In Honduras, a country whose murder rate is 18 times that of the United States, citizens kill one another with impunity. In El Salvador, bodies lie in the street and get only a nervous glance from passers-by. In Guatemala, as well as Honduras, gangsters attack buses, robbing and even murdering the passengers. Throughout these three countries — they make up the Northern Triangle of Central America — members of such proliferating gangs as MS-13 and Barrio 18 do battle, leading to the death or disappearance of innumerable young people. The gangs specialize in kidnapping, extortion, and contract killing and often form alliances with the drug cartels.
In Mexico, which is supposedly peaceful, there have been deeply disturbing signs. In 2011, in Tamaulipas, a state in northeastern Mexico, police found 59 bodies in a pit near the place where, earlier, 72 bodies had been found — all of them the remains of Central American immigrants. These humble souls were forced off buses and shot when they refused to work for the Zetas, Mexico’s most pervasive drug cartel. In 2014, in Guerrero, a state in southern Mexico, members of the drug cartel Guerreros Unidos murdered 43 college students, burned their bodies, put the residues in plastic bags, and tossed them into the San Juan River. The students had commandeered buses to take them to a political rally. The police pursued and captured them and, for some reason, turned them over to the cartel.
This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually.
And in 2015, along the road between the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and the city of Guadalajara, a motorized police column rode into an ambush that killed 15 of the officers and wounded five more. The incident occurred in the southwestern state of Jalisco, home of the New Generation, yet another drug cartel. This attack upon the police is a reminder of the choice given government officials by magisterial drug runners — plomo o plata, lead or silver. In other words, take a bribe or take a bullet. And to further intimidate them, the cartel hitmen have been known to place their victims before the public. Thus, in 2011, on a busy highway in Boca del Río, their agents halted traffic long enough to arrange 35 corpses for viewing by travelers.
As for the street gangs that cooperate with the cartels and practice their own style of intimidation — the biggest had their beginnings in the United States. Barrio 18 and MS-13 (properly named Mara Salvatrucha) were organized on the streets of Los Angeles. Subsequent criminal deportations sent some members back to their native El Salvador, where they found fertile ground, reorganized, and now filter back into this country. Barrio Azteca began in Texas prisons and became allies of the Juarez drug cartel. Both the Mexican Mafia and the Sureños began in prisons north of the border. Why did these gangs arise? What sustains them? Clearly, they were organized, not only for status and mutual defense, but also to gain a share of the enormous illegal drug market. And their territorial expansion and growth in membership indicate that they’ve succeeded.
Indeed, the entire network of gangs and cartels sits on the bedrock of America’s War on Drugs. This futile conflict has created the enormous illegal market, monopolized by sociopaths whose rewards are at least $100 billion annually. Their huge markups have kept street prices high in the United States, making criminals wealthy and powerful and encouraging larceny, robbery, and even murder by desperate drug users. Added to these troubles are the sufferings inflicted on the people south of the border. There, the authorities — those who have avoided corruption — have little means to face the enormous crime wave created by the drug cartels and their street allies, whose crimes include the wanton murder of innocent citizens, including women and children.
All that I’ve described leads me to the obvious question — to what extent is the “immigration problem” simply more fallout from our War on Drugs? Of course, many Latino gangsters, with their tattoos and secret hand signals, have been sneaking northward, heading for cities to get those illegal-drug dollars. And along with them have come wandering misfits and ne’er-do-wells. But I suspect that conditions in Mexico and especially in Central America have so deteriorated that the soundest citizens are fleeing, searching for safe havens for themselves and their families. Is it the lure of our welfare state that attracts them? Or is it the all too visible cynicism and violence in their own countries that repels them? I don’t have precise answers, but I do know that wars consistently produce refugees — noncombatants who flee the battlegrounds. I doubt that our War on Drugs is an exception.
Adinolfi, Joseph. “Six Things You Need to Know about America’s Illegal Drug Trade: Who’s Using What, Where, and at What Cost — ConvergEx Study.” International Business Times, 29 Oct. 2013.
AP “59 Bodies Found Buried in a Series of Pits in Northern Mexico State of Tamaulipas.” New York Daily News, 7 Apr. 2011.
“Barrio Azteca.” Insight Crime: Organized Crime in the Americas.
Brecher, Edward M., and the Editors of Consumer Reports. Licit and Illicit Drugs. Boston: Little, Brown, 1972.
Carroll, Rory. “Honduras: ‘We Are Burying Kids All the Time.’” The Guardian, 12 Nov. 2010.
Castillo, Mariano. “Remains Could Be Those of Missing Mexican Students.” CNN, 11 November 2014.
“Costa Rica Crime and Safety Report.” Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC).
“Crime in El Salvador.” Wikipedia.
“Crime in Guatemala.” Ibid.
“Crime in Honduras.” Ibid.
“Crime in Mexico.” Ibid.
Daugherty, Arron. “MS 13, Barrio 18 Rivalry Increasing in Violence in Guatemala: President.” Insight Crime, 4 Feb. 2015.
DrugTraffickingintheUnitedStates. Washington DC: Drug Enforcement Administration, 2004.
Duke, Steven B., and Albert C. Gross. America’s Longest War: Rethinking Our Tragic Crusade Against Drugs. Fwd. Kurt L. Schmoke. New York: Tarcher/Putnam, 1994.
Dyer, Zach. “Costa Rica Saw ‘Important Increase in Violence,’ says OIJ Director.” The Tico Times, 17 Feb. 2015.
“El Salvador.” Insight Crime.
Gagne, David. “Guerreros Unidos, The New Face of Mexico Organized Crime?” Insight Crime, 9 Oct. 2014.
___. “Mexico Drug Cartels Arming Gangs in Costa Rica.” Ibid., 17 Nov. 2014.
___. “Mexico Captures Sinaloa Cartel Head in Central America.” Ibid., 13 Apr. 2015.
Grillo, Ioan. “Mexican Gangsters Send a Grisly Message in Crime.” Time, 21 Sept. 2011.
Hargrove, Dorian. “Sinaloa Drug Cartel Controls 16 Mexican States, Including Baja California.” San Diego Reader, 3 Jan 2012.
Hastings, Deborah. “In Central America, Women Killed ‘With Impunity’ Just Because They’re Women.” New York Daily News, 10 Jan. 2014.
“Honduras.” Insight Crime.
How Safe Is Mexico: A Travelers Guide to Safety Over Sensationalism.
Kilmer, Beau, et al. “How Big Is the U.S. Market for Illegal Drugs?” Rand Corporation. 2014.
____. “What America’s Users Spend on Illegal Drugs?” Rand Corporation, 7 March 2014.
“Nicaragua.” Insight Crime.
Pelofsky, Jeremy. “Guns from U.S. Sting Found at Mexican Crime Scenes.” Reuters, 26 July 2011.
“Police Officers Die in Mexico Roadside Ambush.” Al Jazeera, 8 Apr. 2015.
Riesenfeld, Loren. “ICE Raids Suggest Mexican Organized Crime Expanding Reach into U.S.” Insight Crime, 9 Apr. 2015.
Romero, Simon. “Cocaine Wars Make Port Colombia’s Deadliest City.” The New York Times, 22 May 2007.
Romo, Rafael. “Is the Case of 43 Missing Students in Mexico Closed?” CNN, 28 Jan. 2015.
Stanford University. “The United States War on Drugs.”
“2014 Iguala Mass Kidnapping.” Wikipedia.
“World Report: 2012.” Human Rights Watch.