MANAGUA, NICARAGUA -- Central America has become a crucial way station in the billiondollar cocaine business, with traffickers shipping hundreds of tons northward from Colombia along the isthmus and increasingly infiltrating police and government agencies, U.S. and regional sources say.
The recent killings of three Salvadoran legislators in Guatemala underscored the shift, intelligence sources say. The lawmakers were shot and their bodies set ablaze last month, allegedly by a group of Guatemalan policemen working on behalf of Mexican drug traffickers.
All sorts of people have been swept up in the drug trade as the smuggling routes have changed, including impoverished fishermen, small-town mayors, legislators and high-ranking police officials. In years past, the favored route was across the Caribbean to the southeastern United States. Now, with greater Mexican cartel involvement, the cocaine often moves up the coasts of Central America and overland through Mexico.
Although it remains unclear whether the dead Salvadorans had ties to traffickers, other lawmakers from the country have been linked to the trade. Guatemalan officials have said the killings point to widespread infiltration of the country's police force by organized crime.
The four police officers charged in the killings, including the head of Guatemala's organized-crime unit, were later slain in their prison cells, in a stunning raid by armed men who may have entered the facility with the aid of guards and prison officials.
An intelligence official working in the region said the slain police officers worked for a Mexican cartel that ships drugs along the Pacific coast of Central America. The officers were enforcers dedicated to "knocking down" rival traffickers, the source said.
"This is a crime that can best be understood as part of the dynamic that sees drugs flow between Mexico and Colombia," said a second intelligence official, referring to the killing of the legislators. The officials asked not to be named, given the sensitive political nature of the crime -- one of the victims was Eduardo Jose D'Aubuisson, the son of the founder of El Salvador's ruling party.
Although drug trafficking has long been common in remote areas of the region, such as the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua, the growing power of Mexican cartels has increased the importance of Central America as a transshipment point.
Smuggling routes across the Caribbean have largely fallen into disuse thanks to U.S. interdiction efforts there, and Colombian drug producers have ceded the bulk of the transportation business to Mexicans.
About 90% of the estimated 780 tons of cocaine entering the United States each year passes through the hands of Mexican drug traffickers, according to U.S. studies. Mexican traffickers see Central America as a natural hub between their Colombian suppliers and the smuggling routes the Mexicans control on the U.S. border.
The "Mexico-Central America corridor is ... the predominant transit route for cocaine destined for the United States," U.S. officials wrote in the 2007 National Drug Threat Assessment.
Michael A. Braun, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a 2005 congressional hearing that "the corrupting power of illicit drug trafficking organizations on the governmental institutions of Central America significantly increases the difficulty of successful drug interdiction efforts."
Central America will remain the primary transit zone for U.S.-bound drugs "for the foreseeable future," Braun added.
The growing trade has reached areas of Central America where drug trafficking was rare just a few years ago. Police and military forces there are often undermanned and outgunned.
Nicaragua's small navy, for example, only has enough boats to patrol its coastline 12 days a month, officials say, a fact that helps shape the traffickers' strategy. "They know what our limitations are," said Capt. Roger Gonzalez Diaz of the Nicaraguan navy.
On the Pacific coast, the Nicaraguan navy has no craft larger than 40-foot-long "go fast" boats with outboard motors, vessels nearly identical to those the drug traffickers use. In fact, many of the navy's boats are vessels that were discarded by smugglers, Gonzalez Diaz said.
Operatives of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel arrived on the Pacific coast two years ago, officials with Nicaragua's National Police said.
With their Mexican accents, the men stood out. They were eager to buy old, abandoned farms along the beach. They didn't look like farmers, but they bought several tractors. They collected boats, too, but they didn't look like fishermen.
"The tractors were to build new airstrips and also to rehabilitate old ones," said a Nicaraguan police officer who specializes in drug intelligence.
One of the men was Samuel "Sammy" Gutierrez, a Colombian with Mexican identity documents, police said. He and two brothers from Mazatlan, Jorge and Roberto Garcia Villasenor, were air and sea "transportation specialists," police said.
The drug cartel operatives soon found themselves in a cat-and-mouse game with police leading to a plane crash on a rural highway and the arrest of a Mexican couple with nearly $300,000 in cash at a Managua airport.
"We confiscated three tons of cocaine," said an intelligence official with Nicaragua's national police. "We hit them hard."
Nearly all of the cocaine that enters the United States is produced in Colombia, according to U.S. studies. Most of it enters the U.S. through a two-stage process in which it is offloaded and stored at least once in Mexico or Central America.
Cocaine is shipped out of Colombia by sea and air, usually in amounts of a ton or more, through what U.S. officials call "the transit zone" -- the stretch of ocean between Colombia and Mexico. Sometimes the traffickers hopscotch up the coast from Colombia to Panama, Costa Rica and other countries in the "go fast" boats.
Or they may take a more circuitous route in a larger ship that will travel around the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific southwest and later offload to smaller vessels.
Once in Mexico, the drug traffickers benefit from well-traveled smuggling routes protected by corrupt state and local officials, as they move their shipments northward overland to the U.S. border. A war among competing cartels to control those routes, known as "plazas" in Mexico, led to more than 2,000 killings last year.
The various routes through the "transit zone" pass through the beaches of Belize, seaside villages in Honduras and ports along the Pacific coast of Mexico and many other places, according to data from the U.S. government's Joint Interagency Task Force South, based in Florida.
In 2005, U.S. officials discovered, via satellite imagery, an "aircraft graveyard" in the Peten jungle of Guatemala where drug traffickers had disposed of light aircraft that brought shipments from South America. The drugs were eventually smuggled overland into Mexico.
U.S. officials said that Central American organized-crime groups, working with the Mexican and Colombian cartels under a subcontracting system, are reaping huge profits. That money, in turn, is fueling a crime wave, especially in Guatemala and El Salvador.
In El Salvador, sources pointed to a key killing that went largely unnoticed in the local media: the 2005 shooting death of Jose "El Cranky" Cortes outside a San Salvador nightclub.
According to a Salvadoran academic who has studied the drug trade, Cortes controlled the retail drug trade in an urban region of El Salvador and was assassinated for trying to make connections with Colombian suppliers without the permission of other gang leaders.
It was the first time officials had documented contacts between high-level Salvadoran gang leaders and Colombian traffickers, the source said.
Along the impoverished Pacific coast of El Salvador and Guatemala, mayors and other low-level officials in seaside towns find that the sums of money offered by the traffickers are often too tempting to resist.
"This guy tells you that you can make $60,000 easily, very quietly," said one intelligence official who was not authorized to speak publicly.
The same networks that smuggle drugs northward are responsible for shipping several billion dollars in cash southward, usually in $20 bills, DEA officials said. So vast is the money flow that it is routine to arrest couriers carrying $1 million in cash or more in Central America.
The huge sums of money involved in the drug trade have already ensnared top officials in El Salvador.
Last year, William Eliu Martinez, a former Salvadoran congressman, received a 29-year prison sentence from a U.S. judge in Washington after being convicted of smuggling more than 30 tons of cocaine into the United States.
If the privileged can be drawn into the drug trade, then what hope is there that a poorly paid policeman, soldier or sailor can resist the temptation?
Capt. Gonzalez Diaz of the Nicaraguan navy asks himself that question often.
"It's a constant struggle with our personnel," he said. "We tell them, 'Anyone would be tempted if they offered you $500 or $5,000. But for that, you're disgraced.... And if you owe them anything, they'll come after you or your wife and kids.' "
Special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report from San Salvador.