Drug Trafficking and Violence in the Northern Triangle
By Steven Dudley, InSightCrime
There are many reasons to migrate. One of them is violence. In this short blog, I will try to explain why an increase in drug trafficking has contributed to a steady rise in violence in the Northern Triangle, thus incentivizing migration.
To begin with—for reasons related to globalization, improvements in law enforcement, and the organic evolution of markets— the underworld has gone through a steady shift away from vertically integrated chains of distribution to specialized criminal networks, many of which concentrate on the transportation of illicit drugs.
In this new world, local groups in the Northern Triangle administer most of the movement of cocaine, heroin, precursor chemicals, and synthetic drugs through the region. These transportistas collect a fee for their services that amounts to roughly the difference between the price at the point of collection and the price at the point of handoff.
The business is extremely lucrative and has numerous residual effects. First, the increase in trafficking of drugs through the region increases conflict between competing organizations. This was especially true a few years ago when violence in the areas where trafficking was most prominent coincided with the most homicides.
These levels of violence seemed to have subsided for reasons that are not exactly clear, but the continued movement of illicit drugs, precursors and synthetics makes this a very dynamic situation.
Second, the new specialized transport market in the Northern Triangle has increased availability of drugs on the local market. Secondary students in Guatemala, for instance, now consume cocaine at a higher rate than US secondary students; and 8th grade students in Guatemala consume crack at three times the rate of US 8th graders.
This has increased competition at the wholesale and the distribution level. The competition for wholesale happens both inside and outside of prisons, where many of the major criminals operate. This distribution level competition happens on the street and is, according to authorities on the ground, a major source of conflict, particularly between competing street gangs.
These gangs’ criminal economies are centered on controlling this local drug market as well as the extortion racket. Both enterprises require control of territory, which means near constant exposure to rivals and security forces.
Street gangs, it should be emphasized, are not good businesses. They are largely horizontal networks with numerous built-in incentives to steal, misrepresent, falsify and lie to gain an advantage over internal or external rivals. This heightens the possibility for violence.
Street gangs are also more social animal than criminal enterprise, engendering still more violence. Criminal enterprises seek to minimize violence in order to maximize profits. Street gangs use violence at nearly every level of their organization in order to strengthen internal bonds, fortify their brand, and test their members.
Finally, it should be noted that this increase in drug trafficking has helped reconfigure the elites in the region, which has helped stall reform efforts. Both new actors and the influx of vast amounts of capital have unsettled traditional economic paradigms throughout the Northern Triangle and helped establish new power blocs.
These new power blocs have little incentive to improve perennially weak justice and regulatory system. Indeed, they are moving the pieces to strengthen their hold on power and often undermining the very institutions needed to fight violence and impunity, including special police forces, homicide units, forensic medicine divisions and other crime fighters who increasingly use forensic crime fighting techniques.
*Steven Dudley is the co-founder and co-director of InSight Crime, a think tank that investigates organized crime in the Americas.
 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Transnational Organized Crime in
Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment,” September 2012. Available at: https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/Studies/TOC_Central_America_and_the_Caribbean_english.pdf; See also: Eric Olson and Christine Zaino, “Losing the Good Fight: When Good Intentions are Not Enough,” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, 2015. Available at: https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/FINAL%20PDF_CARSI%20REPORT_0.pdf
 Organization of American States, “Report on Drug Use in the Americas 2019,” 2019. Available at: http://www.cicad.oas.org/oid/Report%20on%20Drug%20Use%20in%20the%20Americas%202019.pdf