In February 2007, three Salvadoran congressmen, including Congressman Eduardo D'Aubuisson--the son of Roberto D'Aubuisson--and the founder of the Alianza Republicana Nactionalista Party (ARENA), were murdered on a Guatemalan farm near the town of El Jocotillo. (1) At first, the killings appeared politically motivated, but later evidence indicated that the assassins tore apart the congressmen's car in a search for drugs and money. Two days after the killings, authorities arrested four Guatemalan police officers for the murders, after they confessed that they thought the congressmen were Colombian drug dealers carrying cash. Three days after their confession, an armed commando entered the maximum-security jail where the arrested officers were held and shot them dead. (2)
In the months that followed, the government prosecuted several high-ranking Guatemalans, including a congressman, state governor and at least twelve civilians and police officers in connection with the murders. (3) The killings shocked Central America, but this type of violence was nothing new.
El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua suffered from decades of civil war, which spilled over into Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, the backward socioeconomic situation and the lack of reform in El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and even Honduras led to an escalation of their civil wars during the 1970s and1980s. The conflicts became a part of the Cold War, further heightening Central American tensions, as both the United States and the Soviet Union vied for regional influence by providing military assistance to revolutionary and counterrevolutionary forces. The death tolls were high. In El Salvador, roughly 70,000 people lost their lives by the war's end in 1992. Nicaragua suffered 80,000 deaths by 1991, while Guatemala lost 200,000 people between 1954 and 1996. (4)
Central America's civil wars devastated a generation, but the murders of the Salvadorian congressmen revealed a new trend in its turbulent history. Cocaine, that lucrative but illegal commodity, displaced ideology as the basis for Central America's violence.
Histories about the War on Drugs in Central America have focused on individual countries or criminal elements involved in narcotrafficking. (5) However, the research has not discussed the impact of Central America's civil wars and how they affected regional drug trafficking. How was Central America transformed into a hub for narcotrafficking during its civil wars? How did the post-civil war period influence Central America's ability to respond to narcotrafficking? How did drug-related violence in Central America come to resemble the violence witnessed during its civil wars?
Using newly acquired primary sources obtained through a U.S. Department of State declassification process, traditional open-source government documents and secondary sources, this paper attempts to show how Central America's civil wars and its weak political institutions left the region vulnerable to narcotrafficking syndicates and violent criminal gangs that threatened to destabilize the region as a whole. The emerging narcotrafficking/gang problem led to the development of radical responses and contentious international counternarcotics programs that sowed regional instability similar to that experienced during Central America's civil war era.
The Initial Colombian-Mexican Connection in Central America
During the 1980s, revolution in Central America facilitated the growth of regional narcotrafficking. (6) Inconclusive allegations of drug trafficking were leveled against many of the participants, including the Contra organizations Ailanza Revlocionaria Democratica (ARDE) and the Fuerza Democratica Nicaraguense (FDN). Allegations also targeted Honduran protection for international trafficker Juan Ramon Matta Ballesteros, the Sandinista Direccion General de Seguridad del Estado (DGSE), and Cuba's Direccion General de Informacion (DGI) involvement with the Colombian guerrilla organization Movimiento 19 de Abril (M-19). Authorities brought greater evidence against the Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega (1983-1989) for his association with the Medellin cartel, which led to the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. While much has been written on this subject matter elsewhere, mentioning it is important, because the Medellin cartel developed narcotrafficking ties with every interest listed above during the height of the region's civil wars. (7)
As the civil wars wound down in the early 1990s, a nexus between Mexican and Colombian drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) emerged. U.S. efforts to slow drug traffic in the Caribbean during the late 1980s with Operation Bahamas, Turks and Caicos (OPBAT) motivated Andean drug traffickers to shift their trafficking operations to the Pacific corridor, towards Central America and Mexico. (8) Corruption and the porous U.S. southwest border enabled Colombian DTOs to create solid partnerships with Mexican syndicates, which the Colombians used to smuggle cocaine and heroin into the United States. (9) The Deputy Attorney General of the PGR in charge of Mexico's anti-narcotics police, Javier Coello Trejo, succinctly described Mexico as a "trampoline for Colombian cocaine." (10) By 1989, 70 percent of Colombian cocaine was moving into Mexico, often run through Central America, which was used as a storage and transshipment point. (11) For the Colombian and Mexican narcotraffickers, Central America offered an unchecked path to elude U.S. and Andean counternarcotics efforts.
The Medellin cartel formed the initial Mexican-Colombian relationship in the late 1980s. Honduran trafficker Ramon Matta Ballesteros arranged the first known contact between Mexican DTOs and the Medellin cartel.
Ballesteros introduced Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo (a.k.a. El Padrino), the leader of the Guadalajara cartel and father of the Tijuana and Sinaloa cartels, to Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, a founding member of the Medellin cartel. In 1986, the murder of DEA Agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena led to the break-up of the Guadalajara cartel, which ended with Felix Gallardo's arrest in 1989. From jail, Gallardo orchestrated the division of the Guadalajara cartel among its "second generation" associates. (12)
During this time, trafficker Arturo Eng Guerrero helped the Medellin cartel strengthen its ties with the Arellano Felix organization, which operated out of Tijuana. (13) The initial Medellin-Tijuana cartel operation took advantage of Mexican smuggling routes along the U.S. border. The Colombians paid Mexican smugglers $1,000 for each kilo of cocaine they moved into the U.S. The Medellin cartel reacquired the cocaine after it entered the country. (14)
By the early 1990s, pressure from Colombian authorities forced the Medellin cartel to modify its operations. As a result, they gave Mexican syndicates more responsibility over trafficking operations. Rather than paying Mexican DTOs to move cocaine into the United States, the Medellin cartel provided Mexican DTOs, such as the Arellano Felix cartel, with cocaine, and allowed them to set up their own distribution networks in the United States. (15) The 1992 arrest of Javier Pardo Cardona, the Medellin cartel's main contact with Mexican DTOs, signaled the decline of the Medellin's influence in Mexico. However, their rivals, the Cali cartel, had already filled the void. (16)
According to the Department of State, because of Colombia's focus on the Medellin cartel, the Cali cartel took responsibility for most of the trafficking through Mexico as early as 1990. (17) The U.S. State Department also reported that the Mexican government's use of radar and its implementation of a shoot-down policy in 1990 caused the Cali cartel to put a moratorium on multi-aircraft drug convoys to Mexico. They shifted their aviation operations southward from northern Mexico into Guatemala and, sources suspect, El Salvador, in order to move the cocaine through Mexico by surface vehicles to the U.S. (18) Working together, the Mexican and Cali cartels moved their staging areas to southern Mexico and neighboring Central America. (19)
The Cali cartel differed from the flamboyant Medellin cartel, best exemplified by Pablo Escobar. They preferred to associate with subtler Mexican traffickers who worked within the Mexican system. The Cali cartel developed close ties with Juan Garcia Abrego, the leader of the Gulf cartel. (20) Abrego offered to handle all the cocaine shipments into the United States in exchange for 50 percent of the profits. (21) By 1994, the Gulf cartel was handling as much as one-third of all cocaine shipments into the U.S. from Cali cartel suppliers. (22) In Guadalajara, Mexico, the Cali cartel established connections with the La Familia cartel, an anti-drug vigilante group in the state of Michoacan that evolved into a DTO affiliated with the Gulf cartel. (23)
The Cali cartel also developed ties with Amado Carrillo Fuentes, who emerged as the undisputed leader of the Ciudad Juarez cartel by 1993. In January 1992, Cali cartel leader Gilberto Rodriguez-Orejuela met with Carrillo Fuentes in Guatemala, where they agreed that Carrillo Fuentes would fly 727 jets loaded with cocaine from Colombia to Mexico. Carillo Fuentes' air trafficking operation earned him the nickname "Lord of the Skies." (24) The Cali cartel preferred to work with Fuentes because he maintained tight security and compartmentalized his organization. He influenced Mexican officials to look the other way, acting much like Garcia Abrego. For example, many believe Abrego bribed Mario Ruiz Massieu, the Mexican Deputy Attorney General for Special Affairs, and Raul Salinas de Gortari to provide access to Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari. (25)
According to a convicted trafficker, the "Gulf cartel grew" with the "support of the corrupt political system." The Mexican police, the Policia Judicial Federal Mejicano (PJFM), "controlled 90 percent of...