranking members of Barrio 18 and MS-13. The 2013 truce brokering did contribute to lowering murder rates: officials released ranking gang members who supported demilitarization to lower security prisons, where they were able to spread the message to put down arms in “violence free zones,” (Grillo, 223). Within days the truce was uncovered by independent journalists and released to the public. Just a year after it began, the truce ended due to administrative shifts and deep criticism of the government’s willingness to work with gangsters. Sinces its end, violence has picked back up (Grillo, 224). The truce tactic is especially interesting to think about in relation to mano dura policy, and this comparison begs the question of what successful gang suppression truly could look like.

Further Suggested Reading

“El Salvador Is Trying to Stop Gang Violence. But the Trump Administration Keeps Pushing         Failed “Iron First” Policing,” by Danielle Mackey & Cora Currier (October 2, 2018)

            This article, published by a trustworthy source, provides anecdotal evidence about the nature an individual’s gang involvement, an interesting perspective on economic rehabilitation of former gang members, and a look into the tenuous politics of United States-Latin American foreign policy.

“Five myths about MS-13,” by José Miguel Cruz (June 29, 2018)

            This piece by the Washington Post is a straight forward, comprehensible attack on popular myths about MS-13. It debunks narratives that have been used and abused in national rhetoric about the “threats” gangs pose to national security, and fills in the vacuum with actual facts.

“Time for a US Apology to El Salvador,” by Raymond Bonner (April 15, 2016)

            This article discusses the involvement of the United States in increasing the violence of El Salvador’s Civil War (1980 – 1992). The Salvadoran Civil War was the context that prompted thousands of Salvadorans to flee their homes. The end of the war and the subsequent establishment of democracy in El Salvador acted a justification, despite its fragility, for the United States in repatriating large numbers of Salvadorans convicted of gang violence and other crime.

U.S. Drug Policy in Latin America (1970-Present)

Posted in Mexico, US-Latin America Relations with tags , , , , , , on April 2, 2019 by dsmith41

Sarah Tosto

As the global demand for drugs by United States increased, who is now the number one consumer of drugs with 50% consumption of the $150 billion of the world drug supply, came the declaration of the War on Drugs in the 1980’s as drugs became a “national security threat.” Conveniently for the U.S. during this time period, most Latin American countries had been under severe economic stress and were in desperate need of debt relief. In addition to economic stress, these Latin American countries showed similar political instability and lack of government protection from the drug cartels. This failure of government led to the rise of leftist guerilla groups and paramilitaries.  From here on out, the United States implemented drug policies that economically incentivized the crack down of drug production in Latin America and helped Latin American countries fight opposition groups. This supply-side approach to drug eradication, however, resulted in failure due to the idiosyncratic nature of the drug economy in that demand never falters. These policies ended up highly militarizing the War on Drugs in Latin American, bringing unprecedented levels of violence.

Mexico and Colombia are two countries that have become increasingly violent after the United States’ foreign policy and aid. The article The U.S.- Mexico War on Narcotics: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, discusses the introduction of the Merida Initiative in 2007 in which the United States provided over $2.5 billion to the Mexican government for narcotics detection resources, training of justice sector personnel, crop eradication efforts, and other anti-narcotic strategies (Logia, 2017). Between 2008 and 2010 they received over $300 million in foreign military assistance which only moved through the corrupt government into the hands of the cartels (Logia, 2017). In response to this corruption, paramilitaries emerged and acted as a task force to protect citizens from cartel violence. This created a new wave of violence in Mexico after 2007 and has led to the deaths of over 200,000 since the help of the U.S. and the militarization of the drug war.

In Colombia, we see the Andean Initiative taking on a similar role in supply-side policy approach without the acknowledgement of paramilitary groups. The article Andean Regional Initiative: A Policy Fated to Fail discusses the 35-year history of internal conflict from leftist groups (the FARC) and guerilla groups (paramilitaries). The FARC came to power in the 1960’s during times of poverty, political exclusion of the masses, lack of confidence in the state, and violence towards the rural population. They protected the rural population against the government’s eradication efforts. In efforts to fight the FARC, the Colombian military, with the aid of the United States, allowed paramilitaries to escalate the violence and human rights abuses in order to comply with the drug eradication effort. The increased militarization, with the help of the U.S., has led to the doubling of politically motivated homicide between 1998 and 2000—to almost 20 murders per day (Amatangelo, 2005). In 2000, almost 85% of these murders were attributed to state agents and paramilitary groups, with the remaining 15% attributed to guerrilla groups (Amatangelo, 2005).

The United States was able to outsource their anti-drug efforts through economic incentives and increased military aid. These policies, however, proved to be a failure in the eradication of drugs and often led to increased violence, deaths, and human rights violations in Latin American countries. The failures of these policies can be attributed to the supply-side approach used by the United States. In the article US War on Drugs and Its Legacy in Latin America the article goes in depth about the issues created in Andean Countries as well as Mexico and suggests policy reform as a way to diminish violence in these areas.The United States should implement policy that acknowledges human rights violations and the victims of cartel violence (Huey, 2014). The U.S. should also soften their marijuana drug policy so task forces can focus resources on harder drugs (Huey, 2014). Latin American countries could also benefit from the taxation of marijuana for their economies and be less reliant on foreign aid (Huey, 2014). Without policy change, Latin American countries will continue to fight this war at the cost of their citizens.  


Amatangelo, G. (2005). Andean Regional Initiative: A Policy Fated to Fail. Foreign Policy in

Focus. Retrieved from

Huey, D. (2014). US War on Drugs and Its Legacy in Latin America. The Guardian.

Retrieved from

Logia, L. (2017). The U.S.-Mexico War on Narcotics: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back.

Global Americans. Retrieved from


Skip to toolbar