Annie Bird: The U.S.'s Drug War Should Not Hit Central America

By Annie Bird, February 18, 2012 (

As a Mexico Style "Drug War" is launched in Central America, US and US Allied Security Forces are increasing participating in police actions in Central America. On February 7, Oliver Garza, a high level State Department Security Advisor took up residence in the US embassy in Honduras. Garza comes to Honduras from the State Department agency most directly in charge of US security operations in Colombia and Mexico, and in 2002 his name was associated with a scandal in which 3,000 AK-47's were shipped from the Nicaraguan National Police to Colombian AUC paramilitaries.

On January 18, the same day it was announced that the Peace Corps was being pulled out of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduran President Porfirio Lobo made an unexpected trip to Miami, home of the US Southern Command, to discuss security matters. During the visit US officials promised to send high level security advisors to Honduras to advise President Lobo in security matters.

According to a State Department press release, on February 7, under the leadership of US Ambassador to Honduras Lisa Kubiske, Oliver Garza began work as a "high level senior technical expert for President Lobo on citizen security, rule of law and counter-narcotics issues."

Garza's last embassy posting was as US ambassador to Nicaragua from 1999 to 2002. Since that time he has not worked in public profile positions, for the past five years, Garza served as a Senior Advisor to the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL). The INL is the agency which is charged with overseeing the implementation of the bulk of the Central America Regional Security Strategy funding, a multi-year regional strategy for security initiatives in Central America, which in 2011 folded into the Central American Integration System's (SICA's) regional security strategy.

CARSI is a modeled after Plan Colombia, which was also largely managed by the INL, and SICA's security strategy draws heavily on security cooperation from Colombia. Over half of Plan Colombia's funding was spent in contracts to private security firms. SICA's security strategy was launched in 2011 and is expected to have a $1 billion annual budget, undoubtedly a large portion of that will also be spent on security contractors.

Initially Central America was expected to form part of the Merida Initiative, also managed largely by the INL, launched in Mexico in 2007 under the leadership of former Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. The Merida Initiative coupled with Mexican President Calderon's 'war on drugs' launched in 2006 and together the two have claimed an estimated 40,000 lives. Though not clearly integrated into the Merida Initiative, since 2007 Central America has also seen an increase in direct presence of US security forces in Central America, and in 2010 plans were announced to create CARSI.


The US Embassy has confirmed that as early as September 2006 the DEA participated in raids in Guatemala close to the Mexican border. This series of raids, mostly on indigenous communities in the northern reaches of the departments of San Marcos and Quiche raised suspicion of many local activists as they coincided with strong opposition from indigenous communities to the installation of a large gold mine, the Marlin Mine, owned by Goldcorp Inc, a Canadian company.

On November 6, 2011 the New York Times ran an article describing a DEA program created five years ago, DEA-Fast, which consists of five teams of ten agents who are deployed to undertake direct actions in Latin America and Afghanistan. In Honduras there have been reports of direct actions by the US Border Control and the US Army Rangers, and of trainings by the Rangers and the US Marines. In addition there have been reports of Colombian Guala, elite police squad involvement in operations, and the presence of Isrealis in operations. In February, the Chilean police unit Carabineros , reknowned for abusive crowd control actions, paid a visit to Honduras.

In 2011 alone two former regional security centers were opened in Panama. In April the Operations Center for SICA's Regional Security Strategy (COSR) was opened in the former Rodman Marine Barracks. CORS will receive military and police representatives from throughout Central America and the Dominican Republic. COSR will receive logistical support from the Joint Inter Agency Task Force - South (JIATF-S), an interagency anti-drug task force that coordinates actions between the US military, Coast Guard, Border Control, State Department, Department of Justice, etc. Until 1999 JIATF-S had been based in the Panama Canal Zone, among the last of the US Security forces present in the Canal Zone after 1998 negotiations failed to achieve permission for the presence of 2,000 US soldiers in Howard Airforce Base.

But in December the Panamanian government announced the opening of a regional training center which will train police from throughout Central America run by US and Colombian forces in Panama. The center will train specialized units to combat drug trafficking, combat movement of undocumented people and watch borders in inaccessible areas.


But the involvement of foreign security forces in Central America appears to reach beyond the drug war and into repressing protests.

On January 30, 2012, in Panama, Ngöbe-Buglé indigenous activists began protests against hydroelectric dam and mining concessions on their land. Protesters blocked the Inter American highway in the departments of Veraguas and Chiriqui, and on February 5, "security" forces undertook an extremely violent eviction of the protesters. A teenage protester was shot and killed, 32 were wounded and 41 were arrested.

The Panamanian Minister of Security claimed the bullet did not pertain to a police weapon, and indigenous and religious activists claim the police used live ammunition against protesters. Indigenous activists are circulating a sequence of three photographs reportedly taken the day and in the place the young protester was killed, of a tall blond man wearing a military type uniform under a police vest first pulling out a gun, extending and presumably firing it, and then tucking it under his shirt. The man does not appear to be Panamanian. A clip of video shows three soldiers, two apparently of European descent, detaining a Ngöbe-Buglé protester, one apparently shouting in English, "Don't move, don't move."

In Honduras there were many reports that during the months of protests sustained following the June 28, 2009 military coup soldiers or police who were clearly not Honduran, yet dressed in Honduran uniforms, were involved in crowd control actions. There were many widespread, unconfirmed reports of Israeli security force actions.


While Ambassador to Nicaragua, the new US security advisor to Honduras Oliver Garza was drawn into a 2001 scandal in which 3,000 AK-47's and 15 million munitions' were shipped from the Nicaraguan National Police (PNN) to Colombian United Autodefense (AUC) paramilitaries via a Nicaraguan officials and an Israeli arms broker. In October 1999, Nicaraguan police began negotiating a weapons purchase from a Guatemala based Israeli arms broker, a former Israeli Special Forces and intelligence officer.

Part of the deal was trading in AK-47s in the PNN arsenal, and the arms broker reportedly found a buyer in the Panamanian police, and produced a procurement order from Panama. However, in November 2001 the arms were shipped to Colombia on a boat especially purchased for the mission by a freighting company especially created for the transaction. They guns were unloaded in a port controlled by Chiquita banana, now being sued by families of assassinated unionists over Chiquitas payoffs to the AUC.

According to Nicaraguan newspaper reports, the government officials involved had obtained Ambassador Garza's "approval" for the shipment, while the Embassy admitted it had been "informed" of the shipment but denied knowledge that the final recipient was to be the AUC.

At the time many observed that the transaction was similar to Iran Contra arms transactions, which also used Israelis as intermediaries and convoluted exchanges to hide transactions. As militarization steps up to "fight the drug war," it is important to remember that the Iran Contra affair brought to light US officials at least peripheral participation in drug trafficking. Congressional hearings that followed up on the Iran Contra hearings also produced evidence that US officials facilitated entry of drugs to the United States in exchange for 'donations,' mostly of arms, to the Contra armed movement attacking Nicaragua. The US State Department even paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to an airline company owned by top Medellin cartel kingpin Ramon Matta to transport weapons.

A similar Iran Contra era case has links to the until recently Minister of Security in Honduras, Oscar Alvarez. Alvarez was a partner in a Honduran lumber export company with two Green Berets, Byron Carlisle and Keith Anderson, arrested in 1984 in North Carolina, who were convicted of stealing weapons from the Army to sell in exchange for drugs. The two claimed they believed it was part of a CIA operation to fund the Contra forces, and the conviction was later partially overturned on appeal.


As the DEA and other US and allied security forces step up presence in Central America, the DEA's actions in Mexico are coming under intense criticism, and a trial unfolding in Chicago brings up memories of US officials involvement in drug trafficking. For years, many observers have claimed that the Mexican army and US security forces have taken sides in the drug war - the side of the Sinaloa Cartel, with disproportionate actions against Sinaloa cartel enemies. These accusations stepped up in 2011, particularly after Vicente Zambada Niebla, the son of one of the top two Sinaloa kingpins, was arrested and then extradited for prosecution in Chicago.

Zambada Niebla's defense was that he was working in coordination with the DEA, Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). In December his lawyers presented evidence which according to some reports includes written agreements allowing top cartel members, also working as 'informants' providing information on the activities of rival cartels, to engage in trafficking activities.

This scandal follows others such as Fast and Furious, in which Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) officials allowed known organized crime agents to purchase weapons in the United States and export them to Mexico. Some reports claim that Fast and Furious arms disproportionately benefited the Sinaloa Cartel. A similar situation occurred with arms destined for the infamous Mara 18 in Honduras.

More recent reports have surfaced which indicate that undercover DEA officers facilitated the laundering or smuggling of millions of dollars in drug profits, as well as cocaine shipments. In September 2007, a Gulfstream jet crashed in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico, with 4 tons of Sinaloa cartel cocaine on board. The plane tail numbers were on a European Union list of planes suspected of carrying out extraordinary rendition flights for the CIA, and its flight records indicate frequent flights to Guantanamo between 2003 and 2005. Narco News reported that a long time Colombian CIA asset claimed the plane was part of an undercover operation Immigrations and Customs Enforcement operation that was carried out without the knowledge of Mexican officials.


As Oliver Garza, apparently a seasoned drug warrior, settles into his new desk in the US Embassy in Honduras, Central America is bracing for the US drug war to hit. The Mexican drug war has cost about 40,000 lives, and reportedly no significantly impacted the flow of drugs, yet US agencies don't seem to have a clear grasp on the line between fighting the drug trafficking and taking part in it. And, drug war militarization may already be being used to repress social movements and indigenous rights activists.


Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action:

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