The Northern Triangle’s drugs-violence nexus

The role of the drugs trade in criminal violence and policy responses in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras
Liza Ten Velde
TNI Drugs & Conflict Debate Paper 19
November 2012

dc19Mexico has occupied the limelight when it comes to media attention focusing on drug-related violence in Latin America. However, it is actually Central America's Northern Triangle – consisting of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – currently experiencing much higher rates of violence and increasing Drug Trafficking Organization (DTOs) activity, thus providing an illustration of the 'balloon effect' previously experienced by Mexico itself after the implementation of Plan Colombia which was conceived at the end of the 90's. Together the countries of the Northern Triangle now form one of the most violent regions on earth.

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Although it is clear that the violence in Honduras,El Salvador and Guatemala is pervasive and able to destabilize these Central American societies to a large extent, no consensus seems to exist on its exact causes. As in Mexico, much of the violence is attributed to the increased role of Central America as a transit region for controlled drugs destined for the US.

This paper will address the particulars of the high levels of criminal violence in the Northern Triangle, and try to assess to what extent the drugs trade is responsible for this violence. The recently reinvigorated debate on alternative approaches to drug control strategies in the Americas suggests changes in drugs policies can be expected from the central American region, but in spite of the similarities of the challenges posed to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras when it comes to drug-related problems and criminal violence, the positions occupied by the political leaders of these countries in this incipient debate differ considerably.

Concluding remarks

It is clear that the upsurge in levels of criminal violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle can be attributed to a considerable extent to the growing importance of this region for drug trafficking operations. The increased presence of Mexican DTOs and the threat they pose to local criminal organizations is a notable source of violent conflict. Meanwhile, the ties between DTOs and local transportistas and gangs have also strengthened, with the latter groups becoming better organized and increasingly involved in the drug trade. As noted, determining with any precision to what extent drug-related issues are responsible for growing criminal violence in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras is as yet impossible. Even determining precisely the role of the much broader category of organized crime has proved to be unfeasible.

The correlation between growing violence and intensified drug operations in the Northern Triangle, however, is striking. In itself, this could mean that the call for alternative approaches from one of these countries’ leaders might not come as such a surprise, given the extent to which the violence and drug trade are destabilizing the region. What should not be overlooked, however, is the extent to which the mano dura approaches and accompanying strategy of militarization as pursued by the Northern Triangle’s governments are in themselves sources of severe destabilization and of rising levels of violence. This, combined with the alleged use of drug trafficking as a pretext for increasing state control over areas with conflicts between local citizens and the authorities further complicates the situation.

Notwithstanding, these difficulties should not lead us to disregard the fact that the call for a discussion on alternative approaches by Guatemala’s president is a remarkable development, which has significantly contributed to and broadened the wider regional debate on a departure from the prevailing war-on-drugs strategies. In the face of US opposition and disagreement of some of the other Central American countries, this has been no small feat. The current discrepancy between repressive drug control legislation in the Northern Triangle combined with the mano dura approaches of the region’s authorities to criminal violence and drug trafficking, and the proposed alternative measures is enormous, but the Guatemalan government seems to be serious about its desire to learn more about potential alternative policy options.

While it is of course not realistic to expect a fundamental redirecting of the region’s strategies to counter drug trafficking and criminal violence in the short term, some cautious optimism in assessing the possibility of changes towards more effective and humane drug policies in the Northern Triangle might not be entirely misplaced.