U.S. Has Central America’s Northern Triangle in Its Sights

Drug trafficking, migration, high crime rates and even a supposed Iranian presence was the cocktail of concerns raised by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on his recent tour of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. (IPS)-Drug trafficking, migration, high crime rates and even a supposed Iranian presence was the cocktail of concerns raised by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on his recent tour of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Negroponte, considered a pragmatic realist, although with hawkish inclinations, in the administration of President George W. Bush, met with government, business and civil society leaders in the so-called Northern Triangle countries early this month.

These three Central American countries directly south of Mexico form part of the drug corridor between South and North America. There are reports that over the last year, drug lords like Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, the head of the cartel of the northern Mexican state of Sinaloa, have been moving around freely in this area.

A 2005 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) report, "The Illicit Drug Transit Zone in Central America", says Mexico and Central America "will remain the primary transit zone for U.S.-bound drugs produced in Central and South America for the foreseeable future."

"Today, all seven Central American countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama and Costa Rica) are actively used by major trafficking organizations to smuggle drugs and money between South America and Mexico", the report adds.

It goes on to refer to the "weak economies" and under-funded and inadequately trained police and other agencies in the region, with the exceptions, to a large extent, of Costa Rica and Panama.

"Consequently, some officials are susceptible to enormous bribes that drug traffickers can offer. The corrupting power of illicit drug trafficking organizations on the governmental institutions of Central America significantly increases the difficulties of mounting successful drug interdiction efforts," says the DEA report.

A recent anti-drug trafficking case in which the DEA took part was the capture of Jorge Mario "El Gordo" (fatman) Paredes in Honduras in May, a Guatemalan drug kingpin who was based in El Salvador. He was subsequently extradited to the United States, where he is standing trial on charges of leading a gang that smuggled tons of cocaine into the U.S. from Central America.

In each Northern Triangle country Negroponte visited in early June, he also addressed other issues that have marked Washington’s foreign policy agenda.

In El Salvador, he expressed concern over supposed ties between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former insurgent group that is now the main opposition party in El Salvador and which stands a good chance of winning the presidential elections in 2009, as indicated by opinion polls.

Negroponte based that assertion, made in statements to the local press, on the laptops seized by the Colombian military at the FARC rebel camp that was bombed by Colombia on March 1 in Ecuador.

FMLN spokesman Deputy Sigfrido Reyes refuted Negroponte’s allegation, which he said was part of a "dirty war strategy" spurred by the governing rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance’s (ARENA) fears of losing the 2009 elections.

The laptops that reportedly belonged to the FARC have also been used by the Colombian and U.S. governments to accuse leftwing presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador of links to the Colombian insurgents.

In El Salvador, Negroponte also said the Bush administration is on the alert to Iran’s presence in Central America.

Iran opened a diplomatic mission in Nicaragua in January 2007, after leftwing President Daniel Ortega took office.

The United States will closely monitor all of Iran’s activities in the western hemisphere, Negroponte said, after accusing that country of being one of the main supporters of extremist Islamist groups in the Middle East.

Sources close to the U.S. Embassy in Honduras told IPS that since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, the embassy has kept a closer eye on the Muslim community in Nicaragua and Honduras, which is mainly active in the business sphere.

In Guatemala, the emphasis of Negroponte’s visit was on Plan Merida, a major U.S. anti-drug initiative in Central America and Mexico that would provide $450 million in aid over the course of three years to equip security forces and strengthen the region’s judicial systems.

The U.S. official and President Álvaro Colom also discussed free trade and migration measures.

Negroponte’s tour was marked by protests, especially in Honduras, where his years as U.S. ambassador from 1981 to 1985 left a bitter taste because he was implicated in the brutal repression in which 187 people were forcibly disappeared for ideological reasons.

"Negroponte’s presence in our country is synonymous with death, and he’s up to something big because he doesn’t visit these countries because he likes them. I think we Central Americans should prepare ourselves to see in the next few months results of this visit, which has had a hidden agenda," human rights activist Bertha Oliva told IPS.

In Honduras, Negroponte said his government was worried about the activities of organized crime in the region and its penetration of politics.

The blows being dealt to the drug trade in Mexico and Colombia have pushed the heads of cartels to Central America, he said, adding that more attention must be paid to "governance" in the region.

Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, whose joint press conference with Negroponte was cancelled at the last minute, said the U.S. official’s tour through the region occurred in a new context: "This country is not the same as in the 1980s, because today we have learned greater tolerance to openness in the democratic system."

"This Central America that you are visiting," Zelaya told Negroponte, "is not the same as it was during the Cold War, when troops were trained to violate the human rights of people for ideological reasons."

Today, he said, "we emphasize peace and democracy, not that national security doctrine business anymore."

Political analyst Matías Funes said that what the president said is true and logical. But, he added, "we have to understand that today the United States comes to this region with another agenda, talking about drug trafficking, which can open up doors to other unknown actions, no longer in the framework of the ‘national security doctrine’ but of ‘governance’, as they call it now."

Funes commented to IPS that the U.S. interest in Central America should not be seen in a naïve manner, because "something big lies ahead, and it’s not necessarily going to be all peaches and cream."

He added that "we have to stay alert to the implications of the anti-drug Plan Merida and Plan Colombia," the U.S.-financed counterinsurgency and counter-drug strategy carried out since 2000 in civil war-torn Colombia.