As Mexico's drug cartels come under sustained attack by President Felipe Calderon's forces at home, several of them have started outsourcing. Los Zetas and the powerful Sinaloan cartel have been expanding their operations in Central America, where security forces often lack the resources to confront them.
The World Bank warns that the Mexican cartels pose a huge threat to development in some of the poorest countries in the region, like El Salvador.
In a graffiti-marred section of the capital, San Salvador, a squad of national police called "The Hawks" is on patrol. The policemen ride in a battered pickup truck but carry high-powered assault rifles. They are rolling through an area controlled by the 18th Street gang.
When the police spot anyone they suspect of being a gang member, they jump out and frisk him — like one tattooed, emaciated young man officers have spread-eagle against a wall. They search his pockets and make him shake out his shoes. He's carrying a crack pipe, which the police confiscate before letting him go.
Juan Bautista Rodriguez, the head of the emergency response police in San Salvador, says these types of patrols are a crucial part of the fight against organized crime.
"We are attacking the small, street-level drug dealers that have proliferated with the gangs," Bautista Rodriguez says. He says this keeps a constant pressure on the gangs and often provides leads for bigger busts.
'Using The Local Gangs'
Bautista Rodriguez says there has been an increase in crime and violence as the Mexican gangs move south, but he says the situation isn't as bad in El Salvador as it is in neighboring Guatemala or Honduras.
"Here in El Salvador, we still don't have well-armed groups that have the capacity to directly attack the police," he says. "In all the cases that we've had, we confront two or three gang members, and they are arrested or killed in the confrontation."
The police chief says the Mexican cartels appear to be expanding their operations in El Salvador by hiring members of the 18th Street or Mara Salvatrucha gangs to do work for them. Both of these gangs are known to be extremely violent, and Bautista Rodriguez says their links to the Mexicans have made them even more so.
"Drug bosses, cartels — they are using the local gangs, and this makes things more violent because the gangs are used more as hit men, used more to kill — used for revenge," he says. "If this continues as we've been seeing, it's going to cause a rise in insecurity for the ordinary Salvadoran citizen."
A 'Very Powerful Enemy'
Earlier this month, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, in a plea for regional unity against the Mexican cartels, said the nations of Central America face a "very powerful enemy." He said the profits garnered by the drug smugglers exceed the resources "available to the security forces of our countries."
This was an understatement. The billions of dollars in revenue generated each year by the cartels exceeds the annual gross domestic product of any country in the region.
The party line from Funes' administration is that, yes, drug trafficking is on the rise in El Salvador, but so far it hasn't gotten out of hand. The Salvadoran government, they argue, hasn't lost control of any of its territory to the smugglers, as has happened in Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
Outside of Funes' administration, however, not everyone shares this opinion.
"The presence of the drug cartels is increasing. Their power is increasing. The drug traffic is increasing," says Carlos Dada, the editorial director of the Salvadoran news website El Faro. Two weeks ago, El Faro published a 15,000-word, 33-page report on the workings of a Salvadoran drug syndicate called the Cartel de Texis. "Texis" is short for one of the towns they control, Texistepeque.
Dada says this cartel controls a swath of land along the north of the country.
"Because they own policeman, judges, congressmen, local mayors, et cetera, they basically manage this piece of Salvadoran territory as their own," he says. "So they charge drug cartels for crossing that territory free of threats from security forces. So if you are drug cartel, you pay them and you have a free pass from Honduras to Guatemala."
This cartel will sell its services to whoever wants to move narcotics through the region toward the United States. The El Faro article lays out the exact path the drugs follow — it cites intelligence documents making reference to the Cartel of Texis more than a decade ago.
The Salvadoran attorney general's office says it's opening an investigation into the cartel based on the El Faro article.
The news report caused quite a stir because it described in detail how the cartel generated millions of dollars through its links to top government and business officials in the region.
Effects Of The Rise Of Organized Crime
Jeannette Aguilar, who studies violence in El Salvador at the University of Central America, says it's clear that organized crime is intensifying in her country every day. She points out that the homicide rate has doubled since 2003. More cocaine is available on the street. Ancillary crime, such as extortion and kidnapping, is on the rise.
She says El Salvador faces a huge challenge to try to reverse this.
"The state, the institutions for security and justice, have been penetrated by organized crime for many years," she says. "And this has blocked the state from effectively pursuing these criminals."
The violence, extortion and insecurity, she says, discourage foreign investment in El Salvador and prevent local businesses from flourishing.
'Very Fragile Institutions'
Criminal groups are also attracted to El Salvador because in 2001 it adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency. And the country didn't just peg its currency to the dollar — physical U.S. dollars and coins are the only money in circulation. This makes the country an ideal place to launder greenbacks.
Mexico last year slapped tight restrictions on the use of dollars solely to further squeeze the cartels. No one doubts that illicit funds are flowing through El Salvador; last year, police found $9 million, some of it in small bills, buried in barrels on a ranch.
Dada, at the El Faro news site, says El Salvador needs to wake up and confront the serious threat posed to it by organized crime.
"We have very fragile institutions. We are an emerging democracy," he says. "The danger is that the few steps we have taken, that we take them backward, because the organized crime is substituting the state."
Dada agrees with government officials that the international drug cartels haven't yet penetrated his country the way they have in Guatemala and Mexico. But he says if the cartels aren't stopped soon, it may be too late for El Salvador.