In the shadows of globalisation: drug violence in Mexico and Central America

The wave of violence afflicting Mexico and the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) is caused by three developments: changes in the global drug market, the effect of the war against organised crime and the international financial crisis, making the problem not just a criminal one.
Benedicte Bull
22 December 2011

Mexico and the northern triangle of Central America (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) are currently experiencing a wave of violence that has taken on the dimensions of a humanitarian catastrophe. The number of deaths in Mexico’s drug war may reach 50,000 by the end of 2011, while the violence is much more dramatic in the small neighbouring countries to the south. In 2011, Honduras, for example, is bound to experience the highest frequency of murders in the world with 86 per 100,000 inhabitants. In Guatemala and El Salvador, the violence is as bad as during the bloody civil wars in these countries. How can we understand this extreme violence and what does it mean for us in Norway?

The background for the explosion of violence in these areas is, of course, complex. The apparent cause is the spread of the illegal economy, including drug smuggling, but also human trafficking and trade in weapons. Mexico and Central America have long been transit areas for cocaine from Colombia, Bolivia and Peru to the U.S., a trade that is currently estimated to be worth about $38 billion annually. But the cocaine trade is just one part of the picture. Mexico also produces heroin, marihuana and methamphetamine for the U.S. market, while weapons are being smuggled in the opposite direction. Approximately 90% of the arms seized from organised criminal groups in Mexico are bought legally in the U.S. and smuggled illegally across the 3,000 km-long border to Mexico.

Illegal trade is nothing new in Latin America or the rest of the world. Opium and marihuana have been smuggled from Mexico to the U.S. since the 1920s – at times while the U.S. government has looked the other way – without producing the levels of violence that we see today. The cocaine trade has always been associated with higher levels of violence, e.g. when it was controlled by Colombian cartels until the 1990s, but even then the violence was not as extensive as we see in Mexico and Central America today.

In order to understand the increased levels of violence, we have to look at least three developments: changes in the global drug market, the effect of the war against organised crime and the international financial crisis.

Cocaine consumption in the U.S. has contracted over the last few years. The resulting loss of markets in the U.S. led to a shift in focus towards markets in Latin America, where the price is lower. A great deal of the violence that we see today is related to the local drug trade. The reduced profit margins have also led organised criminal groups to engage increasingly in other activities like kidnapping and extortion, which has led to a further increase in violence.

The “war” against organised crime being fought by the Mexican authorities has led to a fragmentation of the criminal organisations that since the 1980s have been decentralised, but co-ordinated. Around 25 important leaders of organised crime have been captured in the last few years. Although this must be viewed as an achievement, a side effect has been that “pacts” and cease-fires are constantly brokered and new wars are fought over the control of territory. There are also constant aggregations of new groups that acquire ever-heavier arms to match those of the military. Lately, in addition to a number of offshoots of the seven or eight large Mexican criminal organisations, we have seen the emergence of paramilitary groups, probably financed by legal businesses or governors. These groups use methods of “social cleansing” that were previously seen in Colombia and Central America during the wars to uproot organised criminal groups that took place there. However, the effect is a further escalation of violence.

Among the reasons for the negative consequences of governmental campaigns are also the historically tight connections between drug-trading organisations and the Mexican authorities, and the way in which these links have changed over the course of the last decade. While organised criminal groups recruit police and military deserters, a significant share of political campaign financing originates from drug money, which gives organised crime significant political control.

Yet the consequences of this phenomenon would not have been so serious had it not been for an increasing social exclusion related to the region’s transformation to a neoliberal economy. Economic interdependence with the U.S. has also led to an economic crisis that has further diminished the already limited possibilities for young, marginalised Mexicans to establish a dignified life through legal means. In this context, a life with access to money and protection in the criminal organisations appears attractive, in spite of it being brutal – and possibly short.

In Central America, one has to add further factors to the equation. In Guatemala, the Mexican cartels are a new element in a complex mix of paramilitary groups and clandestine networks in the shadow land between state and organised crime. In Honduras, the struggle for democracy after the coup in 2009 is about to drown in shifting connections among the military, police forces, politicians and organised criminals, which make it impossible to distinguish between politically motivated violence and drug violence.

The consequences of this are enormous, threatening democracy, development and human rights. It is also a challenge to external actors who attempt to understand and relate to the problem. A start to such an understanding would be to recognise that this is not simply a criminal problem. The activities of organised criminals affect different parts of the population in many different ways and the sharp dividing line between criminals and non-criminals is hard to sustain.

For us, it is important to understand the societal conditions and structures that have contributed to the emergence of these kinds of enterprises. It is important to identify and initiate governmental interventions that efficiently reduce the violence and do not cause the escalation that we have seen over the last few years. Although Mexico and Central America are far away from Norway, we are involved both as consumers of illegal goods and as participants in a global economy that for many does not leave other options for economic well-being than a life of criminality and extreme violence.

We as researchers also have a responsibility – primarily to ensure that the drama that is taking place in Mexico and Central America is not understood merely as yet another manifestation of the violent inclinations of drug lords. The situation is a tragic manifestation of the interplay among local political dynamics, socioeconomic and cultural processes, and the dark side of a global economy that we are also a part of. The Latin America conference currently taking place [in October 2011] at the University of Bergen in collaboration with the Norwegian Latin America Research Network will make an important contribution to such an understanding and thus to a better understanding on the part of Norwegians of what is happening in the region.


Originally published in Bergens Tidende in Norwegian, 25, October 2011, this article was published in English on the website of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre (NOREF)

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