DULCE NOMBRE DE MARIA, El Salvador â€” The Mexican drug gangs rapidly infiltrating Central America call El Salvador â€œEl Caminito,â€ the little pathway.
Once an afterthought among drug traffickers, tiny El Salvador is increasingly becoming a favored shipping route for the expanding narco-business.
The cartels have been abetted by ruthless street gangs with roots in Los Angeles and secretive networks from the countryâ€™s civil war. And with its use of the U.S. dollar as its official currency, El Salvador is a money-laundererâ€™s paradise.
When President Barack Obama arrives in El Salvador on Tuesday for talks with President Mauricio Funes, he will be stepping into a region violently transformed by the growing presence of Mexican drug cartels. The regional struggle with security and organized crime will be a major focus of Obamaâ€™s discussions.
â€œMexican organized crime is a threat in all of Central America,â€ the Salvadoran attorney general, Romeo Barahona, said after meetings with his counterparts in Mexico to share intelligence on the mounting crisis.
Weak institutions and corrupt governments made Central America a fertile field, especially for the ruthless Zetas gang, a Mexican paramilitary organization that has spread throughout the region and into the U.S.
Zetas have taken charge of much of the Guatemalan countryside, and hundreds of people have been killed there, in Honduras and in El Salvador in the last six months. The government of Guatemala declared a state of emergency Dec. 19 in northern Alta Verapaz province bordering Mexico, and deployed the army in a bid to retake cities lost to the Zetas.
In Honduras, officials this month discovered a cocaine-production laboratory, possibly the first evidence that Mexican traffickers are making their own cocaine after years of Colombian monopoly. Even the placid, tourist-mecca country of Costa Rica is complaining that Mexican traffickers are setting up shop.
And here in El Salvador, authorities stumbled upon what they believe to be a Zeta training camp and recently dug up more than $15 million in drug money, buried in plastic barrels and thought to be but a fraction of hidden cash.
Funes recently told the Los Angeles Times that Zetas were working in his country. Defense Minister David Munguia underscored the fact, saying the Zetas and other Mexican traffickers â€œare moving their strategic rearguard to Central America.â€
Mexican traffickers in El Salvador have been able to easily graft onto existing criminal organizations, most notably street gangs that were born in Los Angeles and deported to El Salvador during the last two decades â€” and that now dominate neighborhoods in most Salvadoran cities.
Also, networks built on both sides during El Salvadorâ€™s long civil war that morphed into smuggling operations have proven a godsend to Mexican cartels.