El Salvador Grapples With Upswing In Drug Traffic Mexican drug cartels are expanding into El Salvador, using local gang members as hit men, police say. The Salvadoran president calls the cartels a "very powerful enemy," but his government says the problem isn't out of hand. Others say if the cartels aren't stopped soon, it may be too late for El Salvador.
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El Salvador Grapples With Upswing In Drug Traffic

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El Salvador Grapples With Upswing In Drug Traffic

El Salvador Grapples With Upswing In Drug Traffic

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The Mexican government is waging a war against drug cartels. And it hasn't broken them, but it has put pressure on them. In response, some of these cartels are moving their operations beyond Mexico's borders. One of the most powerful drug groups, Los Zetas, has been expanding in the smaller countries of Central America. There, governments often lack the resources to confront the heavily armed and well-financed cartels.

Yesterday, we profiled how this shift in the drug trade is affecting Guatemala. Today, NPR's Jason Beaubien looks at its impact on neighboring El Salvador.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

JASON BEAUBIEN: A squad of Salvadoran national police, called the Hawks, is patrolling a graffiti-marred section of San Salvador. The police ride in a battered pickup truck, but carry high-powered assault rifles. The patrol is rolling slowly through an area controlled by the 18th Street Gang.

When the police spot anyone they suspect of being a gang member, they jump out and frisk him. The officers have a tattooed, emaciated young man spread-eagle against a wall. They search his pockets, and make him shake out his shoes.

(Soundbite of banging)

BEAUBIEN: He's carrying a crack pipe, which the police confiscate before letting him go.

Juan Bautista Rodriguez, the head of the emergency response police in San Salvador, says these types of patrols are a crucial part of the fight against organized crime.

Mr. JUAN BAUTISTA RODRIGUEZ (Emergency Response Police, San Salvador): (Through translator) We are attacking the small, street-level drug dealers that have proliferated with the gangs.

BEAUBIEN: Bautista Rodriguez says this keeps a constant pressure on the gangs, and often provides leads for bigger busts. He says there's been an increase in crime and violence as the Mexican gangs move south. But he says the situation isn't as bad in El Salvador as it is in neighboring Guatemala or Honduras.

Mr. BAUTISTA RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) Here in El Salvador, we still don't have well-armed groups that have the capacity to directly attack the police. All the cases that we've had, we confront two or three gang members, and they're arrested or killed in the confrontation.

BEAUBIEN: The police chief says the Mexican cartels appear to be expanding their operations in El Salvador by hiring members of the 18th Street, or the Mara Salvatrucha, gangs to do work for them. Both these gangs are known to be extremely violent, and Bautista Rodriguez says their links to the Mexicans have made them even more so.

Mr. BAUTISTA RODRIGUEZ: (Through translator) Drug bosses, cartels - they are using the local gangs, and this makes things more violent because the gangs are used more as hit men, used more to kill, used for revenge. If this continues as we've been seeing, it's going to cause a rise in insecurity for the ordinary Salvadoran citizen.

BEAUBIEN: Earlier this month, President Mauricio Funes, in a plea for regional unity against the Mexican cartels, said the nations of Central America face a very powerful enemy. And he said: The profits garnered by the drug smugglers exceed the resources available to the security forces of our countries.

This was an understatement. The billions of dollars in revenue generated each year by the cartels exceeds the annual gross domestic product of any of the countries in the region.

The party line from President Funes' administration is that yes, drug trafficking is on the rise in El Salvador. But so far, it hasn't got out of hand. The Salvadoran government, they argue, hasn't lost control of any of its territory to the smugglers, as has happened in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

Outside of Funes' administration, however, not everyone shares this opinion.

Mr. CARLOS DADA (Editorial Director, El Faro): The presence of the drug cartels is increasing. Their power is increasing. The drug traffic is increasing.

BEAUBIEN: Carlos Dada is the editorial director of the Salvadoran online news site El Faro. Two weeks ago, El Faro published a 15,000-word, 33-page report on the workings of a Salvadoran drug syndicate called the Cartel de Texis. Texis is short for one of the towns they control, Texistepeque. Dada says this cartel controls a swath of land along the north of the country.

Mr. DADA: Because they own policemen, judges, congressmen, local mayors, etc. So they charge drug cartels for crossing that territory free of threats from security forces - because they manage everything. So you pay them - if you are a drug cartel, you pay them. And you have a free pass from Honduras to Guatemala.

BEAUBIEN: This cartel, according to El Faro, will sell its services to whoever wants to move narcotics through the region towards the United States. The article lays out the exact path the drugs follow. They cite intelligence documents making reference to the Texis cartel more than a decade ago.

The Salvadoran attorney general's office says they're opening an investigation into the cartel based on the El Faro article.

The news report caused quite a stir because it described in detail how a cartel generated millions of dollars through its links to top government and business officials in the region.

Jeannette Aguilar, at the University of Central America, who studies violence in El Salvador, says it's clear that organized crime is intensifying in her country every day. She points out that the homicide rate has doubled since 2003. More cocaine is available on the street. Ancillary crime, such as extortion and kidnapping, is on the rise. And Aguilar says El Salvador faces a huge challenge to try to reverse this.

Ms. JEANNETTE AGUILAR (University of Central America): (Through translator) The state, the institutions for security and justice, have been penetrated by organized crime for many years. And this has blocked the state from effectively pursuing these criminals.

BEAUBIEN: She says the violence, extortion and insecurity discourages foreign investment in El Salvador, and prevents local businesses from flourishing.

Criminal groups are also attracted to El Salvador because in 2001, it adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency. And the country didn't just peg its currency to the dollar. Physical U.S. dollars and U.S. coins are the only money in circulation. This makes the country an ideal place to launder greenbacks.

Mexico last year slapped tight restrictions on the use of dollars, solely to further squeeze the cartels. No one doubts that illicit funds are flowing through El Salvador. Last year police found $9 million, some of it in small bills, buried in barrel on a ranch.

Carlos Dada, at the El Faro, says El Salvador needs to wake up and confront the serious threat posed to it by organized crime.

Mr. DADA: We have very fragile institutions. We are an emerging democracy. The danger is that the few steps that we have taken, that we have moved, that we take them backwards because the organized crime is substituting the state.

BEAUBIEN: Dada agrees with government officials that the international drug cartels haven't yet penetrated his country the way they have Guatemala and Mexico. But he says if the cartels aren't stopped soon, it may be too late for El Salvador.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

KELLY: Tomorrow, we'll hear about the powerful street gangs in El Salvador, and their growing ties to international drug traffickers.

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