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GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Central America is struggling to contain rising violence as powerful Mexican drug cartels, facing an escalating government crackdown at home, expand southward and intensify operations in neighboring nations.
For years Central America has been a transit route for cocaine trafficked north from the Andes, but analysts and officials say Mexican cartels are now buying up land, storing arms and drugs, and hiring members of local criminal networks in Central America to help them move and sell drugs.
The southward push comes as Mexican President Felipe Calderon vows to push ahead with his military campaign against drugs and as turf wars between Mexican cartels turn bloody. More than 28,000 people have died in drug violence in Mexico since late 2006.
It is also driven by the sheer profitability of a business believed to bring Mexican cartels up to $40 billion a year.
A report released in May by the Woodrow Wilson Center, a U.S. thinktank, and the University of San Diego showed that the Zetas, a brutal spinoff group of Mexico's Gulf cartel, were recruiting in Central America and training new members in camps in remote areas of Guatemala near the Mexican border.
The report said members of the Sinaloa cartel, another major Mexican gang, were operating along Guatemala's Pacific coast and western border with Mexico, while the Zetas had set up bases along the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Guatemala.
"They've subcontracted existing networks who are already involved in other kinds of trafficking -- of contraband, pirated DVDs and clothing," said report editor Eric Olson.
While local criminals gangs have long collaborated with Mexican or Colombian drug traffickers, Central American officials and analysts say that over the past few years Mexican cartels have established more permanent operations and laid claim to swathes of remote areas strategic to drug smuggling.
Last year, Guatemalan police found ski masks, grenades and rifles at a ranch they said Zetas had used to train recruits.
Authorities believe that dozens of rural farms in Guatemala and Honduras are being bought up by drug gangs to use as safe havens and as depots for drug and arms.
One official from the U.S. State Department speaking on condition of anonymity said the battle among rival Mexican cartels, whose feuds have intensified as respective leaders have been taken down by the government, has forced some cartels to relocate parts of their operations to Central America.
Calderon has sent tens of thousands of soldiers and police across Mexico since he launched his military campaign on drugs when he took office in late 2006, and some officials suggest Central America may represent a safe haven for drug gangs.
"I think because of the extent of the Zetas that are down in Central America, they've been able to provide reinforcements to the North as well," the State Department official said.
Others speculate the cartels have expanded their geographic reach for the same reason big multinational firms do -- because they stand to make more money that way.
Whatever its reasons, the phenomenon is fueling bloodshed in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, where governments are already struggling to contain violence from criminal gangs like the notorious Mara 18 and its rival, Mara Salvatrucha.
Murder rates in those three nations are among the highest in the world, with 61 deaths per 100,000 people in Honduras, 52 per 100,000 in El Salvador and 45 per 100,000 in Guatemala, compared to 12 in Mexico and 5 in the United States, according to the most recent United Nations data available from 2008.
The highest incidence of murder in those countries, the UN says, is found in rural provinces with ports or border crossings of strategic significance to drug cartels.
"The death count has risen over time, as a growing share of cocaine trafficking is conducted through this region," a UN report released earlier this year said.
Central American street gangs, which include thousands of young men, have long extorted small businesses and staged robberies in Central America. But now they appear to be working as guns-for-hire for Mexican cartels.
In a plot foiled earlier this year, Honduran police said Zetas hired Mara 18 hitmen to kill Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez, who was working to disrupt drug trafficking.
"The presence (of the cartels) has worsened violence as they dispute trafficking routes in Central America and the Caribbean," said Alfredo Landaverde, a former advisor to the Honduran ministry of security.
It may be hard for cash-strapped Central American states to fight sophisticated cartels without more outside help.
The United States has pledged $1.4 billion over three years to fight the drugs in its Merida initiative, but most of the funds are earmarked for Mexico. Less than a fifth goes to Central America and the Caribbean.
"The governments of Central America are not prepared to confront the problem," said Jorge Chabat, a drug trade expert at Mexican think tank CIDE. "They need the kind of external help that Mexico has had."
Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa and Nelson Renteria in San Salvador; editing by Missy Ryan and Jackie Frank