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U.S., Latin American officials talk security

From the print edition

Officials from Latin America and the United States met Tuesday to kick off a two-day summit in Costa Rica on multilateral cooperation in an effort to combat drug trafficking in the region’s maritime territories.

Representatives from Costa Rica, Peru, Honduras, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, El Salvador and the U.S. attended the summit, held at Hotel Crowne Plaza Corobicí in San José.

Central America contains several of the world’s most dangerous countries, including Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world. Drug trafficking is the driving force behind skyrocketing violence and corruption on the isthmus.

“There is no country in the world now that can say we are only a transit country or we are only a producer country; I believe now we are all consumer countries,” said Mark Wells, director of the Office of Americas Program at the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, to representatives of Latin American coast guards and navies.

As drug trafficking increases, Wells said, more traffickers are paying local connections in drugs rather than cash, driving up domestic consumption.

Wells touted U.S. efforts to help stem the flow of illicit drugs, largely cocaine, from Colombia -– the world’s major producer of cocaine – north to the U.S., which remains the top consumer nation of illegal drugs. The U.S. has donated several interceptor boats to the Costa Rican Coast Guard in recent years to help in the interdiction of drugs traversing the country’s waters.

The director also praised Costa Rica’s determination to improve public security.

“This government shows its commitment to public security,” Wells said, citing President Laura Chinchilla’s 2012 public security budget of $340 million.

Costa Rica and the U.S. already are relatively cozy in terms of maritime cooperation despite the country being added to a U.S. government list of major drug-trafficking or drug-producing countries in 2010. In March, the U.S. built Costa Rica a $3 million Coast Guard base on the Pacific coast in Puntarenas. The two countries have a Joint Patrol Agreement that allows U.S. Coast Guard ships to dock and refuel at Costa Rican ports and enter Costa Rican waters on anti-narcotics activities (TT, March 31, 2011).

In February, Costa Rican lawmakers ruled against granting permits for U.S. Navy ships to enter Costa Rica, during one of two annual votes on the issue. Citizen Action Party members balked at allowing Navy ships into Tico territory, saying that the Joint Patrol Agreement allows law enforcement vessels to enter Costa Rican waters, but not warships. Currently, approximately 47 U.S. Coast Guard ships have been granted permission (TT, Feb. 11).

According to information from the U.S. Defense Department’s Southern Command, in fiscal year 2011, 202 cases of “suspect maritime activity” were reported in Costa Rica. Most boats launched from Colombian and Ecuadorean coasts. The United Nations estimates that 95 percent of all the cocaine that reaches the U.S. travels through Central America.

Wells warned that drug trafficking organizations are an ever-evolving threat.

“The illicit drug industry has globalized along with the global economy,” Wells said. “The entire illicit economy in terms of drugs is changing and improving every day in its technology, its methodology and forms of communication.”

In contrast to major, large-scale drug trafficking organizations of the past, today’s illicit webs are smaller, less centralized, and more agile and flexible, Wells said. And organizations initially dedicated to drug trafficking don’t take long to start participating in other illicit economies, including extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking,   piracy and selling fake medication.

During the summit, participants discussed a range of operational topics including the Central American Regional Security Initiative, semisubmersible vehicles, joint patrols, common threats and emerging trends related to narcotics trafficking in the region.

Wells said that an estimated one-third of all U.S.-bound cocaine now passes through Honduras.

“Honduras is facing a very serious problem with violence,” he said. “They have the highest murder rate in the world. Some parts of Honduras are more dangerous than Iraq and Afghanistan.”

The U.S. is working to train police and create internal affairs agencies in Honduran police forces to combat rampant corruption, Wells said. He added that the Honduran government is “very open to international assistance,” and that U.S. personnel is “there trying to help them formulate plans and programs to deal with the entire spectrum of rule of law.”

 Additionally, he said, new routes for South American cocaine to reach European markets are opening up, utilizing Caribbean and West African countries as transshipment points.

In Central America, drug routes originating in South America have shifted away from the Caribbean as a route to U.S. markets and more toward the Pacific coast.

The importation to Central America of large amounts of chemicals used to produce methamphetamine also is a troubling trend on the upswing. Wells said trafficking of enormous amounts of chemicals needed to make the highly potent stimulant in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is “very worrying.”

He also emphasized the U.S. is not only working abroad to fight the flow of illegal drugs across its borders, but also is striving to reduce demand for drugs at home. In 2011, the U.S. government invested $10 billion on “reduction of demand and on treatment of drug users.”

“Over the last three decades, we’ve seen a reduction of about 30 percent in our use of drugs [in the U.S.]. Over the last decade, we have seen a significant drop of 43 percent in the use of cocaine. We of course are not satisfied with those results and we want to see more,” the U.S. official said.

Asked why, with such reductions in consumption of drugs in the U.S., levels of violence associated with drug trafficking in Central America have continued to rise, Wells said that even as the U.S. has reduced its internal consumption of drugs statistically, the country’s population has continued to grow, meaning the overall amount of drugs still moving through Central America might not be affected


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