Two recent events have taken place lately that signal the security challenges the United States is facing from Latin America.
One is the flow of tens of thousands of unaccompanied children coming from Central America into U.S territory. The second is the recent episode in Iguala, Mexico where students disappeared and were presumably murdered at the hands of a Mexican gang connected to the police and to the town’s mayor.
The crisis of the Central American children has been largely defined as a humanitarian problem and has served to further the debate about immigration reform.
Without dismissing the humanitarian considerations and without rejecting the important debate on immigration reform, none of those actions and criticisms from both sides of the aisle discuss a major issue that can badly affect our national security: the problem of the increasing anarchy of the countries located south of our border, particularly Central America and Mexico.
The displaced minors are the result of a war caused by drug trafficking and the flourishing of gangs that recruit children and teenagers for criminal purposes such as human trafficking, among other things. These children escaped from the criminals that now control the streets of these countries and have made the population vulnerable. The government has ceased to exist; it is virtually dead.
Early in November, the Mexican attorney general announced that 43 students were killed and burned by members of “Guerreros Unidos” (United Warriors), a major drug gang involved in the trafficking of marihuana and poppy.
It was the mayor of Iguala and his wife who instructed the local police to attack the students, as the mayor’s wife was afraid of disruption during an event she organized. The Mayor’s wife happens to be the sister of two deceased members of United Warriors and she is thought to be the main coordinator of the United Warriors gang in the town of Iguala. This explains why the police handed over the students to the gang.
In the state of Guerrero, where Iguala is located, violence and political corruption has made drug trafficking flourish. As a result of the Mexican people’s refusal to accept the attorney general’s version, as well as the Mexican president’s failure to postpone a trip to China in the midst of a crisis, Mexico faced the most serious mass reaction since the revolts of 1968.
The National Palace was set on fire in the Mexican capital. In Acapulco, the most important city in the State of Guerrero, the airport was seized by a group of teachers and students. Marches and violent protests erupted all over Mexico, particularly in Guerrero.
A 2013 investigation by Human Rights Watch found that in 149 of 250 disappearance cases in Mexico, there was “compelling evidence” that state agents were involved.
Indeed Mexico, as well as more and more Central American countries, finds itself in a state of anarchy where drug cartels and traffickers have bought the cooperation of state officials or have threatened them to accept bribes. Drug gangs in Honduras tried to assassinate a congressman, a prominent journalist and a police chief.
Reports indicate that the Mexican gang, Zetas, control half of Guatemala as well as large parts of Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. The cartels possess more sophisticated weapons and financial resources than the military and the police together in these countries.
The exodus of Central American children and the protests in Mexico are motivated by the people’s desperate need for security that their respective governments cannot guarantee.
Mexico’s immediate past president, Felipe Calderon, used the military to fight the cartels in an effort to weaken and eventually to eliminate them. However, after massive complaints about the number of casualties the war on drugs brings about and the belief that Mexico was acting upon American wishes, Peña Nieto adopted a policy of protecting its citizens without fighting the drug cartels. Peña Nieto’s policy has not solved the problem.
Moreover, I would dare to say that the problem of narco-trafficking, criminality, and corruption has been aggravated.
Furthermore, former Mexican president and now Yale University director of Global Studies, Ernesto Zedillo (who belongs to Pena Nieto’s party), claimed that the students were not killed because of the drug business.
Zedillo, however, forgets that the corrupt interaction between drug criminals and government is based on mutuality. If the drug business wants to operate with the consent of the government, they must return favors. Therefore, it is the criminality itself that matters, not the motive.
What is worse, such mutuality applies to even more dangerous elements.
It is known that Hezbollah cooperates with drug cartels. Hezbollah has a strong presence in Mexico and Central America. It's widely thought that there are ties between the Mexican Sinaloa cartel and Hezbollah. Hezbollah has helped drug cartels to build modern tunnels along the Mexican-American border following the model of those built along the Israeli/Lebanese border. Iran employed members of “Zeta” to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington DC.
This mayhem could attract even more terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State.
Therefore, what happens in Latin America is our business.
Anarchy and corruption in these countries are our business. Restoring the rule of law to Mexico and Central America is not an easy task, but it requires serious attention from the U.S Government.
Indeed, the Central America Security Initiative is precisely aimed at assisting Mexico and Central America in this endeavor. Perhaps what is needed is a reassessment of this program and review ways to make it more effective.
Mexican and Central American leaders, if they are serious about restoring order, need to know that we are fully behind them. This is a local problem as much as it is an American one.
Luis Fleischman has worked as adviser for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy on issues related to Latin America, hemispheric security, democracy, and U.S policy in Latin America. He is the author of "Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Threat to U.S. Security." Fleischman is an adjunct professor of sociology and political science at Florida Atlantic University Honors College and FAU Lifelong Learning Society. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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