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Review by Joe B. Johnson

coverBribes, Bullets and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America by Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler, The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, ISBN-13: 978-0271048666, 446 pp., $72 (Hardcover), $31.46 (Paperback), $9.99   (Kindle).

This book arrived for my review as the influx of illegal migrants from Central America was generating headlines and rhetoric in Washington and along the U.S. border with Mexico. Tens of thousands — mostly unaccompanied children — arrived, mostly from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. And drug trafficking gangs in those countries were blamed in part for creating the violence and chaos that drove people north.

Bribes, Bullets and Intimidation does not aim to explain the immigration crisis. This is a comprehensive, detailed history of the narcotics trade and government interdiction efforts in Central America from 1980 to 2010. Mexico and Colombia are covered extensively as well. If you work in an embassy Narcotics Affairs Section in Latin America or study illegal narcotics trafficking, you will want this book.

Written by two political science professors, the 431-page volume explains how source countries in Colombia and other South American countries used Central America as a transit point for marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other illegal substances. Extensive footnotes demonstrate an exhaustive review of academic literature, news accounts and personal interviews throughout the region. The book includes lengthy case studies of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama: nations where sufficient data and documentation could be obtained. El Salvador and Nicaragua were not treated in chapter length because interdiction data was not collected during their civil wars during the 1980s.

It’s not just the immigration source countries that have been part of drug trafficking. Belize, Costa Rica and Panama have all served as significant transit points for a variety of drugs moving north. Cartels have exploited the “conflicting and overlapping law-enforcement jurisdictions” in these “bridge countries.” The authors sum it up:
Arms, poverty, overmatched militaries, weak legal regimes, dismal law enforcement, and ineffective cooperative efforts have joined with geography to create an ideal region for drug transshipment.

The United States and Europe are both destinations for the transshipments. Despite law enforcement’s best efforts, no more than 15 percent of the total volume and perhaps as little as 5 percent has been confiscated.

The Changing Business of Illegal Drugs
The narco-trafficking business changed from 1980 to 2010. It got progressively better for the traffickers, according to this book.

The authors report that the U.S. market price of cocaine fell by two-thirds between 1981 and 1996, while drug purity rose dramatically. In response to U.S. and Colombian government interdiction, large criminal syndicates in Colombia gave way to a new business model:  “numerous drug rings that relate to each other horizontally.”  Some specialize as suppliers; others as transporters, distributors and money launderers. Some are national in scope, offering their services to various producers; others are cells of larger enterprises based outside the country.

The North American Free Trade Agreement expanded U.S.-Mexico trade in drugs as well as in legitimate commerce, and Mexican organizations came to dominate the cocaine trade beginning in the late 90s. They raked in $23 billion in drug profits in 2007 according to the Government Accountability Office. Now, cocaine and other drugs pass through Central America to Mexico before being distributed in the United States.

Caught in the middle, Central American countries became “critically important bridge states” during the 1990s. The authors narrate the unique story of each bridge state at chapter length (59 pages on Belize alone), analyzing factors like geography, economy and law enforcement and explaining how traffickers moved in to exploit the local situation. In each national profile graphs display annual seizures of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other substances where pertinent.

The enormous profitability of these drugs enabled smugglers to recruit, suborn and intimidate people throughout the bridge-state societies: government officials, lawyers, working men and women. The book illustrates a bizarre variety of creative ploys to fool police and prosecutors, summarizing scores of investigations.

Illegal Drug Flows and the Law: an Unequal Contest
The authors quote Barry Seal, a “convicted cocaine smuggler turned government witness,” boasting that the Medellin Cartel was “as professional as any Fortune 500 company.” Then they compare a later generation of narco-traffickers with transnational companies, asserting that the former appear to be more efficient.

One reason may be that, in contrast to the typical workings of multinational corporations with their foreign managers and their drive to profit distant shareholders, drug-trade earnings have cascaded downward through a relatively small number of local associates, providing an immediate and tangible monetary incentive to work effectively.

Those “local associates” include Central America’s notorious criminal gangs, which developed in part from illegal immigrants who had been jailed in the United States, schooled in crime in U.S. prisons, and returned to their home countries with no legal options to earn a living.

The authors give due credit to both United States authorities and Central American governments for confiscating drugs and capturing smugglers, and for reforming their police and judicial institutions progressively. However, their best efforts have “failed to reduce markedly the overall amounts of drugs transiting the region.” In the chapter on Panama, the authors conclude:

Although the country has consolidated its democratic and civilian regime and has repaired much of the damage inflicted by the [Manual Noriega] dictatorship, it has proven incapable of significantly curbing the amounts of narcotics being sent across its territory.

A short Conclusion mentions benefits to the bridge states: income, employment, and hard currency. Balance that against spikes in domestic drug abuse, violence, shaken faith in democratic institutions, and strains on criminal justice systems and prisons. The United States can assist regional cooperation and more consistent laws and administration of justice, the authors say, but they see little hope of overcoming the geographical and other factors that make these states attractive to narcotics producers.

I’m going to recommend this book to one other group: consumers of illegal drugs. As long as they pay, the enterprises will continue to do what they do. Everyone needs to understand the industry their habits are driving and its consequences for all of us. This dispassionate, factual work makes a powerful statement.white star


American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

imageJoe B. Johnson serves as an instructor at the Foreign Service Institute and lends public affairs assistance to nonprofits in the Washington area after a 33-year Foreign Service career with the Department of State and the United States Information Agency. He served on detail to the Department from USIA as Director of the Office of Press Relations from April to June 1999, and for one year in the Office of the Under Secretary for Political Affairs during the tenures of James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger.

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