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Escalating battles

Mexico and Guatemala are finding no peace in their drug wars

Issue: "Tour d'America road rage," Feb. 11, 2012

In mid-January, Mexican authorities found two headless bodies in a minivan parked near the entrance of an upscale mall in their capital. That might not seem unusual in a drug war that has become intense since 2006, but Mexico City had previously seemed largely immune from such murder and mayhem.

The numbers are staggering: Almost 48,000 people in Mexico have died from drug-related violence in the last five years. Mexico has cooperated with the United States in capturing top drug lords such as Marco Antonia Guzman, alleged leader of the Juarez Cartel-but beheadings, a massacre of 72 Mexican migrants, and the discovery of mass graves testify to the cartels' continuing brutality.

Drugs are not the only problem. According to a report from the Heritage Foundation, cartels also engage in human trafficking that involves up to 100,000 boys and girls from Latin America each year. Mexican priest Alejandro Solalinde says the Los Zetas cartel controls trafficking and is even worse than other cartels: Its thugs "are crueler and kill more easily. ... They are voracious. They ask for more and more and more money."

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The problem isn't limited to Mexico. Guatemala, which shares a border with Mexico, is a gateway for other Latin American traffickers traveling to the United States. Guatemala's new president, Otto Perez Molina, plans to use the military to combat drug cartel violence. Colombia struggled with high levels of drug-related violence until it joined forces with the United States in an operation called Plan Colombia that has had good results controlling, but not eliminating, drug violence.

Jessica Zuckerman, who works on Latin American issues for the Heritage Foundation, sees no easy solution to cartel violence: "Working on economic reform, judicial reform, issues with law enforcement, and fighting corruption within the government is necessary." But it's not clear whether Latin American countries are willing to wage the battle over the long term.

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