Central America: US-backed militaries arm the drug cartels?

Military officers in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador have been selling significant amounts of heavy weaponry to drug trafficking organizations in Colombia and Mexico, according to US diplomatic cables and criminal charges filed in a US court against a retired Salvadoran captain. The sales have been made possible by what US diplomats called “lax controls” by military authorities and also by the authorities’ failure to bring criminal charges against officers who have been caught.

Some of these weapons were among those supplied by the US government to rightwing Central American armies at a time when they were fighting leftist rebels and social movements. The US is now spending $1.6 billion over a three-year period on a cooperation agreement known as the Mérida Initiative to fight drug trafficking in Central America and Mexico.

Secret US diplomatic cables from Oct. 2, 2008 and Oct. 17, 2008—released by the WikiLeaks group and acquired by McClatchy Newspapers—discuss 50 light anti-tank weapons (LAWs) that “were originally transferred to Honduras in 1992 as part of a US Foreign Military Sales program.” The Honduran military cannot account for 26 of the 50 LAWS. According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), three of these weapons turned up Mexico City in January 2008, one was found in Ciudad Juárez in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua in April 2008, and six were recovered in March 2008 on Colombia’s San Andrés Island, east of Nicaragua’s Atlantic coast.

The DIA also reportedly found that “at least two US-produced M433 40-mm grenades have been recovered in Colombia and Mexico.” These apparently came from a 1985 US military sale to Honduras.

A secret June 8, 2009 cable from the US embassy in Guatemala—also released by WikiLeaks—reported on “new information indicating rogue elements within the Guatemalan army are selling military-grade weapons and munitions to narco traffickers.” In April 2009 Guatemalan drug control agents raided a warehouse about 30 km south of Guatemala City containing “11 light machine guns, a light anti-tank weapon (LAW), 563 rocket-propelled grenades, 32 hand grenades, eight Claymore anti-personnel mines, almost 8,000 rounds of small arms ammunition, and three fully armored Suburbans.” US military analysts “were able to determine with a high degree of confidence that many of these weapons and munitions came from Guatemalan military stocks.” Some were made by the Guatemalan military industrial facility (IMG); the cable didn’t indicate whether any of the weapons might have come from the US.

“Twelve junior officers were recently relieved by their commanders for suspicion of selling armaments under their control to drug organizations,” the embassy wrote. The officers weren’t arrested, however–they were “sent home” pending an investigation.

El Salvador has less of a problem than Guatemala, Defense Minister David Munguia Payes told McClatchy Newspapers. But last year former Salvadoran captain Héctor Antonio Martínez Guillén (“El Capitán”) allegedly offered US undercover agents C-4 explosives, up to 3,000 hand grenades and several Russian-made Sam-7 shoulder-fired missiles, presumably from Salvadoran military supplies. The agents lured Martínez Guillén to the US and arrested him at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC, on Nov. 18. According to a Feb. 24 indictment, he thought he was dealing with the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and expected to be paid in cocaine. (McClatchy Newspapers, Apr. 21)

Although the report didn’t indicate that any of Martínez Guillén’s promised weapons came from the US, a US cable released by WikiLeaks in February reported that some fragmentation grenades used by drug traffickers in Monterrey came from shipments the US made to the Salvadoran military in the early 1990s.

Central American militaries are the main source of the Mexican cartels’ heavy weapons, the US embassy in Mexico wrote in a confidential March 25, 2009 cable provided to the Mexican daily La Jornada by WikiLeaks. “At least 90% of military-origin weapons (such as grenades and light anti-tank weapons)” seized by security agents in Mexico “are traced to Central American military stocks,” according to the cable.

Small arms like rifles come directly from the US to Mexico, the embassy reported. “While estimates vary regarding the percentage of US commercial weapons recovered in Mexico, approximately 90% of all firearms seized and traced are from the United States.” (LJ, March 29)

CBS News reported on April 25 that “the Mexican Government has retained an American law firm to explore filing civil charges against US gun manufacturers and distributors over the flood of guns crossing the border into Mexico.” (CBS News, April 21)

See also our reports on the US government’s Operation Fast and Furious, which let firearms “walk” into Mexico.

From Weekly News Update on the Americas, May 1.

See our last posts on Mexico’s narco wars, the Mexico WikiLeaks revelations, and Central America.