Today, Guatemala and Honduras have the 2nd and 5th highest homicide rates in the world, but they already placed 7th and 3rd in 2005, two years before the Mexican cartels established their presence. Additionally, their neighbor, El Salvador, has little drug trafficking, yet it has the highest homicide rate in the world, which is mostly due to the ongoing violence wreaked by its gangs.
Violent drug cartels certainly have exacerbated a pre-existing culture of violence, but they are far from being the primary cause. While many press reports inflate the percentage of murders attributable to the drug business, there is little consensus around precise figures. Depending on the country, experts put the range from between 5-45%, although more research is needed to assert more reliable data. Yet, you still may ask why it should matter if the daily killings in these countries stem mainly from a deeply entrenched history of violence, rather than one generated by the drug business itself?
It matters indeed because it reveals a larger historical problem with lawlessness and ungovernability. While the drug trade has taken root in Guatemala and Honduras, both countries have the lowest ratings for rule of law in Latin America not because the cartels have necessarily made them so, but because they have been that way for decades. It is precisely the absence of law, which made these countries attractive to cartels in the first place, not the other way around. The same could be said of Mexico, and was the case for Colombia 20 years ago before its government and society took serious measures to reverse course.
While the drug business may not be the primary driver of violence in production and trafficking countries, it is hard to argue that the billion dollar profits generated by some of the bigger cartels don’t play a role in corrupting, their judiciaries, police forces, and society overall. Stronger rule of law will reduce some of the corruption, but not all of it. This is why the U.S. federal government must develop serious programs aimed at discouraging drug consumption. Currently, most prevention and education programs are at the local and state levels, but the U.S. national government will gain more credibility on the world stage if it genuinely seeks to reduce the demand for drugs, rather than just prioritize supply reduction measures. It also will build genuine good will and better cooperation in countries where extensive drug interdiction is conducted.