The New Battle for Central America

COLD WAR, HOT WAR

The last time Central America received much play in the American news media was during the 1980s, when the region, one of the Cold War's hot zones, was plagued by civil war. For much of the decade, Soviet- and Cuban-backed Marxist insurgencies (and, in one case, a Soviet-backed government) fought long and bloody battles against American-supported right-wing forces. Once the Cold War ended, however, the superpowers withdrew much of their support from the region. The civil wars there sputtered out, ending in a series of peace accords: first in Nicaragua in 1990, then in El Salvador in 1992, and finally in Guatemala in 1996.

Despite high hopes, however, Central America has seen few improvements in the five years since the fighting stopped. Today the region's seven small republics, rather than exhibiting the new harmony and prosperity that were expected to come with peace, bear only the scars and open wounds of traumatized societies: rampant corruption, gang warfare, drug smuggling, intense urban poverty and overpopulation, and neglect from the international community.

And yet despite these problems, while the United States is focusing ever more attention on Colombia and the two-front war that Bogota is waging against leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries linked to the drug trade, few in Washington seem concerned with Central America. This oversight is short-sighted in the extreme. Not only do the region's many maladies and its proximity to the United States make it a major source of potential instability on America's borders, but Central America has also become a key pipeline for drug shipments from Colombia northward. According to U.S. law enforcement officials, 60 percent of the cocaine that entered the United States last year passed through Central America, concealed in small aircraft, fast boats, and trucks. This represents a threefoldincrease since 1993, and the chaos that the burgeoning drug trade has wreaked on the region has given rise to a new fear, the potential "Colombianization" of Central America.

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