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Julie M. Bunck and Michael R. Fowler: Bribes, Bullets and Intimidation: Drug trafficking and the Law in Central America.

Julie M. Bunck and Michael R. Fowler

Bribes, Bullets and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America

University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, 431 pp.

The suffering endured in Mexico's drug war has been appalling. It is estimated that since 2006, 60,000 people have been killed in the violent conflict among criminal organizations and between these organizations and the Mexican state--just as they were in Colombia's drug wars of the 1980s. The logic of the unending cycle of failure that is the "war on drugs" moves our attention inexorably to Central America.

It is timely that as the US steps up its Central American Regional Security Initiative, its latest regional counter-narcotics strategy following Plan Colombia (2000) and Plan Mexico (2008), Bunck and Fowler have produced a first-rate analysis of the history and dynamics of drug trafficking in Central America and the capacity of regional law enforcement. Their conclusion is convincing and inevitable. There is very little that Central American governments can do to halt the coming tsunami of drugs traffic, criminality, and violence displaced from Mexico and Colombia. The best Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama, Honduras, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua can hope to achieve is a minimization of those "bridge" factors that make them vulnerable to trafficking.

This is a meticulously researched piece of work, teeming with a diversity of references. Conveyed throughout is the passion and integrity of the authors. They set themselves the task of identifying those factors that led the seven Central American states to emerge as significant bridges for the illicit South to North drug trade in the 1980s, and explaining why the role of these countries is set to expand. The book is framed around five country case studies that are exhaustive in their detail. El Salvador and Nicaragua are omitted due to lack of reliable data, but the factors driving drug trafficking in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, and Costa Rica are assumed to hold. The chapters point to the Central American countries having common challenges; they are all small countries, tiny territories to police but geographically complex, with weak institutions, wedged between drug markets and producers north and south.

Geography emerges as the most difficult bridging factor for these countries to address. Countries in the region possess long Caribbean and Pacific coast lines, micro islands, lagoons, mangrove swamps, deep-water ports, and the longest barrier reef in the hemisphere. They are traversed by Continental highways and connections east and west through the Panama Canal. In sum, they make for the perfect illicit drop-off and transit zone for methamphetamine and cocaine produced in Mexico, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia to be sold to markets in the US and Europe.

Nature would make these national territories difficult for a well-equipped and well-organized security sector to police and guard. But as the country case studies detail, this is a region where the security sector is weak, vulnerable to corruption, inefficient, and with a long history of involvement in the drugs trade. Impunity and lack of civilian oversight are ongoing problems. There is nothing in Bunck and Fowler's analysis to persuade the reader that militarizing the response to organized crime--as with the Central American Security Initiative--will do anything other than exacerbate these problems.

There are two other important bridge factors that are common to Central American states and that are addressable. The first relates to the lack of law enforcement co-operation across national borders. Although there is some improvement in regional intelligence sharing and co-operation, the norm is suspicion, distrust, and the primacy of distinct national security agendas. With intergovernmental relations unnecessarily fractious and Belize perceived as a Commonwealth anomaly, a primacy must be placed on improving diplomatic relations for law enforcement co-operation to gain traction.

The second vulnerability is poverty. The average annual GDP per capita in the region is below $5,000, with local economies offering little prospects for employment, particularly for young people. Rather than generating jobs and sustainable growth, regional free trade and strategies of economic liberalization and privatization have created favourable conditions for drug trafficking and money laundering. Bunck and Fowler detail the challenge of economic development, but more importantly equitable economic distribution, in these small countries, and conversely the opportunities provided by involvement in the narcotics drug trade. The trade-off between development and security is revealed in the fact that 8% of national GDP is now being dedicated to counter narcotics rather than education or employment creation.

Costa Rica emerges as a counter case study, with Bunck and Fowler detailing factors that would be expected to insulate the country from the drugs trade. It is economically and institutionally robust, with no history of military involvement in drugs--or military at all, Costa Rica having abolished its armed forces in 1948. But although Costa Rica does not share the same vulnerabilities as its neighbours, it has to confront its own unique bridge factors. These include international tourists visiting the country who are increasingly being targeted for lucrative trafficking opportunities, and gaps in security capacity that make Costa Rica a relatively benign environment for criminal organizations.

Bribes, Bullets and Intimidation makes for an enlightening, informative, but ultimately depressing read, particularly in relation to the growing trend of narcotic drug production and drug crop cultivation within Central America. The analysis provided by Bunck and Fowler adds to the weight of evidence that militarizing responses to the illicit drug trade is counterproductive. From their data and detailed country scrutiny, the trajectory of the Central American Regional Security Initiative is clear: yet more violence, death, and civilian casualties in this unwinnable war.

Julia Buxton, Bradford University
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Author:Buxton, Julia
Publication:Canadian Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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