MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — Central America has become a crucial way station in the billiondollar cocaine business, with traffickers shipping hundreds of tons northward from Colombia along the isthmus and increasingly infiltrating police and government agencies, U.S. and regional sources say.
The recent killings of three Salvadoran legislators in Guatemala underscored the shift, intelligence sources say. The lawmakers were shot and their bodies set ablaze last month, allegedly by a group of Guatemalan policemen working on behalf of Mexican drug traffickers.
All sorts of people have been swept up in the drug trade as the smuggling routes have changed, including impoverished fishermen, small-town mayors, legislators and high-ranking police officials. In years past, the favored route was across the Caribbean to the southeastern United States. Now, with greater Mexican cartel involvement, the cocaine often moves up the coasts of Central America and overland through Mexico.
Although it remains unclear whether the dead Salvadorans had ties to traffickers, other lawmakers from the country have been linked to the trade. Guatemalan officials have said the killings point to widespread infiltration of the country's police force by organized crime.
The four police officers charged in the killings, including the head of Guatemala's organized-crime unit, were later slain in their prison cells, in a stunning raid by armed men who may have entered the facility with the aid of guards and prison officials.
An intelligence official working in the region said the slain police officers worked for a Mexican cartel that ships drugs along the Pacific coast of Central America. The officers were enforcers dedicated to "knocking down" rival traffickers, the source said.
"This is a crime that can best be understood as part of the dynamic that sees drugs flow between Mexico and Colombia," said a second intelligence official, referring to the killing of the legislators. The officials asked not to be named, given the sensitive political nature of the crime -- one of the victims was Eduardo Jose D'Aubuisson, the son of the founder of El Salvador's ruling party.
Although drug trafficking has long been common in remote areas of the region, such as the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the growing power of Mexican cartels has increased the importance of Central America as a transshipment point.
Smuggling routes across the Caribbean have largely fallen into disuse thanks to U.S. interdiction efforts there, and Colombian drug producers have ceded the bulk of the transportation business to Mexicans.
About 90% of the estimated 780 tons of cocaine entering the United States each year passes through the hands of Mexican drug traffickers, according to U.S. studies. Mexican traffickers see Central America as a natural hub between their Colombian suppliers and the smuggling routes the Mexicans control on the U.S. border.
The "Mexico-Central America corridor is ... the predominant transit route for cocaine destined for the United States," U.S. officials wrote in the 2007 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Michael A. Braun, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a 2005 congressional hearing that "the corrupting power of illicit drug trafficking organizations on the governmental institutions of Central America significantly increases the difficulty of successful drug interdiction efforts."
Central America will remain the primary transit zone for U.S.-bound drugs "for the foreseeable future," Braun added.
The growing trade has reached areas of Central America where drug trafficking was rare just a few years ago. Police and military forces there are often undermanned and outgunned.
Nicaragua's small navy, for example, only has enough boats to patrol its coastline 12 days a month, officials say, a fact that helps shape the traffickers' strategy. "They know what our limitations are," said Capt. Roger Gonzalez Diaz of the Nicaraguan navy.
On the Pacific coast, the Nicaraguan navy has no craft larger than 40-foot-long "go fast" boats with outboard motors, vessels nearly identical to those the drug traffickers use. In fact, many of the navy's boats are vessels that were discarded by smugglers, Gonzalez Diaz said.
Operatives of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel arrived on the Pacific coast two years ago, officials with Nicaragua's National Police said.
With their Mexican accents, the men stood out. They were eager to buy old, abandoned farms along the beach. They didn't look like farmers, but they bought several tractors. They collected boats, too, but they didn't look like fishermen.
"The tractors were to build new airstrips and also to rehabilitate old ones," said a Nicaraguan police officer who specializes in drug intelligence.
One of the men was Samuel "Sammy" Gutierrez, a Colombian with Mexican identity documents, police said. He and two brothers from Mazatlan, Jorge and Roberto Garcia Villasenor, were air and sea "transportation specialists," police said.