Each year, American drug consumers give billions of dollars to the drug cartels that have plunged Mexico into civil unrest. According to the United States Government Accountability office, the Mexican cartels take in as much as $23 billion in revenue every year.
In many ways, the American population’s refusal to give up illicit drugs – a 2008 World Health Organization report concluded that the United States has the highest levels of illegal drug use in the world – bears direct responsibility for the beheadings and the massacres that now take place on a daily basis, because the cartels would be unable to operate without a reliable and eager customer north of the border. But there are other factors in play as well.
Los Angeles has been a breeding ground for gang activity since the days of alcohol prohibition. Today, its location between the drug routes originating from Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez make it a prime destination for drug dispersal throughout the southwest. The Los Angeles metropolitan area of 10 million residents guarantees local drug dealers, street gangs and the drug cartels who set the illicit trade in motion an abundant population of customers.
The city of Los Angeles, however, has played a far greater role in the crisis that has entrenched itself in Mexico and Latin America, knocking on America’s door. Some of the roots of today’s increasingly grisly conflict can be traced back the City of Angels.
The roots of the crisis date back decades. Officer Alfredo Aguayo of the LAPD’s Gang Enforcement Unit explained that the 1980s and early ’90s saw the rise of brutal street gangs that brought chaos to the streets of Los Angeles, the most infamous being MS-13, the Mara Salvatrucha – and its rival, M-18, also known as “18th Street.”
“MS-13 and M-18 are funded by criminal activity – robbery, extortion, human trafficking and street-level narcotics sales,” said Aguayo. “Just recently, these gangs have been implicated in three or four murders in the Hollywood area.”
According to Aguayo, because the gangs consist largely of illegal residents from Central America, the government has tried to keep them off the streets by means of mass deportations after arrests are made. In 2009, nearly 130,000 criminals were removed from the United States, according to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. About a third of them were reportedly arrested for drug-related crimes.
“This has been happening since the 1980s and ’90s. Criminals do their state time and then are handed over to the feds and deported – ‘deported felons,’ as they are called,” said Aguayo. However, Central America – a region made up of fragile governments and traumatized populations emerging from years of war and dictatorship – has not been able to handle the brutality of the hardened criminals, and the result has been staggering. An area known as the northern triangle, consisting of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, now has some of the highest murder rates in the world.
An article in the Latin American Herald Tribune, published at the beginning of the year, showed that El Salvador recorded more than 4,300 murders in 2009 – the highest in more than a decade – in a nation of only 6 million. Crime is rampant, and the deteriorating security has allowed Mexico’s drug cartels to gain a foothold on the streets of national capitals and in the lawless jungles.
In June, Guatemalan National Police pointed its finger at the ferocious drug cartel Los Zetas after four people were decapitated – one of the severed heads placed near the steps of the Guatemalan Congress. The gruesome discovery proved that America’s southern border is not the only boundary that Mexico’s spiraling drug violence and those perpetuating it are willing to cross.
Unfortunately, the deportations provide little, if any, silver lining for the United States. MS-13 and other street gangs have maintained their presence in Los Angeles and expanded their operations across the country as far away as Virginia, New England and Alaska. The FBI estimates that their membership across North America is well into the tens of thousands.
“They are all over the USA … there is MS-13 activity at a city, state and federal level,” said Aguayo, adding that the problem extends to the San Francisco Bay Area. “As for me personally, I have had contact with MS members in San Jose.”
According to a report by the Center for Immigration Studies published in September of 2008, the group is involved in trafficking drugs, weapons and people over the border, and is unifying at a continental level, making it far more disciplined, efficient and dangerous. The report goes on to say that the northern triangle is the epicenter for transnational gang violence, suggesting that the need for international cooperation – from the United States and Mexico to the rest of Latin America – is more important than ever.
Some of that much-needed cooperation is already taking place. As the violence crosses borders, the LAPD and police departments from Central America have put together an “exchange program,” giving police officials the chance to see the situation from an international level.
“There are officers from Guatemala doing ride-alongs with the LAPD, while our officers are going down to Central America,” said Aguayo. “It’s clear they don’t do things the same way we do,” alluding to the struggles police in Central America are trying to overcome. At the beginning of 2010, Guatemala’s National Police chief and top anti-narcotics official were arrested for cocaine trafficking, highlighting how serious the drug traffickers’ hold over Central American governments and security forces has become.
While the ride-along program gives North American law enforcement a chance to work together, Aguayo stresses that the LAPD’s primary function is to protect the streets of Los Angeles, not assess whether or not an incarcerated criminal could pose a threat to the security situation in Central America.
“We don’t evaluate whether or not we should deport someone,” he said. “As far as we are concerned, this is a matter for the feds to decide.”
As the federal government’s attention shifts to the remote tribal areas of Pakistan and Yemen, it seems unlikely that serious action will soon be taken to help alleviate the ills that threaten to define the future of Latin America, a region once high on America’s priority list when threatened by the Soviet Union. The communist empire is long gone, but the drug cartels that rose from the ashes of war and instability have slipped in through America’s back door.