OPINION
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The route of crime

Either Mexico helps stabilize Central America, or Central America will impede stability in Mexico

Similar events in different contexts lead to different situations. The first rule of political analysis is that context matters.

The early 1990s saw a change of context in the cocaine trade. Due to tighter control in Florida and a change of policy in Cuba, the mainstream flow shifted from Colombia-Florida, to the Colombia-Central America-Mexico-US border route. Until then, Mexico had been a fairly peaceful country, and in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador it was traditionally the governments who did the killing, not criminal gangs. But the shift produced an explosion of violence in all these countries.

The growth of criminal power rendered unsustainable the previous easygoing tolerance for the drug trade. In this sense, the security policy of President Ramón Calderón in Mexico responded to a reality in which there were no other options. In the US there are some who think that the PRI's recent electoral victory in Mexico portends a return to the venal tolerance of the past; but Mexico is now a different country, and the state, in its own interest, has to respond to a threat that is not the same marginal, negligible one as 20 years ago.

All the Mexican political parties have had victims in their ranks, and the public pressure for order is rising. To reduce violence you need to control your territory firmly and beef up the police force, sometimes exponentially.

The growth of criminal power rendered unsustainable the previous easygoing tolerance for the drug trade

Some, too, have doubted whether the PRI government will be amenable to the political agreements that security demands. In the northern state of Nuevo León and the city of Monterrey, the "industrial heart of Mexico," the violence of recent years has been organized crime's most serious challenge to the Mexican state. But there has been effective, coordinated response from the forces of order, which are: the federal government (of the PAN party); the state government (PRI); the municipal government (PAN); the most important economic powers in Mexico; a respected academic center; and a population considered exemplary in civic virtues.

Not without some friction, all these forces have cooperated to set up a security plan to curb the violence. The state of Nuevo León is developing a new police force called Fuerza Civil, which has so far trained some 2,000 men. A new residential development called "police city" is being built for its members.

In one year, the daily average of homicides has dropped by more than 50 percent, vehicle thefts by 30 percent, and crime in general is in decline: indicating a dynamic of construction of consensus in Mexico, which may be complicated, but that works after all.

The problem is not in Mexico, which has sufficient resources to improve its security. The worst is in the small, poor and violent countries of Central America. While in Mexico there is struggle and progress, in Central America there is impotence as things get worse. The problem used to be the cocaine trade, but now Guatemala produces heroin. Up to May of this year Guatemala had confiscated some 470,000 gallons of materials for making methamphetamines, and in El Salvador almost 200 tons, no doubt a small fraction of the total. These are desperate nations, looking for miracles in the face of the impossibility of coherent public policy.

The weakness of these states enables criminal gangs to make cynical use of their territories. Central America is finding a new role as criminal sanctuary, drug factory and supermarket, money laundering mart, and center for the recruitment of killers. The southern border of Mexico is now another zone of chaos due to irresistible migratory flows, the drug trade and the expansion of the "mara" criminal gangs from Central America. With its 45 million inhabitants, the region is a natural part of Mexican geopolitics, though disputed by Venezuela and Colombia. Until lately Mexico has been too concerned with internal issues, but security is now a transnational problem. There is no option: either Mexico helps stabilize Central America, or Central America will impede stability in Mexico.

Joaquín Villalobos, a former Salvadoran guerrilla, is now a consultant for the resolution of international conflicts.

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