Central America is replacing Mexico as the top front for drug trafficking from South America to the United States. The change is inciting an increase in regional violence, according to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
"The implementation of the Mexican security strategy (beginning in 2006) increased the importance of Central American links (with the traffickers) that had begun many years ago," said the study released last week. The study cites an increase of direct major drug shipments from Central
America to the United States and a decrease in shipments from Mexico to the United States.
Drug trafficking has undoubtedly contributed to the increase of violence in Central America, which has reached "extreme" levels, the study said.
However it notes that gangs or "maras" remain a major cause of violent deaths in urban parts of the region.
Honduras maintains the highest homicide rate in the world with 92 killed per 100,000 in 2011. El Salvador has a homicide rate of 69 per 100,000 citizens and Guatemala has a rate of 39 murders per 100,000. Costa Rica has the lowest homicide rate on the isthmus with 10.3 murders per 100,000. For comparison, the United States homicide rate was 4.2 per 100,000 in 2010, according to the most recent statistics.
According to the UNODC, Central American countries play a key role in the transit of cocaine from South America, but "Honduras is now the most popular entry point for cocaine."
"Approximately 65 of the 80 tons transported by air toward the United States lands in Honduras," where authorities found 62 secret airstrips between February and March 2012.
The activity of drug trafficking in that country increased "dramatically" after the 2009 coup against former President Manuel Zelaya, as "law enforcement fell into disarray, resources were diverted to maintaining order, and counternarcotics assistance from the United States was suspended," the report adds.
The Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas has expanded its presence into Guatemala, by operating in local cells made up of ex-members of elite military corps.
"It is said that Los Zetas traveled to Guatemala and created a local faction around 2008. Since then, the group has played a prominent role in the violence in that country," the UNODC report said.
In 2010, 330 tons of cocaine entered Guatemala for the United States, according to official U.S. figures cited in the report.
As for El Salvador, authorities say minimal cocaine passes through the country, which is confirmed by "radar data suggesting very few shipments go directly from South America to El Salvador."
However, the official figures could be underestimating the size of the cocaine flow, the report added.
Drug trafficking from Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama, while still minor compared to Honduras or Guatemala, also has increased "significantly" in the past years, the document said.