Tackling Central America's Drug Trafficking

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While U.S. authorities worry about drug-related violence spilling over the Mexico border, they're keeping a wary eye on Central America.

The same drug cartels wreaking havoc in Mexico have moved into the region to control the growing traffic of drugs overland from South America.

Over the last few years U.S, Mexican and Colombian authorities have worked together more effectively to disrupt air and sea smuggling routes, intercepting vessels of all kinds, from go-fast boats to homemade semi-submersibles.

Last fall, Colombian authorities discovered a jungle manufacturing operation for submarine-like vessels.

Built out of fiberglass and wood, the semi-submersibles are hard to detect and can carry up to 10 metric tons of cocaine at a time. They carry nearly a third of U.S.-bound cocaine.

But cartels have also diverted some of their shipments to overland routes, from Panama to the Mexican Border.

In Costa Rica, police intercept innocent-looking fishing boats. But hidden under the deck, they find dozens of carefully wrapped packages of cocaine. Smugglers use speedboats, small planes, cars and trucks to move drugs north, country by country.

According to the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, drug shipments in that country alone have reached 300 to 400 tons a year.

During his recent visit to Costa Rica, Vice President Joe Biden promised more U.S. help to Central America.

"We have increased that in the 2009 budget to $110 million and we expect it will maintain that for this next year's budget," he said. "But we are committed to do what it takes to play our part in dealing with what is a cancer right now in the region, affecting us all."

Drug enforcement agency spokesman Lawrence Payne says the aid is practical.

"Merida initiative provides training and materials and equipment, helicopters, airplanes, things we can provide them to help them battle against the cartels," he said.

But as Central American countries apply more pressure on drug trafficking, they risk retaliation by Mexican drug cartels. The deadly turf wars between cartels in Mexico claimed 1,600 lives in just the first three months of this year. Governments from Guatemala to Panama are not prepared to face that level of violence.

Leaders at the Central America meeting touched on the subject briefly, but drug trafficking and violence is on the agenda for the broader meeting of the hemisphere's presidents, including U.S. President Obama, at the upcoming summit of the Americas.

*Originally aired April 16, 2009

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