War on Drugs crippling Northern Triangle countries

A Honduran soldier talking with American soldiers in Honduras in 1998
March 1, 1988: a Honduran Second Lieutenant talks with American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division during joint exercises in Judicalpa, Honduras (source: dpa)

The United States has been trying for decades to solve its drug problem by conducting a War on Drugs. That policy has failed and will continue to fail, so long as the declared enemies are the producing countries and the criminal organizations that ship the goods to the U.S.

The three countries in Central America that comprise the “Northern Triangle” – Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – are the transshipment route for 80 percent of the illegal cocaine entering the U.S. It is no accident that the three countries are also the starting point each year for tens of thousands of migrants to the country.

The U.S. considers both the drugs and the immigration threats to national security. Washington sees the area as a geopolitical unit and has militarized its response to the drug trade in the form of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).

The trouble with this policy is that these countries’ populations consider the military part of the problem. Along with poverty, violence and a lack of accountability among the military and police are the principal drivers of mass migration to the U.S. The Obama administration has attempted to deal with the economic and social drivers of migration through an initiative called the Alliance for Prosperity, but Congress has been slow to fund the project.

Washington sees the area as a geopolitical unit and has militarized its response

All of Central America was a war zone during the Cold War. Most significant for the geopolitics of the region, the conflicts in El Salvador and Guatemala could be resolved only with outside mediation by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and Mexico. In neither of these cases could the U.S. determine the outcome. Local governing elites were unable to suppress armed opposition.

In Honduras, a staging ground during the Cold War for armed intervention in the rest of the region, the political establishment has managed to maintain its grip on the country. It even got away with an old-fashioned coup against a populist president in 2009. In El Salvador, the Marxist guerrillas evolved into a political party and compete with the old ruling class for control. In Guatemala, the elite cling to authority as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish) has succeeded in bolstering the judiciary to the point where it was able to prosecute the former vice president and president for corruption, pushing both of them from office.

The principal problem in El Salvador is the violence of the maras (gangs). This requires improving the police and strengthening the judiciary. In Guatemala, the guarantors of the peace must continue to force the government to play by its own rules. In Honduras, the U.S. must push the government to expand the political space for the opposition and the press. A one-size-fits-all economic development program will not work, nor will providing more equipment for armed forces that are out of control and corrupt.

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