Latin America countries seek unity to combat drugs
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
WASHINGTON – The last four decades of efforts to subdue cartel violence and illicit drug trafficking in the Western Hemisphere have not gone to waste.
But with Mexican cities boiling in brooding bloodshed, Colombia crackdowns having some success and Costa Rica fearing the internal spread of drugs, three Latin American ambassadors — Arturo Sarukhan of Mexico, Carolina Barco of Colombia and Luis Diego Escalante of Costa Rica — and Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., chair of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, agreed that combating drug activity was no longer an individual concern, but a hemispheric matter.
“We’re talking about a problem that reaches further and deeper into our region, and so it requires a regional response,” Barco said.
Engel, the ambassadors and terrorism experts spoke at the National Press Club to raise awareness of these challenges.
According to a Congressional Research Service Report about Latin American trade, that region is the second fastest-growing U.S. regional trade partner, after Africa. Although not represented in the report, illegal drug trade between the U.S. and Ibero-America is high.
“What goes on in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, is a direct threat to our society,” Engel said.
Barco said the drug industry is a united effort, so the eradication of illicit activity should be too. Colombia, the world’s No. 1 cocaine producer, transports its loads through Central America to the United States, the largest drug consumer.
“We are all now producers and consumers,” Barco said. “It’s a shared responsibility on both sides, the demand and supply.”
Mexico has borne the brunt of narcotics trafficking since the mid-1980s, when U.S. law enforcement squeezed maritime smuggling out of Miami’s in- lets. Colombian drug lords paid Mexican counterparts in drugs, giving cartels the ability to start retail distribution networks and generate more revenue, Sar-ukhan said.
“This is what changed the dynamics of the drug trade in Mexico, and this is what we’re seeing today. The very power ability of the drug syndicates in Mexico to corrupt, kill and bribe,” Sarukhan said.
Since Mexican President Felipe Calderón declared war on drugs in 2006, nearly 12,000 people have been murdered.
“What we are asking of the administration and Congress is to help us enforce what is already in the books. Help us shut down the illicit purchases of weapons,” Sarukhan said. Mexico is trying to cut off the drug flow to the U.S. and halt the crossing of illegal high-caliber arms from the U.S., Sarukhan said. Ninety percent of weapons recovered in Mexico come from the U.S.
Mexico plans to focus on gaining intelligence over flexible drug syndicates, maintaining operational security, enhancing the use of aerial capabilities, upholding the law, winning public support and rebuilding and strengthening institutions to combat drug cartels.
Mexico has spent $3.9 billion to fight organized crime, but it will to seek help from allies.
“We can transit from having this be a national security challenge to this being a law-and-order, public-security challenge,” Sarukhan said.
At the end of the 1980s, Colombia’s situation was similar to that of present-day Mexico. Colombia regained the streets of its death-strewn cities through aerial eradication of drug crops and trafficking. Colombian efforts were then able to enforce ground interdiction. Today, homicides are down 44 percent and kidnap-pings have decreased by 86 percent, Barco said.
“We lived through the violence Mexico is experiencing,” Barco said.
Barco, Sarukhan and Engel expressed concern for developing countries such as Guatemala, Belize and Costa Rica, which may be susceptible to resilient drug syndicates searching for less resistant hubs.
“We need to keep helping countries where we see the drug cartel go,” Engel said. “We have to embrace a whole new, more holistic strategy.”
The Inter-University Center for Terrorism Studies and B’nai B’rith International sponsored the panel discussion.