Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America: Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation

By Bruneau, Thomas C. | Americas Quarterly, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America: Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation


Bruneau, Thomas C., Americas Quarterly


Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America: Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012, Hardcover, 431 pages

REVIEWED BY THOMAS C. BRUNEAU

Central America is receiving more attention in the U.S. news media and from the U.S. government than at any time since the region's civil wars and domestic insurgencies three decades ago. Unfortunately, the attention is negative. The focus has shifted from the 1980s Cold War battles of President Ronald Reagan's administration to the violence associated with organized crime, drug cartels and street gangs (maras).

In Drug Trafficking and the Law in Central America: Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation, Julie Marie Bunck and Michael Ross Fowler-professors of political science at the University of Louisville-provide those interested in Central America, the drug trade and U.S. foreign assistance in the region with an invaluable tool for understanding the causes and implications of drug trafficking through an analysis of what they term the "bridge countries" of Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. The authors intentionally do not include Mexico, which they argue (correctly) involves a different dynamic both in terms of the strength or weakness of the state, and the nature of the drug trade.

Understanding the drug trade phenomenon through these "bridge" states required the authors to develop an innovative research approach that was both wide-ranging and deep. They used every imaginable source of data, ranging from primary and secondary articles and books to court records from the United States and the "bridge" nations and scores of personal interviews over many years to produce an impressive book on a subject that by its nature is opaque: transnational organized crime.

The subtitle, Bribes, Bullets, and Intimidation, captures the ingenious means that drug traffickers have adopted to move their product from Central America to its principal markets in North America and Europe. In fact, one of the many useful features of the book is its inclusion of Europe as a major destination for drug trafficking. Many policymakers in Central America and Latin America say the expansion of the drug trade is a direct result of the failure of the U.S. and other consuming countries to deal effectively with their own drug markets. In this book the authors take as a given the demand for drugs in North America and Europe.

The book in many ways takes an encyclopedic approach to drug trafficking. There is substantive information on topics ranging from the drugs transported (including marijuana, heroin and cocaine) to the means of transportation (air, sea and ground) and capsule summaries of the main groups involved in the region-and their relationships with drug cartels elsewhere in the Americas. As the authors note, "The threat of interdiction has caused drug rings to turn to ever more inventive schemes to try to outwit authorities." That, in turn, raises the question of whether interdiction can be successful. Rather than deterring many traffickers, the authors write, "Interdiction created a dynamic that encouraged additional production of cocaine, more ingenious smuggling methods and the use of numerous drug routes through different bridge states."

But the most helpful element of the book for future researchers and policymakers is the detailed country- by-country approach. The authors developed an identical set of categories- factors that lead to countries being "bridge" states, the evolution of drug trafficking and drug trafficking routes and organizations-for all five "bridge" countries, even though each chapter can stand on its own for its description and analysis of the particular dynamics of drug transit. …

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