By Héctor Silva Ávalos*
On Sunday, January 5th, Mr. Abrams, you authored an article for the Washington Post titled, “Under Siege: Central America faces a new threat: corruption driven by drug money”. The main thesis of the article is that if the FMLN wins the next presidential election in El Salvador, rivers of cocaine will flow through the roads and ports of the country. You write: “The hope of Salvadoran democracy and peace, and our hopes to continue cooperation against narcotics trafficking may be lost.”
Since everything – including the title – shouldn’t have passed the fact-checkers, it is hard to know where to begin to debate or analyze thoughtfully what is little more than an electoral and ideological diatribe against the democratic process unfolding in my country, days before its presidential election. But the weight of history and the predicament of the region today demand a response.
Yes, drugs are one of the most serious problems facing the Central American region. And no, nobody takes the problem seriously, at least not in El Salvador. None of the governments that have held power since the signing of the Peace Accords – not the four of ARENA or that of Funes and the FMLN – have implemented effective policies to prevent drug trafficking.
Instead, these five administrations have tolerated operators of drug trafficking in El Salvador and, to a greater or lesser extent, have allowed dirty money into the Salvadoran political system, either through the party system, the high command of the National Civilian Police, the Legislative Assembly or presidential advisers connected to those operators and traffickers.
But when Washington created the war on drugs and exported its strategy to the region – along with your so-called stand against communism – you accelerated the problem because you didn’t know what you were doing. Everything boomeranged.
Your first priority was to interrupt the huge drug flow that leaves the South, already processed in the form of cocaine, en route to the corners, schools and streets of U.S. cities. You tried spraying crops in Colombia and empowering its domestic military with money and weapons to hit production. You got tough in the Caribbean and created the Merida Initiative to support Mexico’s drug war and then moved a similar initiative to Central America under the name of CARSI. What you got instead was a balloon effect. Whenever you pressed on one side, you sent the problem to another region; when crushed in the Caribbean, cocaine went to the Central American corridor, first to its territorial waters, and now, for the past decade, to its land routes.
Drug trafficking in Latin America has not been curtailed from the air, or with radars, infrared goggles or a DEA blitz. These strategies are of no use when in the middle of the jungle, or in the wetlands and highlands of Central America, where there is no functioning state presence. There are only corrupt police officers and politicians in these areas — many trained in or supported by the United States — that allow the indiscriminate passage of drugs. In short: the corruption of your allies on the ground, who in reality are narco allies, has been so powerful that it overwhelmed any effects from the aircraft or infrared you sent starting in the 1970s and 80s.
By 2010, the State Department reported that between 200 and 540 tons, of the up to 650 tons of cocaine that were consumed in the United States that year, went through Central America, the majority by land. Cocaine is still flowing today as it was 30 years ago, despite the billions of dollars that American taxpayers have put into efforts to combat it.
In addition to the balloon effect, there is another effect named for the cockroach. This term, coined by a scholar at the University of Florida, explains very well the second problem with your strategy; it depended on corrupt nation states as partners, with headed by bodies of police, armies and political parties, that tolerate, facilitate or participate in drug trafficking. The cockroach effect is when: “Organized crime, like cockroaches, moves to where it is dirtiest.” To cite an example, currently, two Salvadoran deputies are imprisoned in the United States for drug-related issues. Both congressmen were political allies of the Salvadoran right.
In Central America, most corrupt governments associated with the political right were allies of Presidents Reagan and Bush, for whom you worked. It was during those regimes that high-flying drug trafficking, fed initially by large Colombian cartels, flourished on the isthmus. It was between 1984 and 1986 when the Ilopango airport in El Salvador began to serve as a base for cocaine trafficking. It then became the platform for the Iran – Contra Operation that you helped manage, and were later punished for trying to conceal from Congress.
The big players in drug trafficking, as former Salvadoran President Armando Calderón Sol told William Walker, the U.S. ambassador in San Salvador in 1990, were two officials key to the success of the Iran -Contra affair. These officials are Colonel José Rafael Bustillo, who today is accused of involvement in the death of six Jesuit priests in November 1989, and Lieutenant Leiva Jacobo, who in 1986 took the terrorist Luis Posada Carriles to El Salvador to operate logistics in Ilopango. Years later, a lieutenant of Pablo Escobar would state that Jacobo also took two 500-pound bombs out of the cellars of the Salvadoran army and sold them the Medellín Cartel. That was when the trafficking of cocaine in El Salvador by the tons really began.
Although it began in those years, when you were a protagonist in that illegal supply operation to the Contras, this is not a story only about the past. One effect of the Iran-Contra Operation was the expansion of drug trafficking in El Salvador and Central America.
It was Posada Carriles himself who detailed the corruption of Salvadoran officers for FBI Special Agents Michael Foster and George Kiszynski. In an interview conducted in Tegucigalpa on February 3, 1992, Carriles reveals that he personally bribed Bustillo for the use of Ilopango. Carriles even recounts an episode in which he left $50,000 on the Colonel’s desk as “payment for gas.” Carriles also suggests that drugs moved through Ilopango. The transcript of this interview was sent shortly after to an office at 701 West of 13th Street Northwest in Washington, DC, where Lawrence Walsh, the same investigator who was about to accuse you of various crimes, worked at the time.
Ilopango is not a thing of the past either. During the years that weapons circulated weapons to the Contras and drugs from Medellín through the airport, two Salvadorans named Miguel Ángel Pozo Aparicio and Elmer Escobar Bonifacio worked as porters. Decades later, the two became major drug traffickers in El Salvador.
Pozo Aparicio masterminded the first massacre attributed to drug traffickers in El Salvador. The massacre became known as Valle Nuevo, the name of the neighborhood in which a family named Gaytán, which Aparicio ordered killed, lived. According to the investigators, the massacre was ordered to protect a partner from corrupt police officers who had stolen a large shipment of cocaine from a farm called La Marranera. Today, Aparicio is in jail, but, according to the Salvadoran Prosecutor, he has dealings with the Texis Cartel, the main narco-group today.
The other man, Elmer Escobar, is associated with another narco organization called The Perrones. Escobar was imprisoned at least twice in the 90s, but was released due to his good contacts with Salvadoran judges. According to Honduran intelligence, today Escobar has dealings with El Chapo Guzmán. Sound familiar? Sources who have collaborated with the Perrones and the Salvadoran police have told me that Escobar lowered his profile in 2000 and remained involved in drug smuggling, thanks in part to his dealings with corrupt officers, heirs of those who ruled Ilopango during Iran-Contra.
According to you, the drug war will suffer a setback if the FMLN candidate is elected president, due to the presence of Mr. José Luis Merino, Comandante Ramiro of the FMLN. I’m not writing to defend Comandante Ramiro. But it was not he who brought the drugs to El Salvador or to the Northern Triangle of Central America. It was the military and police officers, along with local smugglers in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, who grew under right-wing governments and police forces birthed by the armies of the 80s.
Mr. Abrams, as I said at the outset, your article, beginning with the title, is inaccurate. Central America does not face a “new” threat. The threat is old and it is pervasive. For example: An elite police empowered by the army since the peace accords protects the Texis Cartel in El Salvador. Ramón Matta Ballesteros, the Central American narco par excellence, made himself and grew under the protection of a corrupt military in Honduras. The Lorenzana, the Chamalé or Jutiapa were protected by an untouchable police force in Guatemala. According to files declassified from the DEA, corrupt officials in the armies of Guatemala and El Salvador armed the Zetas, in addition, with equipment coming from the United States.
The problem, indeed, worsened after the 2010 coup in Honduras, and yes, a lot of drug flights come from Venezuela. The balloon effect moved drug production to Colombia’s eastern neighbor, thanks in large part to corruption in the Chávez military. What matters to Central America is the other effect of the cockroach: corruption. That, Mr. Abrams, is not new. It has long existed and was tolerated or supported by Central American presidents who visited the White House and took photos with your bosses.
Many of us refuse to lose hope for a real fight against drug trafficking. It is internal corruption, both of the left and the right, which is the greatest threat to those hopes. It is not the FARC or outdated Cold War ideology. The good thing is that there are many sensible minds in Washington who understand that the threat is serious and that confronting it so that we do not lose hope requires much more intelligence and wisdom than you revealed in the Washington Post.
Orignially published in Spanish in El Faro.
* The author is a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies of American University and member of the Board of Advisors for the Center for Democracy in the Americas.