SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Drug cartel violence in Mexico is quickly spilling south into Central America and is threatening to destabilize fragile countries already rife with crime and corruption, according to the United Nations, U.S. officials and regional law enforcement agents.
The Northern Triangle of Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras — has long been a major smuggling corridor for contraband heading north to the United States. But as Mexican President Felipe Calderon fights a U.S.-backed war against his nation's drug lords, trafficking networks are burrowing deeper into a region with the highest murder rates in the world.
The Mexican cartels "are spreading their horizons to states where they feel, quite frankly, more comfortable. These governments in Central America face a very real challenge in confronting these organizations," said David Gaddis, chief of operations for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
U.S. attention has mostly focused on Mexico. But the homicide rate there — 14 for every 100,000 residents — is dwarfed by the murder statistics in the Northern Triangle, where per-capita killings are four times higher and rising.
In El Salvador, the region's most violent country, homicides jumped 37 percent last year, to 71 murders per 100,000 residents, as warring gangs vied for territory and trafficking routes. Police and military officials in El Salvador said cartels are increasingly paying local smugglers in product, rather than cash, driving up cocaine use, along with the drug dealing and turf battles that come with it.
"The more pressure there is in Mexico, the more the drug cartels will come to Central America looking for a safe haven," Gen. David Munguma Payis, El Salvador's minister of defense, said in an interview.
The amount of cocaine moving through the region has risen sharply, although the overall volume entering the United States is falling. Cocaine seizures in Central America nearly quadrupled between 2004 and 2007, according to the most recent U.N. data.
The United States has allocated $258 million in anti-narcotics assistance for Central America since 2007 as part of the three-year, $1.6 billion Merida Initiative.
But a report this month by the Government Accountability Office found that only 9 percent of the money promised under the initiative has been spent, and that U.S. officials had no reliable way to determine whether it was making a difference in the drug war.