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Tim Johnson: Drug gangs muscle into new territory in Central America

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Mexico since 2006, more than 35,000 people have been killed in drug wars there. Now there’s evidence that Mexican gangs are moving into Central America for safer havens and access to modern weaponry. Now joining us to talk about his investigation into this is Tim Johnson. He’s the Mexican bureau chief for the McClatchy Newspaper chain. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So what have you found?

JOHNSON: Well, I found that the Mexican drug cartels are feeling a lot of pressure in Mexico. They’re fighting among each other. Many of them are dying. A lot of the deaths that you mentioned, 35,000, are actually the result of one cartel doing battle with another. It’s not a great place to do business, and the cartels realize that. And they are being squeezed. So they’re beginning to move into Central America. They’re beginning to use Central America not only as a transit point bypassing Mexico, but they’re beginning to process cocaine there.

JAY: So which countries are you talking about?

JOHNSON: It’s called the Northern Triangle of Central America, and that means basically Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. But the two countries at greatest risk, even to the point of moving toward that category of being a failed state in some ways, would be Guatemala and Honduras.

JAY: Now, so what is the evidence so far? And what are the consequences of it? If I understand it from your work, you’re finding, number one, they’re getting easy access to weapons. But where’s that coming from?

JOHNSON: Well, let’s look back at the history. Central America was embroiled in civil wars starting in the late 1970s, 1980s. By 1992, there was a peace accord in El Salvador. Nineteen ninety-six, peace came to Guatemala after more than three decades of guerrilla warfare. And there was also, of course, the Contras fighting against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, based out of Honduras in the 1980s. During that period, there were hundreds of thousands of weapons that flowed in from Cuba, from the Soviet Union, from the United States, to that area.

JAY: Now, in Honduras since the coup and the new military government–I shouldn’t say military government. They had sort of elections, but it’s not recognized by most of the countries in Latin America, at least. What is the–is there any evidence of what the relationship is of the drug cartels with the new government? And the weapons that are getting to the drug cartels, where is it coming from?

JOHNSON: They’re really–I wouldn’t have–wouldn’t venture to say there’s any relationship with the government. But what’s happened is, since that coup in mid 2009, the whole country’s been focused on politics in sort of post-coup turmoil. And so there really hasn’t been any attention on law enforcement efforts, and the narcos have just gone nuts. I was talking to one former senior advisor to the security ministry who said to me flatly, there are 16 members of Congress who are actually drug traffickers. He said, that’s more than a tenth of Congress.

JAY: This is in Honduras.

JOHNSON: This is in Honduras. So that gives you an idea. He says 16–there’s also at least 15 mayors under investigation for links with drug trafficking organizations. There’s a whole series of events, probably beginning in late 2009 when the Sinaloa Cartel of Mexico was accused of assassinating the drug czar in Honduras. Since then, there’s been a series of things. Last September in El Salvador, the police were digging a series of ranches. They found $15 million in cash in barrels on one ranch and in another area outside of San Salvador. Then, in November at one point, on an Air Force base in Honduras, narcos snuck into the base and took off with a seized twin-engine King Air, a Beechcraft King Air. It was all gassed up. It had been repaired. The motor was on. So, clearly, there were confederates on the base. But where else in the Americas have they stolen a plane from an Air Force base? That gives an indication of the level of confederates that they have in the military, in the police, in the political process. Now–.

JAY: But talk about the weapons, because the weapons are not just old, you know, 20-year-old civil war weapons. This–a lot of the stuff is quite modern.

JOHNSON: Well, actually, a lot of it is old, but it’s still in great shape. A grenade can last a long time. Let me give you an example about some of the concerns about munitions in explosives. Grenade attacks are ever more common in Mexico among the drug cartels–throwing a grenade at the US consulate in Matamoros, throwing it in a disco in Puerto Vallarta. Every week there are grenade attacks. In November, the DEA, through a sting process, lured up a Salvadoran Army captain to a parking lot here, near Dulles Airport, in Washington, DC. The guy had been drummed out of the Army in El Salvador just months before because there was concern that he had unexplained personal wealth. He was offering to the DEA 3,000 grenades and SAM-7 shoulder-fired rockets and C4 plastic explosives. Where was he getting it? No one knows. I talked to the defense minister of El Salvador, who contends that, no, it wasn’t coming from armories or munitions depots in El Salvador. But clearly there’s a racket of rogue military officers in those countries who have access to great weaponry.

JAY: And you would have to get to fairly senior levels, if not senior levels, if you’re talking, you know, shoulder-fired missiles [incompr.]

JOHNSON: Well, you know, who would’ve set up this thing to allow these guys to come on an Air Force base? It’s going to have to be a senior commander. In March there was a raid in San Pedro Sula in Honduras where they found 39 light antitank weapons. These are also shoulder-fired rockets, and also a number of other rocket-propelled grenades and assault weapons, and, again, C4 plastic explosives. So, you know, there’s just lots of this stuff that’s seeping out of the depots, the military depots in the whole region. The main facility in Guatemala has been basically looted twice in the last two years by the Los Zetas drug cartel.

JAY: The main which kind of facility?

JOHNSON: This was an arms depot to the west of Guatemala City. It was one of the Guatemalan Army’s main arms depots.

JAY: Now, the other part of your story is, in moving to Central America, they’re also moving the laboratories to Central America. What’s the significance of that?

JOHNSON: Well, it’s hugely significant. It is–. On March 9, the Honduran security minister, with a series of US-vetted anti-narcotics police, raided a facility they knew was going to be a cocaine lab because they had already gotten information ahead of time. This is in an area that’s near the border with Guatemala. They found–I mean, it looks like any photo you might have seen of a jungle cocaine lab in Colombia. It was triple-canopy forest, tented–a number of tented facilities, generators, air compressors, enough chemicals, according to Colombians who came up to examine the lab later, to process eight tons of cocaine. Now, if you take US estimates that consumption here is 300 tons a year, well, one jungle lab that’s making eight tons is a pretty significant find. What the Colombians say is you got one, you got more. The US ambassador also told me that. So what this means is that a good portion of the cocaine is now being processed in Central America, probably in Honduras and Guatemala. And these aren’t just Central American drug traffickers. These are going to be the big cartels that are doing this kind of operation.

JAY: This is industrial-level production.

JOHNSON: This is major industrial-level production.

JAY: This cannot go on without elites, and at various levels of the state, having some kind of sense of it.

JOHNSON: Probably. But I would say the greater significance is that this–if you look at the history of how the Colombian cartels–the Medellin Cartel and the Cali Cartel–what they did at the beginning was they brought coca paste, which is a semi-refined cocaine, from Peru and Bolivia up to Colombia. They didn’t grow much coca in Colombia, the coca being a shrub that’s, you know, sort of waist-high. And so they made the industry in Colombia. Well, you know, then they began to grow coca and actually process it there and refine it and smuggle it from Colombia. Well, then the two cartels in Colombia basically were crushed and the Mexicans took over. And they’ve got their, you know, tentacles into Colombia, still bringing the refined cocaine up to Mexico and then smuggling it into the US. This is a third wave. So the Mexicans and the Colombians are probably collaborating to move this processing into Central America. These are weak governments. In Honduras, for instance, of every 100 homicides, you’d have two convictions. So you’d only find the guilty party in two cases. So the judiciary is just almost nonexistent. Great environment for drug trafficking.

JAY: And I guess the other danger is what this does, as this proceeds, to corrupt the politics of these countries.

JOHNSON: Politics is already deeply corrupted.

JAY: Further corrupted.

JOHNSON: Yeah. It’s, you know, yes, further corrupting. I mean, we already have the former president of Guatemala, Alfonso Portillo, is now under investigation, going to–soon to be on trial for money laundering. You know, it’s–the region is–. As I said to an editor here, there are parts of Guatemala, the Peten region of Guatemala, where the famous Tikal Mayan ruins are located, that are virtually no man’s land. And so it’s virtually having a Tora Bora here in our hemisphere. You’ve got areas where these are, you know, very well structured criminal organizations operating from. What’s the significance of that? Well, you can have all kinds of significance, because they’re not just transporting narcotics; they’re involved in all kinds of criminal activity.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us.

JOHNSON: You’re welcome.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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