Cover image for Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation: Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America By Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler

Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation

Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America

Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler


$93.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-04866-6

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-04867-3

448 pages
7" × 10"
8 maps

Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation

Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America

Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler

“There is nothing like Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation in drug-control literature. It covers a region, Central America, that other studies deal with peripherally, if at all. It encompasses a span of time, from ca. 1980 to the present, that will command much attention. The authors make their subject a compelling story, one that is essential to an understanding of recent and contemporary Central America. Julie Bunck and Michael Fowler's exceptional study will appeal to both students and scholars in various disciplines, including history, political science, sociology, and criminal justice.”


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Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation is the first book to examine drug trafficking through Central America and the efforts of foreign and domestic law enforcement officials to counter it. Drawing on interviews, legal cases, and an array of Central American sources, Julie Bunck and Michael Fowler track the changing routes, methods, and networks involved, while comparing the evolution and consequences of the drug trade through Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama over a span of more than three decades. Bunck and Fowler argue that while certain similar factors have been present in each of the Central American states, the distinctions among these countries have been equally important in determining the speed with which extensive drug trafficking has taken hold, the manner in which it has evolved, the amounts of different drugs that have been transshipped, and the effectiveness of antidrug efforts.
“There is nothing like Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation in drug-control literature. It covers a region, Central America, that other studies deal with peripherally, if at all. It encompasses a span of time, from ca. 1980 to the present, that will command much attention. The authors make their subject a compelling story, one that is essential to an understanding of recent and contemporary Central America. Julie Bunck and Michael Fowler's exceptional study will appeal to both students and scholars in various disciplines, including history, political science, sociology, and criminal justice.”
Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation fills a glaring gap in the voluminous drug literature. It will instantly become the reference book for understanding the role of Central America in the international drug trade and the profound impact of the trade on the region’s countries. Anyone interested in drug trafficking in Central America will find this book to be essential reading. And anyone who fails to cite it when writing about drug trafficking in Central America will provoke raised eyebrows.”
“Encyclopaedic in its coverage and size, Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler’s book is an important and impressive examination of ‘just how drugs have moved across the region and with what consequences’ (p.8). . . .

“. . . Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation is a major accomplishment, and indeed one that I am sure will remain the authoritative source on this subject for a long time to come.”
“This well-researched book makes a praiseworthy contribution to the literature on drug trafficking in Central America. It will appeal to academics, policy-makers and students, as well as researchers and activists who are interested in international security . . . and Latin American studies.”

Julie Marie Bunck is Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville and the author of Fidel Castro and the Quest for a Revolutionary Culture in Cuba (Penn State, 1994).

Michael Ross Fowler is Professor of Political Science at the University of Louisville. Together with Julie Marie Bunck, he is also the author of Law, Power, and the Sovereign State: The Evolution and Application of the Concept of Sovereignty (Penn State, 1995).


List of Illustrations


List of Abbreviations

Introduction: Exploring Central American Drug Trafficking

1 Central America and the International Trade in Drugs

2 Belize

3 Costa Rica

4 Guatemala

5 Honduras

6 Panama


Table of Cases

Selected Bibliography



Exploring Central American Drug Trafficking

This book explores one distinctly understudied aspect of the international drug trade: the experiences of “bridge countries,” that is, states that may neither consume nor produce sizable amounts of illegal drugs but that lie on favored paths carved out between centers of production and key consumer markets. In the 1980s the Central American republics became critically important to the international drug trade and have remained so ever since, with illegal drugs continually transiting en route to North American, European, and various emerging markets. Central America is particularly well suited for one of the first comparative studies of bridge-state trafficking, because its trade in drugs has long been emphatically multipolar. Significant drug transit has occurred not only across the territories but in the skies above each state and through offshore Pacific and Caribbean waters. By studying Central American drug trafficking, we offer a first examination of social, political, and economic phenomena of extraordinary importance to an often overlooked region of the world.

Certainly, by the 1990s massive inflows and outflows of cocaine had come to affect profoundly each small republic. Nevertheless, no sound empirical foundation has yet been compiled, much less have theoretical explanations been offered, to illuminate the manner in which drug traffickers and law enforcement have contended with one another in Central America. One leading authority on drugs has written, “The topic of transnational smuggling attracts a good deal of rhetoric but not much that could be called research.” Another recent work declares, “Although studies of drug use are numerous and our understanding of local drug markets is growing, our understanding of the multimillion-dollar business of international drug smuggling is considerably less well developed.” This book thus aims to fill a gap in the literature by using extensive primary and secondary research to elucidate the dynamics of the Central American drug trade.

The Case Studies Selected

We organized our research around five case studies: Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. Each has served as an important staging point in international drug transit throughout the last decades of the twentieth century and the first of the twenty-first. Although as early as the 1980s transshipment also occurred via El Salvador and Nicaragua, their high levels of instability and violence kept some traffickers at bay and greatly hampered antidrug activities. Throughout that decade, data is scarce since their authorities were seldom seizing narcotics and even more rarely breaking up significant drug rings. Furthermore, the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran civil wars hampered the U.S. drug investigations usually critically important for seizures and arrests anywhere in the region. The Sandinista government was not prepared to cooperate with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and U.S. national security officials reportedly squelched DEA inquiries that involved trafficking related to the Salvadoran military, its bases, and its role in supporting the Nicaraguan contras.

In later chronicling how drug problems had long been ignored, the U.S. State Department reported that El Salvador had seized a single kilogram of cocaine in 1989 and a mere 26 kilos in 1990. Even as late as 1998, of 31.6 metric tons of cocaine seized in Central America, Salvadoran authorities accounted for a mere 41 kilos. Similarly, in Nicaragua neither the right nor the left did much to stem drug passage in the 1980s. Indeed, before 1990 the country had never seized a Colombian cocaine plane. Instead, individuals on both sides of the Nicaraguan civil war trafficked narcotics for their own profit or to finance their causes. Thus, although drug transit eventually reached substantial levels in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and each enters our account in relation to trafficking in its neighbors, we chose to examine the five Central American countries in which the most data is available over the longest time frame.

Our research soon revealed that the many transnational criminal organizations active in Central America were putting into effect varied, numerous, and often quite creative drug-smuggling schemes. These aimed to tap the enormous potential profits inherent in the drug trade, while avoiding interdiction, that is, the interception and seizure by law-enforcement officials of drugs and traffickers traveling from source to market countries, as well as of the back flow of drug profits. Criminal efforts to establish efficient smuggling routes and methods, followed by official attempts to counter them, have caused the drug trade to evolve, state by state and organization by organization, as traffickers and police have tried to adapt to each other’s actions.

In the chapters that follow we explore where, when, and why smugglers have periodically changed their routes and modi operandi to avoid detection. We detail the growing magnitude of the regional trade, and we identify key traffickers in Central America and their organizations. Although the bridge states have shared many experiences, we draw special attention to the aspects of Central American trafficking operations that have varied by drug and by country. In analyzing state efforts to curb the trade, we examine what was typical and what was singular about the historical development of key institutions and how this affected antidrug initiatives.

Although in many respects we have disaggregated the Central American societies, we have also focused on the ways in which this activity is regional as well as national. As we shall see, traffickers, routes, and law-enforcement efforts have often involved more than a single bridge state. For an accurate picture of the Central American drug trade, a panorama must be created, in which developments in the different republics can be set next to one another and compared and contrasted. When approached from that perspective, the challenges of the Central American drug trade have underscored grave deficiencies in countering organized crime in more authoritarian societies and more democratic ones, in civil law and criminal law judicial systems, in postcolonial and long-independent states, and in countries at very different levels of development.

Empirical and Theoretical Contributions

In examining the complex workings of the Central American drug trade, our book has empirical and theoretical dimensions. One scholar wrote, “Like plants in nature, theories and explanations grow out of the dirt of observations of reality. . . . Getting your hands dirty with the nitty-gritty details . . . is a good way to test the abstractions of theory, and perhaps to develop alternate theory, or modifications of theories.” In that spirit we have aimed to write an empirical book that sets forth and illuminates important data regarding the Central American drug trade, while using inductive observations to provide the first detailed, comparative account of drugs and the law in this region.

Exploring this variety of transnational crime in this region of a globalized world seemed to us to invite an interdisciplinary approach. We are political scientists, but we have also drawn on the disciplines of law, history, geography, economics, and criminal justice. Furthermore, in conducting our fieldwork, we found it necessary to live for a period in each of the five countries, to become closely familiar with the geography, culture, institutions, and procedures of each society; to develop networks of sources; and to begin to ferret out information. We then tried to assemble for scholarly analysis the type of information that, if assembled at all, had heretofore been largely restricted to antidrug and intelligence services.

Our work also has a theoretical dimension in seeking to go beyond laying out facts to pose conceptual questions about the role of bridge states in the international drug trade and to develop a framework to better understand how states have tried to contend with this aspect of transnational crime. From this standpoint this volume continues our past work on the state. In the mid-1990s we collaborated on our first book exploring the role of state sovereignty in international relations. At a time when many scholars were portraying sovereignty as “perforated, defiled, cornered, eroded, extinct, anachronistic, bothersome, even interrogated,” we struck off on a different course, arguing that, although the implications of sovereignty for international affairs now vary from past eras, the concept has remained at the center of international discourse. Other scholars then elaborated on that basic theme, arguing that sovereignty has remained viable, though reflective of “organized hypocrisy,” or subject to occasional revolutions in meaning.

When the Central American drug trade is viewed through an international relations lens, certain preliminary points stand out. Academics have long agreed that relations between states should no longer be the sole focus of scholarly attention in this field. Furthermore, it is no longer self-evident, as it may once have seemed to be, that states are automatically the chief actors in the international drama with other entities present on the stage but playing bit parts. Drug organizations amount to transnational actors that take on far more than minor roles in these bridge states. Indeed, they contend with, challenge, and sometimes overwhelm bridge-state institutions. This book thus aims to further our understanding of the relationships between states and one important class of nonstate actors.

A study of bridge states is also interesting for students of international relations, because the Central American drug trade accelerated just in the period when the cold war era was succeeded by one marked by expanded trade, diminished militaries, enhanced regional integration, and increased globalization. We wondered how these broader phenomena would affect drug trafficking. While the drug trade via Central America has certainly spotlighted the difficulties of mounting an effective multilateral campaign against agile, wealthy, and opportunistic nonstate actors, we believed that in such an era of rapid change, it was particularly important to relate drug smuggling through the Central American bridge states to broader international trends.

As the issues of the post–cold war world have become more sharply defined, we became especially interested in another overlooked and underexplored aspect of the clandestine side of globalization: how exactly have governments tried to contend with the illicit dimensions of the global economy? Where in the middle decades of the last century scholars often portrayed states as omnicompetent, if not omnipotent, entities, and international relations was sometimes portrayed in terms that might be likened to leaders moving pieces on a diplomatic-military chessboard, scholarship toward the end of the cold war and throughout the post–cold war era has increasingly focused on the deficiencies and incapacities of states. Indeed, in this age many governments have been unable to discharge even their most basic functions: maintaining law and order, promoting a sound economy, defending territory from foreign depredations, and operating a fair and effective legal system. Increasingly, governments purport to regulate all kinds of activity that they have no real ability to oversee, and in many societies the notion that the state has a legal monopoly on violence seems like a curious abstraction largely irrelevant to daily life. Again, to us these points seemed directly relevant to bridge-state drug trafficking.

Such observations brought us, in turn, to what has been called the most prominent theoretical debate at the close of the twentieth century and outset of the twenty-first: to what extent are states retreating in light of increasingly global markets and increasingly pervasive transnational actors, some of them quite powerful? When confronted with the illicit global economy, states do not abandon the field so much as they retreat, persist, and reassert themselves in different ways. We wondered if this would accurately describe the manner in which Central American bridge states were responding to the transshipment of large quantities of drugs.

In an attempt to explore these more theoretical considerations, while getting our hands dirty with the nitty-gritty details of the subject, we identified a handful of questions regarding bridge-state drug trafficking that have yet to be satisfactorily answered:

• Has the drug trade been confined to particular corners of Central America, or has it blanketed the region? To what extent have early trends, set in the 1980s and before, carried over to the 1990s and the twenty-first century?

• How exactly have wealthy and violent illegal business enterprises chosen to carry out transshipment operations within the Central American bridge states? Which methods have traffickers used, and what routes to market have they blazed?

• Which drug organizations have directed transshipment through Central America and over what time periods? Which Colombian and Mexican cartels have been most active in which countries? What might be concluded of the native drug-trafficking organizations within the bridge states? How have they operated?

• What key characteristics of the Central American states have factored into the drug trade? Have antidrug successes had lasting positive consequences, or have they turned out to be largely ephemeral triumphs?

• How has the drug trade been perceived within the bridge states over time? Have actions matched rhetoric or not? What measures have been adopted to respond to government trafficking? How enthusiastically and how effectively have policies been implemented? How successful have smuggling organizations been in evading or co-opting authorities?

• What has the extraordinary stress test of the passage to market of many millions of dollars worth of drugs meant for government structures—political, judicial, penal, and law enforcement? What has it meant for people, whether nationals or foreigners, traffickers or law-abiding citizens, politicians, police officers, judges, prison wardens, or other officials?

• Finally, what does the record of bridge-state drug trafficking reveal about international relations in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries and, in particular, the efforts of governments to contend with the challenges posed by drug organizations and the role they are playing in the illegal global economy?

Our focus on the Central American bridge states steers our contribution to the now voluminous illegal drug literature away from South American production and North American and European dealing and consumption. However, by focusing on trafficking, our work may shed light on why officials have so often been disappointed by the long-term results of interdiction strategies. Although over the years impressive seizure and arrest totals have accumulated, not enough drugs have been intercepted to raise prices so high as to discourage drug use. Prior studies of drug smuggling and interdiction have largely focused on police efforts at the borders of market states. We look instead to the bridge states and show that here interdiction of large percentages of the drugs in transit has failed to occur. However, the subsequent policy issue of just how many government resources ought to be devoted to trying to curtail supply as opposed to attempting to reduce demand is beyond the purview of this study. We have also chosen not to address the related question of whether states should respond to drug abuse and violence by decriminalizing or legalizing drugs. While our work may provide grist for that mill, the topic has already been well canvassed, with basic arguments readily accessible. Furthermore, until quite recently such potentially dramatic policy changes have had little support within our area of focus—Latin America and particularly Central America.

The Challenges of Studying Bridge-State Drug Trafficking

That scholars have seldom addressed even the quite fundamental issues regarding bridge-state trafficking that we have sought to explore is attributable, in part, to the fact that so much of the trade occurs outside of public view. Transnational criminal organizations have gone to considerable lengths to keep activities secret, attempting to camouflage their routes, personnel, and methods, including the manner in which they have corrupted authorities to ensure the smooth flow of drugs to market. The secrecy that cloaks this subject led many to doubt whether our research project was viable. Certainly, many standard social science tools commonly used to investigate new topics have strictly limited applicability to the drug trade. For instance, apart from a small handful of quite useful studies that have questioned imprisoned traffickers, survey research has revealed little about this brand of transnational criminal activity. Although polling can indicate something about public perceptions of drug corruption, the illicit nature of the subject and consequent efforts to cover up activities may well distort mass opinion.

As for statistical analyses, for decades law-enforcement officials have compiled data on drug production and seizures, drug-related arrests, and the confiscation of drug-tainted assets. While drawing on this, we recognize its limitations, various aspects of which have been well documented. Statistics can illuminate certain aspects of bridge-state trafficking, but not others. And, although some figures appear to be reasonably reliable—advanced only after data has been carefully collected, processed, and cross-checked—others are imprecise or even suspect. The validity of drug statistics depends on honest, thorough, and conscientious professionals reporting numbers that are compiled with logical and consistent methodologies across different countries for a number of consecutive years. Unfortunately, these attributes have rarely been evident.

On inspection, certain statistics regarding drugs in Central America turned out to be simply rough estimates. Government data has sometimes been collected and advanced without methodological rigor. The biases of those charged with assembling the facts may have affected some figures, and political agendas may have intervened in the collecting or publicizing of some drug data. Certainly, those reporting figures have often had a stake in inflating or deflating particular numbers, either to gain personal promotions or to enhance the flow of resources from those funding antidrug activities. In any event, many statistics have been publicized without clear explanation, leading to ambiguities and misunderstandings. Moreover, just what many commonly tracked statistics demonstrate can be arguable. For example, that more traffickers are arrested and more drugs interdicted may indicate improving law enforcement, larger amounts of drugs being shipped to market, or some combination. Thus, some drug statistics are flawed, and many are open to varying interpretations.

More broadly, a recurrent problem in investigating Central American drug trafficking concerns finding reliable sources to depend on, whether statistical or otherwise. Across the region officials have failed to keep sufficiently detailed records on drug cases. Material from Central American legal archives has tended to be erratic in quantity and quality, making it difficult to follow a trafficker’s career or an organization’s life history. In some countries prison and court records have been ambiguous, fragmentary, inaccurate, or missing. Librarians in national libraries have sometimes neglected even to keep legal statutes and codes properly updated. Archival research can thus be quite challenging.

Despite these many difficulties, this book proceeds from the premise that scholars can go much further in studying the role of bridge countries in the international drug trade than has hitherto been evident. In fact, extraordinary amounts of data on bridge-state trafficking are available in open sources, particularly in the Spanish language, much of it never before synthesized and analyzed. Certain useful government documents, such as the periodic reports of the Costa Rican and Honduran Legislative Commissions on Narcotics Trafficking, are publicly available. Bodies of relevant laws may be reviewed as well, those dealing specifically with drugs as well as those focused on related subjects, such as bail, extradition, and search and seizure. Furthermore, various U.S. government sources, including congressional hearings and reports, once-classified documents published by the National Security Archive, and DEA and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) materials, can clarify points about regional drug transshipment.

Most important, drug rings operating in the bridge states have slipped up, and the seizures and arrests that have unraveled their operations have exposed many activities. As our extensive table of cases attests, much information has been published in case reports and other legal documents from criminal proceedings in market and bridge states alike. Furthermore, antidrug officials have often consented to be interviewed, and a handful have written accounts of the drug trade, as have various traffickers after arrest. And, although few secondary sources deal directly with drug smuggling via the bridge states, much of the drug literature touches indirectly on the subject.

Thus, we took on the task of canvassing a broad array of sources on Central American drug trafficking and then sifting through a wealth of data to determine just how drugs have moved across the region and with what consequences. In conducting dozens of interviews in our five case studies, we spoke with many officials, including ministers of interior and justice, diplomats, legislators, foreign ministers, and even a prime minister. In addition, we contacted a host of officials working at different levels of the criminal-justice systems, including police officers, jurists, prosecutors, defense lawyers, public defenders, human rights observers, and prison wardens. We conversed with social workers, public health officials, and clerics with insights on the drug trade. We interviewed editors of newspapers within the bridge states, along with a range of academic observers, including professors at the region’s most highly regarded universities. We met as well with various authorities from the United Nations Latin American Institute for Crime Prevention and the Treatment of Offenders, including the director of the Organized Crime and Drug Traffic program. In each of the five countries we communicated with a slew of individuals on a not-for-attribution basis, including private citizens, foreign diplomats, and law-enforcement officials.

From this research we have tried to weave together many threads—individuals and organizations, places and routes, policies and laws, antidrug failures and successes—into a single fabric that presents the Central American drug trade accurately and holistically, nationally and regionally. Although no research project concerning secret illicit activity can be foolproof, we have attempted to corroborate information by relying on multiple sources, wherever possible, while weeding out material that seemed biased, implausible, or contradictory. In hopes that our work will stimulate others to sift through this information and to qualify, correct, and amplify our findings, we have tried to be as thorough as possible in indicating the sources that substantiate our points.

Clarification of Terms

Where preexisting scholarship is scarce, clarifying the terms used takes on particular importance. In this regard, categorizing the Central American countries as bridge states, as opposed to market states, ought to be qualified by the fact that drug consumption has risen sharply in each republic. For many years traffickers have purposefully stimulated domestic markets in the region by compensating bridge-state associates with drugs rather than cash, and these were then often transferred to local dealers in local markets. Furthermore, after traffickers have crashed planes, botched airdrops, or jettisoned cargoes during pursuit at sea, lost drug shipments have often been sold within the bridge countries. In fact, with significant drug use occurring throughout the Americas, the distinction between bridge and consumer states has become blurred. Indeed, because much cocaine headed for Canada passes through U.S. territory or waters, in a sense even the United States has served as a bridge country as well as the leading market state. Nevertheless, the chief role for the Central American countries in the drug trade has been to serve as a route to consumers elsewhere. This distinguishes them from countries that are principally markets.

While the Central American republics are most commonly referred to as bridge states, an alternative metaphor conceives of the Latin American drug trade as a pipeline, with much of the product originating in South America, particularly in Colombia. This image, however, also needs to be qualified and further elaborated. Some Central American countries have produced drugs for export, most notably, opium in Guatemala and marijuana in Belize and Panama. These drugs might be envisioned as entering the pipeline along its course, adding to the main flow from South America. Moreover, most drugs passing through the pipeline have been directed to Mexico, and Mexican traffickers have then transported the drugs across the border into the United States. Hence, the Central American portion of the pipeline has not necessarily emptied into a market country, though it sometimes has. Instead, it has often deposited the drugs into what might be envisioned as the key reservoir state, where supplies have been pooled before being smuggled into the U.S. market.

One might wonder, then, why we chose to confine our case studies to Central America, rather than extend them to Mexico. Unlike the Central American republics, Mexico is not a prototypical transshipment country. Not only does it include a large and growing market of millions of drug consumers but over the past four decades it has housed numerous leading drug syndicates and has thus served as the headquarters for many trafficking ventures. In contrast, although important traffickers and organizations have flourished across Central America, these drug rings have never rivaled, much less overshadowed, Colombian groups, as their Mexican counterparts have grown to do. A quintessential bridge country has one paramount role—to provide passage to market for drugs. Mexico is thus not an archetype of a bridge state but is instead a special case, worthy of separate studies to analyze its various functions in the international drug trade.

In clarifying our terms, we come next to the problematic term, cartel. While an economic cartel is an arrangement among businesses to avoid free competition in a particular market by regulating prices and output, the word has been used differently with respect to the drug trade. Popular use of cartel in the drug context dates to 1983, when U.S. authorities had traced the cocaine in dozens of seizures to Medellín kingpin Jorge Luis Ochoa. It appeared that Ochoa and other prominent Medellín traffickers had engaged in some joint decision making and division of tasks. While the phrase export cooperative might have been more accurate, the DEA and various federal prosecutors began to use cartel to describe the thick web of interconnections that appeared to link Ochoa with other leading Colombian traffickers headquartered in Medellín.

The word cartel thus came to signify mostly Colombian and Mexican, even occasionally Bolivian, criminal organizations that over an extended period procured considerable supplies of cocaine, oversaw their transport to market, and reaped significant profits. Certainly, this description makes for an imprecise definition. Determining whether a drug ring of some magnitude has attained cartel status is an inexact science. Nevertheless, the use of cartel has become deeply entrenched in discourse about the Latin American drug trade, frequently employed by journalists, politicians, counternarcotics officials, prosecutors and judges, and many, though not all, scholars.

Given how frequently cartel appears, we adopt its usage as well, though we hasten to add certain clarifications. First, the term does not necessarily imply an ability to thoroughly control the supply of a drug or to form a monopoly or even an oligopoly that so diminishes competition as to permit price fixing. Most drug cartels could not make a strong claim to such activities. In using the word cartel, we also do not mean to imply that these are especially monolithic organizations, that is, ones marked by uniformity, solidarity, and pyramidal hierarchies. The Medellín cartel, for instance, has been shown to have been not nearly so centralized and unified as popularly portrayed. Nor has any cartel ever swept a drug-trafficking field of rivals. Given the low barriers to entry, new drug rings have tended to spring up over time. Often, these have drawn on experienced freelancers and the remnants of groups previously taken down by authorities, as well as profit-hungry newcomers, who often have relevant criminal experience outside the drug trade. At times serving as junior partners or paying transit route taxes, smaller organizations have coexisted, and sometimes conflicted, with much larger ones, though only a few have evolved into cartels themselves.

Indeed, perhaps the principal reason that no cartel has monopolized the cocaine trade is that the potential profits for producers, intermediaries, transshippers, and dealers have been so lucrative as to encourage entrepreneurs. In an era when U.S. dealers might sell a kilo of cocaine wholesale for $32,000, and their European counterparts for as much as $42,000, yet coca leaves might bring farmers $650 per kilo in Peru, any start-up organization could turn a quick substantial profit. And, law-enforcement pressure on leading organizations has increased opportunities for competitors to gain market share. Indeed, an internal dynamic within the drug trade favors smaller organizations, because they are less likely to come to the attention of rivals and law enforcement.

Furthermore, those relatively infrequent occasions when interdiction has succeeded in raising prices have increased the incentive to ship more of the drug. In addition, the closer to the source country interdiction has occurred, the less costly has it been for the traffickers to replace the lost load. Since market-state law enforcement has posed the greatest risk for a drug shipment, much of the value added has come after the cocaine has transited through the bridge countries. This, too, has encouraged entrepreneurs who lack retail distribution abilities but can still sell the drugs wholesale in a market country. Thus, although drug rings have created barriers to entry through violence aimed at maintaining or expanding their market share, even lesser networks prepared to cooperate with cartels, or with sufficient muscle and fortitude to withstand them, have soon accumulated considerable earnings.

Groups of traffickers at work in Central America have sometimes been cells of foreign drug organizations, perhaps with a trusted representative planted in a particular zone to supervise a number of drug ventures. At other times, such groups have been independent, or quasi-independent, entities. For instance, a Belizean network might undertake a service such as refueling cocaine planes for multiple foreign organizations. In parts of Spanish-speaking Central America, such native transshipment networks have been referred to as cartelitos, or “mini-cartels.” For example, during the 1990s a number of cartelitos developed in Guatemala, each specializing in particular routes and methods and each with its own contacts within the larger Colombian and Mexican organizations.

In this way, Central American groups have contributed to the compartmentalizing of drug operations, enabling organizations to outsource key transportation functions, which has posed even more difficult challenges for law enforcement than more vertically integrated criminal groups doing most trafficking tasks themselves. In addition, a foreign drug organization might be active in a number of Central American countries, supplying, offering logistical support, and coordinating the activities of cartelitos or cells. Indeed, multiple cartels have often been at work simultaneously in the different bridge states, while a host of lesser networks, foreign and domestic, might be moving smaller quantities of drugs through that country as well.


In the chapters that follow, we explore the particular deficiencies and abilities of people, governments, and drug organizations interacting in the bridge states. Certainly, the international drug trade is very much concerned with individual and collective incapacities. The rise of the marijuana, heroin, and cocaine industries is undergirded by millions of users unwilling or incapable of freeing themselves from drug use and so reducing the steep demand curve that stimulates trafficking. Within Central America, when confronted by the prospect of quick wealth, many individuals have overlooked the potential long-term costs of involvement in the trade. Not only has there been the risk of arrest or violent death for traffickers, but their friends and family members have frequently been drawn into illegal activities to their ultimate detriment. Participation in the drug trade has also turned facilitators, such as bankers, lawyers, and accountants, into white-collar criminals and has disrupted or ended the careers of many judges, politicians, military and police officers, and other government officials.

Our examination of the Central American drug trade also reveals the extraordinary capabilities of transnational criminal organizations to multiply and thrive in the post–cold war era. Drug rings have been able to adopt for their own purposes practices undertaken by legitimate international businesses. Particular kingpins as well as the leaders of Central American cells and cartelitos have become adept at reorienting when challenged by law-enforcement officials. Equally important, they have found ways to exploit an extraordinary variety of weaknesses or opportunities within different bridge states. Thus, while authorities have compiled records of seizures and arrests that are not unimpressive, the illegal drug industry as a whole continues to prosper—moving immense quantities of drugs to major markets in North America and Europe.

To answer the question of why trafficking through Central America so resists being curbed by national efforts, regional cooperation, or extraregional assistance, we would point, in the first instance, to the power of the bribes, bullets, and intimidation that drug organizations have wielded. Huge flows of drugs have headed to market, and enormous profits have returned to bolster and further motivate their organizations. So long as demand for narcotics remains strong, criminal groups will materialize to try to reap the extraordinary profits, and they will suborn, bully, and kill to protect their interests in the illicit global economy.

Institutional weaknesses help to explain why traffickers have penetrated particular countries when they did. Several cardinal factors have characterized government structures in the region. Virtually all lack the resources needed to carry out their functions effectively. Frequently, weak institutions are insufficiently transparent and lack the oversight necessary to ensure that officials are held accountable. Many do not have in place a formal set of operational rules and procedures adequate to provide guidance to those charged with carrying out assigned tasks or to discipline those who neglect their duties. Finally, weak institutions often have no tradition, no institutional culture, of laws, rules, and procedures generally followed and enforced in a consistent and unbiased manner. Naturally, countries with grave institutional weaknesses provide inviting targets for drug traffickers.

However, even taken together, the relative weakness of institutions in the different bridge states does not itself suffice to explain why, when, and how much drug trafficking occurs in each country. One might ask, if traffickers simply identify and exploit the countries with the weakest formal institutions, then why did the flow of cocaine actually increase through Panama after the downfall of the Noriega regime brought about governments intent on strengthening previously corrupted institutions? If institutional weakness were the sole variable at work, then one would expect trafficking organizations largely to avoid Costa Rica, the country with the strongest institutions. And yet, Costa Rica has long been a critically important bridge state.

We have found that drug organizations can successfully operate in the face of the region’s stronger government institutions as well as its weaker ones. Furthermore, institutions are but one factor in determining the extent of bridge-state drug transshipment. We shall see that noninstitutional factors, including geography, also greatly influence trafficking. Moreover, even the stronger and more stable institutions in Central America have often been rigid and inflexible. Institutions that are generally functioning effectively might not have been designed to cope with transnational criminal networks or with the particular stresses imposed by extraordinary drug flows. Their strengths seem not to include the adaptability needed to change to meet drug-trafficking challenges. In the case studies we thus note both the weak institutions and the rigidity of otherwise strong institutions that have helped to determine the extent of the drug trade.

The essence of our argument is that although the Central American bridge states have the power to join with outside powers, and occasionally with one another, to disrupt the operations of any particular criminal group transshipping drugs across their waters, territories, and skies, they have been overwhelmed by the drug trade as a whole. The social, economic, political, and geographic factors that propel this dimension of the illicit global economy—especially the North American and European demand for drugs produced in South America that governments throughout the world have outlawed—are too formidable for these states to counter effectively. When a large array of transnational criminal groups choose to ride these powerful currents toward wealth, Central American states lack the resources needed to stop, or even to dramatically curb, drug transshipment through the region. The balance of forces can thwart the efforts of the strongest countries in the region—newly developed Costa Rica, solidly democratic Belize, and economically dynamic Panama. And it can wreak havoc on the weakest—poverty-stricken Honduras and deeply fractured Guatemala.

The best that these bridge states can do is to try to minimize the bridge-favoring factors that traffickers perceive in sending drugs through their state and to maximize the bridge-disfavoring factors so as to encourage drug rings to shift more of their business to a neighboring state. However, altering certain bridge-favoring factors is impossible. For example, Belize and Guatemala flank Mexico, and Panama borders Colombia, making each of them attractive transshipment sites. Altering other bridge-favoring factors may be possible but also very costly, time-consuming, or uncertain. Consequently, Central American bridge states, even with extraordinary amounts of outside assistance, can devote many resources to countering drug smuggling and yet, despite disrupting many drug rings, can remain incapable of stemming the flow of drugs from South America to North American and European markets.