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  • Cocaine Trafficking and the Transformation of Central American Frontiers
  • Kendra McSweeney

in the mid-2000s, a cocaine tsunami hit Central America. The region had long been a 'bridge' connecting Colombian exporters with Mexican buyers, receiving roughly 100 shipments annually from South America. But about 2006, counternarcotics campaigns to the east and north increasingly funneled traffickers towards the isthmus (UNODC, 2012). For the next ten years, smugglers sent, on average, more than 1,000 shipments—about 800 metric tons—annually into the region, a majority of the global cocaine supply.1 In recent years this flow has declined somewhat, but it is predicted to increase as the Covid-19 pandemic closes land borders in Colombia, thus encouraging more cocaine trafficking via air and sea into Central America (UNODC, 2020).

Throughout this period, an array of researchers has been documenting and analyzing how those cocaine flows are shaping the transformation of Central America's rural areas, in particular its famously biodiverse frontier forestlands. Collectively, their work exemplifies the sort of inquiry that is being championed by publishers and funders promoting greater understanding of the links between illicit economies and development (Gillies et al., 2019; NSF, 2020). This Perspective seeks to inform that research agenda by offering a primer on aspects of the Central American corpus and related work that seem particularly relevant. I then review possible empirical and conceptual directions for future research on the topic, in Central America and elsewhere.

traffickers catalyzing frontier transformation

Cocaine traffickers are initially drawn to rural areas for logistical reasons, favoring spaces far from law enforcement yet with sufficient local populations to provide various loading, provisioning, and navigation services. It doesn't take long for traffickers to start transforming these same transshipment hubs through violence and economic coercion. They do so because the conversion [End Page 159] of forests, agroforestry plots, or milpas to cattle pasture is both an excellent way to launder illicit proceeds and a means to assert territorial control. In the process, they typically establish, and profit from, a speculative land market and re-invest their profits in various forms of frontier agribusiness (e.g., palm oil production and processing; cattle-raising and slaughter) (Devine et al., 2018; McSweeney et al., 2018; InSight Crime, 2019).

Ecological impacts are significant (Tell-man, Sesnie, Magliocca, et al., 2020). Drug trafficking is estimated to have driven a quarter of all forest loss in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua since 2000 (Sesnie et al., 2017), and has particularly impacted protected areas (Devine et al., 2020; Wrath-all et al., 2020). The loss of ecosystem services associated with narco-deforestation in five Central American conservation hotspots is estimated to be near $150 million annually (Aguilar-González et al., 2016). It goes without saying that this forest loss increases Central America's vulnerability to existing climate-related stressors, including wildfire, drought, vector-borne disease, and intense storms (ECLAC et al., 2015; Imbach et al., 2018; Masters, 2019).

the drug war response

There is widespread consensus that the ongoing pursuit of the drug war makes this situation worse (OAS, 2013; GCDP, 2020). Sustained counternarcotic support from Washington, for example, provides Central American administrations with the resources and justification for militarizing rural spaces while scapegoating indigenous peoples and smallholders as drug-trafficking criminals (Devine et al., 2018, 2020; McSweeney et al., 2018). The ultimate effect of this process—what journalist Dawn Paley calls "drug war capitalism"—is to consolidate the process that traffickers began, violently securing the transfer of commons and smallholder lands to private absentee owners (Paley, 2014, p. 1; Frank, 2018).

narco-business dovetails with agroextractive ambitions

These processes have worked hand-in-glove with broader trends in Central America's rural sector, especially since resource-extractive models of economic development intensified in the 2000s (Bebbington et al., 2018; Kröger & Nygren, 2020). Investors world-wide—from pension funds to development banks—have turned increasingly to land- and resource-based sectors for safe long-term returns (Gómez, 2014; North & Grinspun, 2016). Central American governments eager to attract that foreign capital have rolled back conservation protections and have enacted legislation to encourage land transfers, mining, and infrastructure development in campesino communities, indigenous territories, and protected areas (Velásquez Runk...


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