Commentary: Central America is a bigger challenge for Obama

The country that will receive the most attention during President Barack Obama’s ongoing visit to Latin America — other than Libya — will be Brazil, but the place where he will probably have the biggest, and most needed, impact will be Central America.

Fifteen years after the end of Central America’s civil wars, this region is once again becoming the world’s most violent place, and a major source of drug trafficking, organized crime and illegal immigration to the United States.

According to United Nations estimates, more than 15,000 people a year are dying in drug and human trafficking-related violence in Central America.

Honduras is already the world’s most violent country, with a homicide rate of 67 per 100,000 people a year, four times higher than Mexico’s, the weekly The Economist reported recently.

During a five-day visit to Honduras, Nicaragua and a stop in El Salvador, I was surprised to see a huge increase of private security guards on the streets — like nothing I had seen in recent years. You see private guards everywhere, much more than uniformed police or army troops.

According to U.N. figures, there are at least five times more private security guards than police forces in Honduras and Guatemala.

What is going on, I asked Honduran President Porfirio Lobo in an interview. Lobo, who was democratically elected after a constitutional crisis triggered by a 2009 civilian-military coup, told me that growing numbers of Mexican drug lords are moving south to Central America because of the Mexican government’s military crackdown on the cartels.

“The cartels are coming our way,” Lobo said. “The growing crime rates are affecting us a lot, in many ways. Among other things, they scare away investments.”

Lobo reminded me that in over the past two years, members of the Los Zetas armed gang — originally part of Mexico’s Sinaloa drug cartel — have burned down buses with dozens of people inside in several Central American countries. The drug gangs, which are heavily involved in human trafficking, have also opened fire against a shoe store in Honduras, killing several innocent bystanders, and murdered 72 Central American migrants in Mexico when they couldn’t pay for being smuggled into the United States.

“They are much bloodier than anything we’ve seen before,” Lobo said. “By comparison, the traditional cocaine barons look like schoolboys.’’

Juan Orlando Hernandez, the president of the Honduran Congress, told me that Central American countries cannot fight against these criminal organizations single-handedly, because they lack the resources and know-how to beat them.

“We need a coordinated multinational effort that includes the United States, Mexico, Colombia and all Central American countries,” Hernandez said.

Obama, who is scheduled to arrive in El Salvador on Tuesday after his visit to Brazil and Chile, is expected to announce a new package of funds to help Central America fight criminal bands, U.S. officials tell me. Officials declined to elaborate on the amount and scope of the aid package.

My Opinion: Obama’s expected announcement of new aid to help Central America combat criminal organizations will be a welcome development, but it will be a Band-Aid approach that won’t do much to solve the problem.

What should he do? Just as previous U.S. presidents admitted — after many years of U.S. denial — that massive U.S. drug consumption is a big part of the drug-trafficking problem, and just as the Obama administration recently conceded that U.S. arms smuggling to Mexico is a big part of the drug violence problem there, Obama should take the bold step of admitting that it’s time to revise the U.S. war on drugs.

It’s clearly not working. Washington has only succeeded in pushing drug cartels from Colombia to Mexico, and now — increasingly — from Mexico to Central America. If we drive them out of Central America, they will go to the Caribbean. It’s a never-ending game that is costing billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of innocent lives.

Obama should heed the advice of former Mexican presidents Vicente Fox and Ernesto Zedillo, former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria and many others who are saying that it’s time to consider decriminalizing marijuana, and use the savings to fund education and prevention campaigns to diminish overall U.S. drug consumption.

Further reducing U.S. drug consumption would help more than anything else to weaken the drug cartels, and reducing the bloodshed in increasingly violence-torn Central America.


Andres Oppenheimer is a Miami Herald syndicated columnist and a member of The Miami Herald team that won the 1987 Pulitzer Prize. He also won the 1999 Maria Moors Cabot Award, the 2001 King of Spain prize, and the 2005 Emmy Suncoast award. He is the author of Castro's Final Hour; Bordering on Chaos, on Mexico's crisis; Cronicas de heroes y bandidos, Ojos vendados, Cuentos Chinos and most recently of Saving the Americas. E-mail Andres at Live chat with Oppenheimer every Thursday at 1 p.m. at The Miami Herald.

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