Countering Criminal Violence in Central
Michael Shifter
(Council Special Report No. 64, Council on Foreign Relations, New York: 2012), 59 pages.

In August 2012 a member of Los Zetas cartel, one of Mexico’s vicious Drug Trafficking Organizations (DTOs), reportedly survived a mass shooting by hiding under the bodies of fourteen victims shot dead by Los Zetas cartel.[i] Los Zetas were already famous from the past year’s brutal beheadings that drew the attention of international reporters. With the group’s recent move to divide into factions, the violence has only increased. However, while the media focuses on the sensational activities of cartel violence in Mexico, many have missed the upsurge in drug trafficking and associated activities in other Central American countries. The public has been quick to heap blame for much of the region’s drug-related violence on the Zetas, but as the Mexican government steps up cartel crackdowns, the Central American suppliers increasingly meet the pervasive U.S. demand for illegal drugs—particularly cocaine and methamphetamine. As usual, growth in violence and worrisome social indicators parallels the influx of new drug money.

In the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report “Countering Criminal Violence in Central America,” Michael Shifter highlights the grim reality of the situation in Central America and provides insightful recommendations for U.S. foreign policy moving forward.

Shifter approaches the problem methodically, evaluating the impacts of and responses to the issue in each of the following countries: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama. He also strongly urges the United States to take immediate action, pointing to the United States as part of the problem. The U.S. demand for drugs paired with a lack of gun laws allow for easy access by cartel members. However, the United States has the ability to help—primarily through monetary aid and the creation of monitoring institutions—in addition to its interest in staunching the violence before it spills over the border. 

By including Colombia as a case study of a reforming drug-running country, Shifter justifies his proposal for future U.S. policy. Shifter’s plan revolves around the United States establishing and maintaining locally-run institutions in the various Central American countries, and he specifically discourages blanket military intervention. His suggestions are unbiased and non-partisan; he neither levies accusations nor dwells on the past, but rather presents a clear-headed course of action. Though a somber read, the CFR’s Special Report is an essential manual for Latin American scholars, business people, and policymakers. 

Lee Catherine Booker is a second-year dual-degree master’s candidate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Fundação Getulio Vargas School of Business Administration in São Paulo, Brasil.


[i] Will Grant, “Mexico’s Zetas drug gang split raises bloodshed fears,” BBCNews,­­­­ 11 September 2012.