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El Salvador becomes drug traffickers' 'little pathway'

The country finds itself enmeshed in an expanding narcotics trade, a shift brought on by better enforcement of sea routes; a new, U.S.-funded highway; and gangs with roots in Los Angeles.

March 22, 2011|By Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times
  • Officers move a barrel that contained millions of dollars in U.S. currency. It had been buried in a rural area west of San Salvador.
Officers move a barrel that contained millions of dollars in U.S. currency.… (El Salvador's attorney…)

Reporting from Dulce Nombre de Maria, El Salvador — The Mexican drug gangs rapidly infiltrating Central America call El Salvador "El Caminito," the little pathway.

Once a bystander in the region's narco-business, this tiny country now finds itself enmeshed in an expanding drug trade, a shift brought on in part by the presence of a new, U.S.-funded highway that provides an overland route for shipping cocaine north.

For years, traffickers used speedboats and small submarine-type vessels to move drugs from Colombia to northern Guatemala or Mexico, using water routes to circumvent much of Central America. But with government sea patrols improving and new cartels creating competition in parts of Guatemala, some Mexican gangs have switched to moving their shipments overland through Central America, using the new roadway through El Salvador.

The cartels' infiltration of the country has been abetted by ruthless street gangs with roots in Los Angeles and secretive networks left over from El Salvador's civil war. And with its use of the U.S. dollar as its official currency, the nation is a money launderer's paradise.

Those conditions have turned a country still struggling to emerge from the nightmare of a long civil war into a new setting for the Mexican drug cartels' violent turf wars. When President Obama arrives here Tuesday for talks with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, the regional struggle with security and organized crime will be a focus of their discussions.

"Mexican organized crime is a threat in all of Central America," the Salvadoran attorney general, Romeo Barahona, said after meeting with his counterparts in Mexico to share intelligence on the mounting crisis.

Weak institutions and corrupt governments made Central America a fertile field, especially for the ruthless Zetas gang, a Mexican paramilitary organization that has spread throughout the region and into the U.S.

The Zetas have taken charge of much of the Guatemalan countryside, and hundreds of people have been killed there, in Honduras and in El Salvador in the last six months. The government of Guatemala declared a state of emergency Dec. 19 in northern Alta Verapaz province bordering Mexico, and deployed the army in a bid to retake cities lost to the Zetas.

In Honduras, officials this month discovered a cocaine laboratory, possibly the first evidence that Mexican traffickers are making their own cocaine after years of Colombian monopoly. Even the placid, tourist-mecca country of Costa Rica is complaining that Mexican traffickers are setting up shop.

And here in El Salvador, authorities stumbled upon what they believe to be a Zetas training camp and recently dug up more than $15 million in drug money, buried in plastic barrels and thought to be but a fraction of hidden cash.

President Funes recently told The Times that Zetas were working in his country. Defense Minister David Munguia underscored that, saying the Zetas and other Mexican traffickers were "moving their strategic rear guard to Central America."

Mexican traffickers in El Salvador have been able to easily graft onto existing criminal organizations, most notably street gangs that were born in Los Angeles and deported to El Salvador during the last two decades — and that now dominate neighborhoods in most Salvadoran cities.

Also, networks built on both sides during El Salvador's civil war that morphed into smuggling operations have proved a godsend to Mexican cartels. One group, Los Perrones ("the big dogs"), smuggled cheap Honduran cheese into El Salvador for years until shifting to drugs. Another sent dozens of its members to be trained by the Zetas in Guatemala.

More than 60% of all cocaine that reaches the U.S. now passes through Central America, according to the State Department.

With the sea routes more problematic for traffickers, some gangs have shifted an important part of their transport operation to land routes through Central America, including the path across northern El Salvador.

It is a process of more, smaller shipments that "leapfrog" along the route, law enforcement officials say. Cargo comes in from Honduras and is offloaded and repackaged near Dulce Nombre de Maria, in El Salvador's northern Chalatenango province, then trucked across Chalatenango and Santa Ana provinces to Guatemala, virtually unhindered.

Police and intelligence sources say several businessmen and mayors are on the traffickers' payroll and serve as their money launderers. Dulce Nombre de Maria, once a sleepy, dusty town, is now a sparkling burg. The gazebo in the main square is painted in salmon and lavender and decorated with Corinthian columns. Grounds are well manicured, free of beggars and stray dogs. The ice cream vendor wears Ralph Lauren.

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