If the cartels aren’t stopped soon, it may be too late for El Salvador

by NPR’s Mexico City correspondent,  Jason Beaubien

As Mexico’s drug cartels come under sustained attack by President Felipe
Calderon’s forces at home, several of them have started outsourcing. Los Zetas
and the powerful Sinaloan cartel have been expanding their operations in Central
America, where security forces often lack the resources to confront them.

The World Bank warns that the Mexican cartels pose a huge threat to
development in some of the poorest countries in the region, like El
Salvador.

In a graffiti-marred section of the capital, San Salvador, a squad of
national police called “The Hawks” is on patrol. The policemen ride in a
battered pickup truck but carry high-powered assault rifles. They are rolling
through an area controlled by the 18th Street gang.

When the police spot anyone they suspect of being a gang member, they jump
out and frisk him — like one tattooed, emaciated young man officers have
spread-eagle against a wall. They search his pockets and make him shake out his
shoes. He’s carrying a crack pipe, which the police confiscate before letting
him go.

Juan Bautista Rodriguez, the head of the emergency response police in San
Salvador, says these types of patrols are a crucial part of the fight against
organized crime. Police say routine busts of low-level, street drug dealers, like these in San Salvador, are an important part of their strategy to keep organized crime under control.

Jason
Beaubien/NPR
Police say routine busts of low-level, street drug dealers,
like these in San Salvador, are an important part of their strategy to keep
organized crime under control.

“We are attacking the small, street-level drug dealers that have proliferated
with the gangs,” Bautista Rodriguez says. He says this keeps a constant pressure
on the gangs and often provides leads for bigger busts.

‘Using The Local Gangs’

Bautista Rodriguez says there has been an increase in crime and violence as
the Mexican gangs move south, but he says the situation isn’t as bad in El
Salvador as it is in neighboring Guatemala or Honduras.

“Here in El Salvador, we still don’t have well-armed groups that have the
capacity to directly attack the police,” he says. “In all the cases that we’ve
had, we confront two or three gang members, and they are arrested or killed in
the confrontation.”

The police chief says the Mexican cartels appear to be expanding their
operations in El Salvador by hiring members of the 18th Street or Mara
Salvatrucha gangs to do work for them. Both of these gangs are known to be
extremely violent, and Bautista Rodriguez says their links to the Mexicans have
made them even more so.

“Drug bosses, cartels — they are using the local gangs, and this makes things
more violent because the gangs are used more as hit men, used more to kill —
used for revenge,” he says. “If this continues as we’ve been seeing, it’s going
to cause a rise in insecurity for the ordinary Salvadoran citizen.”

A ‘Very Powerful Enemy’

Earlier this month, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, in a plea for
regional unity against the Mexican cartels, said the nations of Central America
face a “very powerful enemy.” He said the profits garnered by the drug smugglers
exceed the resources “available to the security forces of our countries.”

This was an understatement. The billions of dollars in revenue generated each
year by the cartels exceeds the annual gross domestic product of any country in
the region.

The party line from Funes’ administration is that, yes, drug trafficking is
on the rise in El Salvador, but so far it hasn’t gotten out of hand. The
Salvadoran government, they argue, hasn’t lost control of any of its territory
to the smugglers, as has happened in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Outside of Funes’ administration, however, not everyone shares this
opinion.

“The presence of the drug cartels is increasing. Their power is increasing.
The drug traffic is increasing,” says Carlos Dada, the editorial director of the
Salvadoran news website El Faro. Two weeks
ago, El Faro published a 15,000-word, 33-page report on the workings of a
Salvadoran drug syndicate called the Cartel de Texis
. “Texis” is short for
one of the towns they control, Texistepeque.

Dada says this cartel controls a swath of land along the north of the
country.

“Because they own policeman, judges, congressmen, local mayors, et cetera,
they basically manage this piece of Salvadoran territory as their own,” he says.
“So they charge drug cartels for crossing that territory free of threats from
security forces. So if you are drug cartel, you pay them and you have a free
pass from Honduras to Guatemala.”

This cartel will sell its services to whoever wants to move narcotics through
the region toward the United States. The El Faro article lays out the exact path
the drugs follow — it cites intelligence documents making reference to the
Cartel of Texis more than a decade ago.

The Salvadoran attorney general’s office says it’s opening an investigation
into the cartel based on the El Faro article.

The news report caused quite a stir because it described in detail how the
cartel generated millions of dollars through its links to top government and
business officials in the region.

Effects Of The Rise Of Organized Crime

Suspected members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang under arrest at a San Salvador police station.  The 24 suspects were arrested in a police raid. Police officials say they're accused of major crimes including homicide, rape, extortion and drug possession.

Jason Beaubien/NPRSuspected members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang under arrest at a San Salvador
police station. The 24 suspects were arrested in a police raid. Police officials
say they’re accused of major crimes including homicide, rape, extortion and drug
possession.
Suspected members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang under arrest at a San Salvador police station.  The 24 suspects were arrested in a police raid. Police officials say they're accused of major crimes including homicide, rape, extortion and drug possession.

Jeannette Aguilar, who studies violence in El Salvador at the University of
Central America, says it’s clear that organized crime is intensifying in her
country every day. She points out that the homicide rate has doubled since 2003.
More cocaine is available on the street. Ancillary crime, such as extortion and
kidnapping, is on the rise.

She says El Salvador faces a huge challenge to try to reverse this.

“The state, the institutions for security and justice, have been penetrated
by organized crime for many years,” she says. “And this has blocked the state
from effectively pursuing these criminals.”

The violence, extortion and insecurity, she says, discourage foreign
investment in El Salvador and prevent local businesses from flourishing.

‘Very Fragile Institutions’

Criminal groups are also attracted to El Salvador because in 2001 it adopted
the U.S. dollar as its currency. And the country didn’t just peg its currency to
the dollar — physical U.S. dollars and coins are the only money in circulation.
This makes the country an ideal place to launder greenbacks.

Mexico last year slapped tight restrictions on the use of dollars solely to
further squeeze the cartels. No one doubts that illicit funds are flowing
through El Salvador; last year, police found $9 million, some of it in small
bills, buried in barrels on a ranch.

Dada, at the El Faro news site, says El Salvador needs to wake up and
confront the serious threat posed to it by organized crime.

“We have very fragile institutions. We are an emerging democracy,” he says.
“The danger is that the few steps we have taken, that we take them backward,
because the organized crime is substituting the state.”

Dada agrees with government officials that the international drug cartels
haven’t yet penetrated his country the way they have in Guatemala and Mexico.
But he says if the cartels aren’t stopped soon, it may be too late for El
Salvador.

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