March 26, 2009 / 3:20 AM / 11 years ago

Central America in "crossfire" of drug war: U.N.

MIAMI (Reuters) - Central American states are “caught in the crossfire” of the drug war affecting Mexico and the United States, the top U.N. crimefighter said on Wednesday and he called for regional moves to halt the violence.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), praised U.S. steps taken Tuesday to tighten security on the U.S.-Mexico frontier to try to stem cross-border flows of drugs, arms and cash.

But he urged more regional cooperation to confront drug gang violence which killed more than 6,000 people in Mexico last year and has also hiked murder rates in Central American countries along the drug routes north to the United States.

“These are countries which are caught in a crossfire — between the major drug producing countries in the south, in the Andean region, and the major drug-consuming countries in North America,” said Costa, speaking in a phone interview from Guatemala. He visited Panama this week and will also go to El Salvador to seek support for a regional anti-drug initiative.

Costa’s Central American trip coincided with a visit to Mexico by U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who said an “insatiable” appetite in the United States for illegal drugs was to blame for much of the violence ripping through its southern neighbor.

Clinton said the United States also shared “co-responsibility” through its inability to prevent weapons from being smuggled across the border to arm members of Mexican drug gangs, who have carried out killings and beheadings.

“I applaud what Mrs. Clinton said,” Costa told Reuters, adding that he hoped to see the tougher U.S. anti-narcotics measures extended to the Central American region.

“Obviously, what needs to be done within the region is crucial,” said Costa, whose U.N. anti-crime agency is organizing a ministerial conference in Nicaragua in mid-May to adopt a regional action plan against drug-trafficking.

“FOOT SOLDIERS” OF DRUG WAR

Costa said the small, impoverished Central American states were all the more vulnerable to attack by Mexican drug cartels because they were underdeveloped, had weak judicial systems and had often emerged from conflict, so were awash with weapons.

“All of these are conditions for violence and chaos, and in some instances even loss of control of territory, and so traffickers are aware of that and they always look for the path of least resistance,” the U.N. official said.

Costa said “war-grade weapons” such as high-powered automatic rifles were flowing into Mexico and its smaller Central American neighbors, and these were being increasingly used by young urban street gang members known as “maras”.

“We are talking about an arms-trafficking situation that is as bad as the drug-trafficking situation,” he said.

Costa said there were about 60,000-70,000 “maras” alone in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and they had become part of the drug-smuggling problem and its related violence.

“They are the foot soldiers of organized crime, they are poor, they are trigger-happy, they are very violent,” he said.

He added that any efforts to deal with the problem should include not only law enforcement, but also development measures to reintegrate the young gang members back into society.

The U.N. official said these “foot soldiers” of the drug-trafficking cartels were increasingly being paid in drugs, rather than money, which was creating a problem of addiction, as well as violence, in the Central American countries.

“These states are suffering, we would like to help them,” Costa said, adding his agency was ready to contribute to both regional and national anti-narcotics initiatives.

The UNODC has already encouraged regional government cooperation in West Africa to try to stop powerful Latin American cocaine cartels from using the region as a staging post for shipments of drugs to Europe.

Editing by Anthony Boadle

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