Archive for Violence in Latin America

Overview of the Latin American Drug Trade, 1970s-Present

Posted in US-Latin America Relations with tags , , , , , , , on April 11, 2019 by dsmith41

David Smith

Today, people in the United States consume at least $100 billion in illicit drugs per year, making it easily the largest drug market in the world. The staples of the illicit drug economy have historically been marijuana, cocaine, heroin, with methamphetamine, fentanyl, and other prescription pills joining more recently. Drug culture and the drug trade in the United States has existed at least since the mid-nineteenth century, but the episode most relevant to today’s circumstances involves the drug revolution of the 1960’s in which some US citizens increasingly consumed massive amounts of illicit substances, and their government responded by fighting a war against it. As the War on Drugs has played out, it has become increasingly apparent that governments across the hemisphere are losing this war (or unwilling to win it), as the demand has never been higher for illicit substances. Tracking how the drug trade has evolved and why it has been so difficult to stop are necessary considerations to understanding the current conflicts that exist in the US, Mexico, and Central America today.

In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the foreign actors who most capitalized on the potential of United States’ drug markets were the notorious Colombian cartels. Mexican smugglers, especially those from Sinaloa, had been smuggling contraband into the United States for decades. But when the United States targeted Sinaloa with crop eradication programs, production and distribution shifted to Colombia. The emergence of the Colombian cartels with their cocaine and marijuana signaled a significant development in the global drug trade, and the illicit cocaine trade to the United States exploded as organizations like the Medellin cartel started investing in mass coca production in the Andes during the 1970s and 1980s. As the Colombian cartels consolidated their trafficking operations, people in the United States were developing an insatiable demand for cocaine, marijuana, and heroin. Most people know the basics of Pablo Escobar and the rise of the Medellin cartel as they pumped drugs into the United States through Miami and made untold amounts of money, and many people know about his downfall and the dismantling of the Medellin cartel. The United States and the Colombian government worked in tandem to take down Escobar and his cartel as a part of the War on Drugs, but even as they took down the major cocaine kingpins in Colombia, the trade never ceased. In fact, despite spending billions of dollars trying to fight these cartels in an intensely violent chapter of Colombia, the cocaine trade from the Andes only increased over time. Instead of disappearing, the cocaine trade, as well as the marijuana and the heroin trade, evolved and adapted by moving drugs through the US-Mexico border as opposed to the coast of Florida. People who traded it became savvier and less traceable in their activities, and, ultimately,  the bulk of the drug trade was inherited by Mexican organizations after the fall of the Colombian cartels. This shift in power and profits from Colombians to Mexicans in the late 1980s- early 1990s is critical to understanding the modern drug trade.

Mexican families in Sinaloa have had a long history of trafficking marijuana and opium into the United States, but the formation of the modern cartel structure we see today did not begin until the Colombian kingpins had fallen, making drug profits up-for-grabs. As a result of US interference in the Colombian trade to the coast of Miami, Mexicans had picked up considerable influence in trafficking drugs across the expansive land border. As consumers in the United States continued buying drugs, drug trafficking corridors between the US and Mexico became priceless. Eventually, various cartels would fight for territory in a series of wars that has rocked Mexico since 2006, conflicts responsible for at least 160,000 deaths and tens of thousands of more disappearances.

A critical turn in the conflict was with the 2006 election of Felipe Calderón to the Mexican presidency. He declared that the government would fight the drug cartels, but this decision sparked an escalation in violence that has developed into the wars we’ve seen over the last decade-and-a-half. Despite all the efforts against it, violence continues to erupt around the drug trade, and the entire hemisphere is facing a series of crises related to drugs. Heroin, and now fentanyl, have never been more widely used in the United States. The cocaine trade remains one of the most profitable in the world. Mexican cartels still control the vast majority of the trade, but these cartels have fractured and splintered into more elusive, localized entities in response to conflict amongst each other and the governments of the US and Mexico. There is also some evidence that some of the profits from the trade might be flowing more towards central American gangs, but the relationship and differences between Mexican Cartels and Central American gangs is incredibly complex and ever-evolving.

Traditionally, Central America has played the transportista role in the cocaine trade from the Andes to the United States. When smuggling routes shifted from coastal routes to the US/Mexico land border, drug traffickers needed places and people in Central America to stash and move their drugs North. While the vast majority of profits went to the cartels responsible for transporting the drugs across the US border, the profits from these transportista networks were incentives enough for everyone from poor farmers to wealthy elite families to become involved with trafficking cocaine through Central America. Central American gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18 in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have a limited role in trafficking drugs. These organizations can serve as muscle for drug trafficking operations and can accumulate localized power, but the majority of the drug trade through Central America is run through well-connected, elite families who have operatives throughout the insidiously corrupt governments and are often tied to the former military regimes of these countries. For example, the Honduran president’s brother was arrested in Miami on drug trafficking charges.

As has been historically demonstrated, by the time there enough information to make conclusions about drug-trafficking organizations, their alliances, and their conflicts, the situations will have changed. Cartels and gangs who traffic drugs have embedded themselves in national political and economic structures across the region. Corruption and drug money in the Mexican federal government, police, and military is astoundingly profound. Central American governments are notoriously corrupted by the drug trade. US Customs and Border Patrol has also experienced serious problems with corruption. While there is emerging hope for a profound shift in US drug policy, efforts to pursue alternative approaches to the prohibitionist model remain quagmired. As it stands now, the drug trade and the violence that accompanies everyone and everywhere it encounters remains one of the most serious national security threats to nations across the Western Hemisphere, but it is clear that this problem can not be completely or even partially solved by the construction of a wall when the fact that around 80% of the drugs imported into the United States happens through legal US border checkpoints.

Sources: Gootenberg, Paul. Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008.

Benjamin, T. Smith. “The Rise and Fall of Narcopopulism: Drugs, Politics, and Society in Sinaloa, 1930-1980.” Journal for the Study of Radicalism 7, no. 2 (2013): 125-65. (JSTOR)

Linton, Magnus. “Pablo’s Party: The State Gets Cancer.” Translated by John Eason. In Cocaina: A Book on Those Who Make It, 107-59. Berkeley, CA: Soft Skull Press, 2014.

Further Reading:

  1. For brief estimates of how much the US spends on drugs, see
  2. For useful graphs that display trends in global drug use, see
  3. For more information about the history and development of the Sinaloa cartel, see
  4. To read more about Colombia’s cocaine production in the present day, see
  5. For a brief timeline with facts about the drug wars in Mexico, see
  6. For a detailed report on Mexican trafficking organizations and the present situation in Mexico’s Drug War, see June Beittels’s Congressional report
  7. For more information on Mexico’s Drug war with helpful maps, graphs, and explanations, see the Council on Foreign Relation’s report

Gangs in Honduras

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

Katya Rudnik

The long-term history of gangs in Honduras can be traced all the way back to the fall of the Spanish Empire in the mid 1800s. The collapse of this empire left the territories of what we now understand to be Central America, to split off into separate regions. This incited gruesome civil wars between plantation owners to try to attain territory and thus harness control (Grillo, 188). This was a foundational moment in the history of Central America which added to historically weak states and lack of social services.

            A century later amidst the Cold War, civil war was once again rampant across Central America. As a result nearly 500,000 refugees were displaced, many of whom fled to the United States in search of safety between the years of 1980 and 1990 (Grillo, 188). These Civil Wars left a legacy of violence which still moves freely across the borders of three Northern Triangle Countries, Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. At this moment, right-wing paramilitary groups were being backed by the Reagan administration to fight against a left-wing rebel group called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation (FLMN) (Álvarez, 20). This attempt by the US to fight communism is responsible for a large portion of the displaced people as aforementioned.

           The refugees arriving to the US settled primarily in Los Angeles, California. With a lack of social or state support and with little prospects for work, gangs were formed to bridge this gap of accommodations for a basic quality of life (Douglas, 60). Thus, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), and Barrio-18 were formed. Scapegoating individuals within these gangs, the US was able to deport thousands of gang members back to Central America. This is the ultimate irony of President Trump’s claims about Mexico and other Central American countries “not sending us their best,” because the United States Government literally shipped gang members and murderers into Central America.

            Once back in Central America these thousands of gang members grew in numbers and strength. It turns out that what was festering beneath the surface of dangerous criminal behavior in the United States, was able to breathe and grow rapidly within weak states such as Honduras.

Gangs grew in power and size so rapidly and without precedent for four major reasons: First, in countries such as Honduras, statehood was achieved very late making for weak state institutions (Kolb, 14). Second, disenfranchisement of individuals has proven to create a higher susceptibility for gang membership. Without economic prospects and no protection, people have little choice but to become sympathizers or jump into gangs such as MS-13 (Grillo, 193). Third, Honduras had already been the site of cocaine traffickers, being a center for production and distribution of cocaine for the rest of Central America and the world at large (Kolb, 16). Finally, all of these issues operate within a positive feedback loop in a self-perpetuating system. Impunity for crimes allows for crime and violence, leading to corruption, and the cycle continues.

            As for Honduras specifically, this country acted as a launching pad for the rapid growth of the Maras after their attained strength primarily in El Salvador. Maras do not adhere to a state, they create their own pyramid of power and governance, moving across borders and growing within cities where they have boss who can lead in that place (Grillo, 210). Power is able to grow stronger in prisons as prisons are just an extension of the state and have a very weak infrastructure as well (Grillo, 210).

            Each set of driving forces of the strength of these Maras is a result of weak home states. Moreover, there are direct intervention policies the Unites States  has made to exacerbate displacement and violence. The legacy of these gangs is rampant displacement and loss of life due to violence.

Further Reading:

1. Mafia of the Poor: Gang Violence and Extortion in Central America

This article provides an extremely in-depth overview of gangs in Central America. First the article provides an executive summary and then outlines in much detail, recommendations to various actors who share responsibility in these issues. It then provides a very thorough but comprehensive history of gangs in Central America.

2. Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle

This article gives an overview of violence in the Northern Triangle: Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

3. Special Report: Gangs in Honduras

This article is useful in providing an overview of gangs in Honduras. It outlines major details about the two most prominent gangs in Honduras, Barrio-18 and MS-13.

4. In Gang-Ridden Honduras, Growing Old is a Privilege, Not a Right

Young people are caught up in a cycle of violence, corruption and poverty in Honduras. National Geographic explains, in this article, that growing old is not a right for the youth, namely young boys, in this country but a privilege. The main value in this article is the breathtaking a devastating photo journalism that captures the comradery but also the sorrow of the young boys growing up amidst this violence, with pressures to conform, as they try to stay alive.

5. Bloody Honduras

This article outlines the fear people face in Honduras and why they seek refuge by traveling north to the United States. This article is particularly enlightening because it interviews a member of Barrio-18, MS-13’s rival, which in general is covered less by news outlets and academic journals alike. This is most likely because MS-13 has a stronger presence and more bloodshed behind its name than Barrio.

6. Why is Honduras so Violent? Impunity, Gangs, Drugs, Poverty, and Corruption

This article does a really nice job outlining the self-perpetuating cycle that drives violence and crime in Honduras. This cycle begins with a weak justice system and impunity, thus resulting in crime and violence, leading to corruption, which allows for weak justice system and impunity to continue in a positive feedback loop.

7. Brief History of Honduras

This article is useful because it provides an overview of Honduran history. Of course we know that in the disciplines of history and social science, phenomena do not just occur in isolation. The history of a place, as far back as you can go, has a hand in what came of its present and what will come of its future. This article does a nice job briefly describing major events in Honduras as far back as 12,000 BC to track how the violence came to be in Honduras. 

8. Why is Honduras so violent?

This article is useful in describing the relationship that gangs have with global drug trade and how impunity in that realm went on to affect impunity in the realm of gang crimes as well.


Álvarez, Alberto Martín. “From Revolutionary War to Democratic Revolution “. Berghof Conflict Research  (2010): 1-37.

Cruz, José Miguel. “Criminal Violence and Democratization in Central America: The Survival of the State.” Latin American Politics and Society 53, no. 4 (2011): 1-33.

Grillo, Ioan. Gangster Warlords: Drug Dollars, Killing Fields and the New Politics of Latin America.  New York, New York Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, (2016), 188.

Farah, Douglas. “Central American Gangs: Challenging Nature and New Partners.” Journal of International Affairs 66, no. 1 (2012): 53-67.

Farah, Douglas. “The Evolution of Ms 13 in El Salvador and Honduras.” Institute for National Strategic Security, National Defense University 7, no. 1 (2017): 58-73.

Kolb, Ana-Constantina. “Outgunned: The Honduran Gight against Transnational Cocaine Traffickers “. Journal of International Affairs 66, no. 1 (2012): 213-23.

Rivera, Lirio del Carmen Gutiérrez. “Security Politics from a Spatial Perspective: The Case of Honduras “. Iberoamericana 41 (2001): 143-55.

Verini, James. “Prisoners Rule: Welcome to the Deadliest City in the Deadliest Country in the World.” Foreign Policy 196: 36-40.

Wolf, Sonja. “Mara Salvatrucha: The Most Dangerous Street Gangs in the Americas?”. Latin American Politics and Society 54, no. 1 (2012): 65-99.

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

Posted in 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


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