San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

What is Mexico’s Peña Nieto doing in Costa Rica?

By María Isabel Sánchez | AFP

With unprecedented violence spilling across its borders, Central America and Mexico on Wednesday will initiate a regional summit in the Costa Rican capital to address common issues of concern, including drug trafficking and immigration.

In his first official trip since becoming president, Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto arrived in San José on Tuesday ahead of the summit for bilateral talks that focused mostly on trade and regional security.

“We’re ready to sit down and get to work with Mexico, with whom we face many mutual challenges,” Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said.

Chinchilla’s country will head the presidency of the Central American Integration System for the next six months.

Common agenda items for upcoming discussions include drug trafficking, human trafficking, immigration and setting new terms for the joint effort to fight organized crime in the region, according to Costa Rican Foreign Minister Enrique Castillo.

Located between the biggest consumer of cocaine in the world – the United States – and the principal producer – Colombia – Mexico and Central America have become pipelines for hundreds of tons of illicit drugs heading north. Despite stepped up police operations to combat drug trafficking, only 85 tons of cocaine were seized last year.

Central American countries are blanketed by trafficking routes used by Mexican and South American cartels, and the region is quickly overtaking Mexico as the frontline of the war on drug trafficking, according to a 2012 report by the United Nations.

Since Mexico’s last president, Felipe Calderón, took the cartels head-on seven years ago, almost 70,000 people have been killed, and cartels have spread to neighboring countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In those countries, cartel leaders established links with local street gangs, taking advantage of rampant corruption and institutional weaknesses.

According to the U.N., Central America is the most violent region in the world outside of combat zones, especially in Honduras and Guatemala, which shares a 1,000-kilometer border with Mexico, much of it remote rural areas and mountainous jungle.

Peña Nieto, who replaced Calderón in December, said he will continue using the Mexican Armed Forces to fight drug cartels, as well as using more intelligence capabilities and other tactics. He is also open to more regional discussion on the effects of drug violence. But he has stopped short of tackling drug legalization as an alternative strategy.

“If there were a change in strategy, it would come with a reduction of the violence in Central America,” Álvaro Ramos, an analyst and former public security vice minister in Costa Rica, told AFP. “Mexico is essential to containing criminal groups in the region. This visit is vital to coordinating a new relationship with the United States.”

A year ago, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina called on regional governments to legalize illicit drugs. But officials balked, opting instead to continue repressive state policies promoted by Washington.

Drug cartels diversify

In recent years, analysts have noted a “corporatization” of cartels, such as the bloody and feared Los Zetas cartel in Mexico, which has ventured into other criminal activities including human trafficking and extortion, Costa Rican Attorney General Jorge Chavarría told AFP.

An estimated 140,000 Central Americans illegally cross the border into Mexico each year, hoping to then make it across the U.S. border to the north, although immigrant groups place that number much higher.

During the journey, many immigrants fall victim to robberies, rapes, extortion, kidnapping and murder at the hands of organized criminal elements and with the complicity of corrupt officials.

“It’s undeniable that this high-risk situation will continue,” said Gilma Pérez, coordinator of an immigration program at the University of Central America’s Human Rights Institute in El Salvador.

In one emblematic and horrific case in 2010, a massacre of 72 immigrants – mostly Central Americans – was attributed to Los Zetas, who carried out the unspeakable crime in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas, a bastion of the cartel located 160 km from the U.S. border.

“The Mexican government hasn’t yet shown signs that it wants to improve conditions for migrants, although we do believe it’s important to form an alliance with Central America to discuss immigration reform in the United States,” Pérez added.

Every year, according to a Mexican human rights commission, criminal groups kidnap some 20,000 immigrants. One Guatemala rights group claims that 70,000 immigrants have disappeared since 2006, trying to reach the U.S. border. Says La Mesa para las Migraciones in Guatemala: “Mexico is a cemetery for immigrants.”

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