The presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Guatemala and Panama are meeting together today in Panama in order to address the drug trafficking and violence that threatens the security -- and ultimate autonomy -- of their countries:
Their summit comes at a particularly troubled time for these governments, especially Mexico, which tallied a record number of drug-related killings last year. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich characterized the battle in Mexico among drug cartels and with government authorities as a "civil war" on a news program this week. But Mexico is not alone. Colombia as been fighting drug cartels for decades. Panama has been a center of money-laundering for drug cartels and other organized crime groups for many years. And Guatemala has seen its share of slayings and bloodshed.
The Latin American countries rightfully are becoming increasingly frustrated with the United States for failing to curb its appetite for illegal drugs and failing to prevent the flow of drug cash and illegal weapons into Mexico. Robert Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University in Washington who served as a national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter in the 1970s and was nominated by President Bill Clinton in 1994 to become U.S. ambassador to Panama, "believes the United States should be more involved now":
"The United States is a major part of the problem," he said. "The dollars are coming from the United States. The demand is coming from the United States. The arms are coming from the United States." Pastor pointed out that there are 7,600 gun shops in the United States within 100 miles of the Mexican border. "We ought to have a clear recognition that that we are part of their problem, and they can't solve it without us," he said. Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis Navarro indicated at a news conference this week that other nations also need to be more involved. He didn't mention the United States but it was clear whom he was talking about. The summit leaders will ask nations that have high drug consumption to do their part to reduce that demand, the Spanish news agency EFE quoted Lewis as saying.
The issues faced by the smaller Latin American countries in confronting the narco terrorists is daunting, and Stratfor analyzes the challenge:
[C]ountries like Panama and Guatemala have far fewer resources than Colombia and Mexico, and far less experience combating drug trafficking. Panama’s and Guatemala’s 2007 defense budgets combined totaled just $364 million, while Colombia’s and Mexico’s totaled a combined $7 billion. And while the U.S.-backed Merida Initiative will provide Central American countries support, the $100 million designated for Central America in 2009 will be split seven ways. Granted, Panama and Guatemala have much smaller territories to control. Even so, desertion and rampant corruption in their militaries (as in other Central American countries) make it impossible for these governments to control their territories in the face of better-funded, better-trained and better-armed drug traffickers. They also have no doubt taken notice of the high levels of violence resulting from Mexico’s pursuit of the cartels. Guatemala and Panama accordingly will be wary of stirring up the whole hornet’s nest of violence that Mexico has encountered.
Ultimately, if Mexico and Colombia can force Mexican drug traffickers to spend more time protecting their long supply chain through Central America, the cartels will have to divert resources from the violent fighting in Mexico. (Mexico would much appreciate a reduction of pressure in its own drug war.) But corruption and the lack of resources and training make Central America much less prepared to fight the drug war than Mexico and Colombia, so bringing Bogota’s and Mexico City’s smaller, poorer neighbors up to speed will no doubt take time and significant resources.