Archive for May, 2012


More violence in Nuevo Laredo

Security in Central America: Rice University Panel

Panel discussion on Central American security, trafficking, and gangs. Panelists include Dr. Thomas Ward, PhD, of University of Southern California. Dr. Ward is an anthropologist and expert on Salvadoran youth gangs and MS-13.

Make sure to read my review of Maras, which is found in the book review section.


Posted: May 6, 2012 in Maps



Democracy Now! Drug War Debate at Summit of the Americas

Is the genie out of the bottle? Latin American leaders pressure U.S. to change course on the drug war.

How did the drug war become so violent? Observers have wrestled with this question in the wake of intense fighting between Mexican cartels, the police, and the military, particularly in Ciudad Juárez. The Mexican government estimates that between 2006 and April 2012, 54,927 people have perished in drug-related violence. There are a number of possible answers to this question. Many have rightfully pointed to the easy flows of American weapons across the U.S./Mexico border. Others have pointed to endemic corruption in the Mexican military and police forces, which, rather than protecting citizens, have aligned with warring cartels at one point or another. These are all reasonable explanations. However, these conditions are only the byproducts of something much larger: the enduring impact of U.S. Cold War foreign policy in Latin America.

Narcotrafficking is deeply embedded in the history of the Cold War. Take, for instance, the powerful Zetas cartel in Mexico. The Zetas originated from an elite but corrupt clique of Mexican and Guatemalan Special Forces and Counterinsurgency Specialists which the United States trained to defeat leftist insurgencies in these countries. In 1999, these officers broke apart from the armed forces to provide security detail for the Gulf Cartel. In 2010, the Zetas split from their Gulf Cartel allies, and are currently battling the Sinaloa Cartel and the defunct-Gulf groups over control of Ciudad Juárez.

The Zetas are only the latest in a long-line of crooked Cold Warriors turned drug traffickers. Between the late 1950s until the mid-1990s, the United States allied with right-wing mercenaries and military dictators to satisfy its short-term goals of defeating leftist insurgencies, especially in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala. U.S. allies, including the Contras and regional militaries (Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama), were heavily involved in criminal conspiracies including drug trafficking, racketeering, and money laundering. Under President Reagan, the CIA sought these groups’ assistance in destroying the FMLN (El Salvador), URNG (Guatemala), and the Sandinista (FSLN) government in Nicaragua. In exchange, the U.S. permitted them to traffic cocaine across Central America and through Caribbean ports.

Take, for example, the United States’ partnership with General-President Manuel Noriega of Panama. Noriega, a former director of the Panamanian secret police and close ally of the Medellin Cartel, was on the CIA payroll for nearly thirty years. Noriega provided critical regional intelligence to the CIA, and in return, the United States assured him it would not shutdown his lucrative drug running and money laundering operations in Panama City. The U.S. also relied upon the Panamanian dictator to secretly arm the Contra rebels against the Sandinista government. He even promised to assassinate FSLN leaders if the U.S. would lead international propaganda campaigns to “clean up his image.”[1] The Contras were involved in narcotrafficking as well. In October 1988, Newsweek reported that the Contras had purchased weapons with profits from the sale of cocaine they had brought into the United States with the help of the CIA and DEA. The story ignited a firestorm of controversy, but was just another episode in a long line of blunders and scandals that defined the Reagan administration’s policy toward Latin America. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush authorized Operation Just Cause, a U.S. Army invasion of Panama that removed Noriega from power. At the time, the operation was the largest U.S.  military action since the Vietnam War.

Nicaraguan Contras

It is important to clarify that the drugs wars are not about states and militaries fighting powerful non-state entities (cartels, gangs, etc). I argue that the boundaries between the state and organized crime in certain countries of Latin America have been irrevocably collapsed. Once again, this is a direct consequence of U.S. sponsored “dirty wars” and counterinsurgencies during the 1970s and 1980s. These policies had the effect of uniting powerful state security apparatuses with organized crime syndicates, drug traffickers, and later, gangs. These alliances have perpetuated judicial impunity and corruption, especially within law enforcement and the military.

Take, for example, the case of Guatemala. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Guatemalan government under civilian presidents Vinicio Cerezo and Jorge Serrano waged a covert dirty war against its opponents (organized labor, student movements, leftwing political parties, and human rights advocates). To avert public attention, these governments conscripted “death squads” comprised of elite intelligence agents and “off-duty” police and military personnel. These death squads collaborated with organized crime syndicates and even contracted “street thugs” to kill opponents.[2] As a result, politicians, military leaders, and mobsters became close bedfellows. Today, Central American nations are infiltrated by mobsters and traffickers who finance elections in exchange for state protections.

U.S. policymakers must recognize how its destructive Cold War policies in Latin America continue to play a major role in the perpetuation of drug violence and terror in the region today. The United States continues to finance, arm, and train Latin American security forces whose tactics have remained largely the same since the 1980s.  They continue to exist beyond the reach of civilian oversight or control. They do not respect due process, specializing instead in illegal methods of coercion, including forced disappearances, torture, and extra-judicial assassinations. And yet the United States government continues to rely upon military solutions for curbing drug violence, from the woefully ineffective Plan Colombia to the most recent Plan Mérida agreement. U.S. Southcom and DEA continue to engage familiar cronies and Cold Warriors with abysmal human rights records in its quixotic quest to interdict Andean cocaine before its reaches the border. Until our government considers a range of serious alternatives for controlling the drug trade, and in particular, curbing domestic demand, it can expect the same old results.

-Edward F. Shore

[1] See “Primary Sources”- “The Contras, Cocaine, Noriega, and Covert Operations”

[2] See, for instance, “Primary Sources” Section- “U.S. State Department’s Frustration with Guatemalan President’s Permissive stance on Drugs” and “CIA Links Guatemalan Military Officer to Drug Trafficking.” “U.S. Policy in Guatemala, 1966-1996.”

NSA: U.S. Policy in Latin America (1966-1996)