In the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank published various reports indicating that El Salvador and Guatemala had the highest homicide rates in Latin America. Fast-forward sixteen years later and these two countries form, along with neighboring Honduras, the most violent region in the world by all accounts.
With a combined population of 28 million, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador constitute the northern triangle of Central America; a sub-region that has experienced almost twice-as-much violence as Mexico has since 2006, when Calderon’s war on drugs started. According to official data, approximately 50 thousand people have been killed in Mexico since 2006. In contrast, the northern triangle, with a population four times smaller than Mexico, has endured nearly 90,000 murders during that same period. But while Mexico, with an annual homicide rate of 18 deaths per one hundred thousand inhabitants, is a tragedy, the northern triangle, with average homicide rates surpassing 60 per one hundred thousand, is a catastrophe.
Many believe that the appalling rates of violence in the sub-region are the result of the penetration of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to this argument, in their effort to control the drug routes from South America to the United States, criminal organizations are not only bringing unparalleled violence to Central America, but also taking over highly fragile public institutions. The logical extension of this argument then is that this relentless assault of transnational gangs can only be addressed with greater police and military force.
Although the presence of criminal cartels has undeniably contributed to the skyrocketing violence in the northern triangle, the fundamental problem of security in Central America does not have to do merely with drug traffickers—or social conditions, for that matter. It has to do with government institutions. It has to do with local political and criminal-justice organizations that are extremely corrupt. It has to do with institutions that have been historically pervaded by local criminal lords, death squads, crooked politicians, and vicious paramilitaries who were present long before the Mexican Zetas or the Colombian syndicates began crowding the illegal enterprises of the region.
Security forces in Mexico yesterday captured and took into custody Héctor Raúl Luna Luna, an alleged leader of the violent drug cartel known as Los Zetas. Luna Luna, also known as El Tori, was captured during a military operation in Ciudad Solidaridad, a neighborhood in Monterrey, in northern Mexico.
In the wake of the arrest, gunmen temporarily set up at least ten narcobloqueos (roadblocks by drug gangs), in Monterrey using cars and stolen buses to block traffic. Attacks on police stations have also been reported.
Los Zetas are notorious for a failed 2008 grenade attack on the U.S. consulate in Monterrey, carried out in collaboration with the Gulf Cartel. (Explore our Spring 2010 AQ map of narco-networks in the Americas for more about the Mexican cartels).
The U.S. has committed $1.6 billion in security assistance through the Mérida Initiative, which includes helicopters and police training, but during President Calderón’s visit last month to Washington, DC, he appealed to Congress for a different kind of help. “There is one area where Mexico needs your help,” Calderón said, “that is stopping the flow of assault weapons and other deadly weapons across the border.”