Drug-related violence is as much a fact of life in Central America’s Northern Triangle as it is in some parts of the urban U.S. But its impact in these small Central American countries is huge, with up to 10 percent of the population of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador having fled violence and its associated poverty and insecurity according to the Washington-based Atlantic Council.
This violence has started spilling over into Costa Rica over the past several years, with rising homicide rates and a growing presence of international drug trafficking groups. Former Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla forms part of the Council’s Northern Triangle Security and Economic Opportunity Task Force which gathered Latin American leaders for a meeting last week.
She warned that smuggling routes could one day be exploited by terrorist organizations: “If we do not do something different in the following years, the violence will continue,” Chinchilla said. “And the illegal groups will continue working. And that means an important threat to the United States’ security.”
Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly addressed the group on Friday emphasizing that the United States’ insatiable demand for illegal drugs has fueled violence in Central America and this is driving an endless flow of migrants towards the United States.
Kelly went further to say “the United States is doing almost nothing about drug demand,” citing cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine as the main problem drugs.
“Yes, we try to rehabilitate drug addicts,” Kelly said. “Yes, we try to arrest our way out of this, but we do very little in our country, my country, the United States of America, to try to get at this incredible drug demand . . . that as a direct result is what is happening in Central America: a breakdown of societies, lack of police effectiveness and a lot of other things.”
Central America’s location, combined with favorable weak legal systems and other conditions, has made the countries an easy transit point for drugs to pass from South America into the U.S. for years. Only recently has Costa Rica been pulled into larger drug shipments and increasing drug violence.
The Atlantic Council presented a report at the meeting on security and economic challenges facing Central America, and outlined strategies for strengthening police and legal structures and creating economic opportunities as important to countering the tide of drug violence.
Kelly’s remarks, as a leading member of the President Trump’s cabinet, were significant in that they directly laid responsibility on the United States for problems in Central America, an analysis rarely heard.
As commander of the military’s U.S. Southern Command, Kelly spent much of his career on violence issues in Central America. Kelly was cited in the Miami Herald as having blamed U.S. drug demand for “creating an incredibly efficient criminal network that transports drugs, people, terrorists and potentially weapons of mass destruction” in a column for the Army Times military newspaper.
“There are some in officialdom who argue that not 100 percent of the violence today is due to the drug flow to the U.S., and I agree, but I would say that perhaps 80 percent of it is,” Kelly wrote.
The Atlantic Council’s report found that issues faced by many of the Northern Triangle’s 30-million residents include a lack of economic opportunity, weak governance and criminality, causing many to make the difficult decision to uproot their families.
Costa Rica has recently seen an increase in El Salvadoran refugee applications, according to the International Organization of Immigration (OIM)
The Miami Herald also reported that Kelly hoped to focus on economic development and security in Central America as a way to decrease illegal immigration across the U.S.’ southern border in his new post. He said his plans had received Trump’s approval.
“The point of all this is to raise the awareness so we can start to make a difference in Central America,” Kelly said.