U.S. expands its drug watch list to include all Central America

 

McClatchy Newspapers

MEXICO CITY — The White House on Thursday added tiny El Salvador and Belize to its list of drug producing and transit countries, placing for the first time all seven Central American nations on the list in a sign of how awash in illegal narcotics the region has become.

President Barack Obama also condemned two Latin American countries that were already on the list, Venezuela and Bolivia, for having "failed demonstrably during the previous 12 months to make substantial efforts" in combating narcotics. Burma also was declared a failure in fighting illegal drugs.

Of the 22 countries on the list, only five are not in the Western Hemisphere: Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma and Laos.

Bolivia is one of the major producers of cocaine, while Venezuela is increasingly being used as a transshipment point for drugs that are on their way to Central America and northward to the United States. Leaders of those two nations are both highly critical of Washington.

Obama said Afghanistan remains the world's top grower of opium poppy, used for making heroin, but reported that poppy cultivation had fallen by a third in Helmand Province because of an incentive program for farmers and increased law enforcement action.

In adding El Salvador and Belize to the list, Obama said 90 percent of the 700 metric tons of cocaine that leave the Andean region of South America bound for the United States passes through Central America.

Because of its location on the Pacific, El Salvador is "vulnerable to the drug trade flowing to the United States from South America," it said. Four metric tons of cocaine passed through El Salvador in 2009, according to an assessment cited in the report.

Belize, a Caribbean nation of only 330,000 people, has been hit hard by a rise in drug trafficking. Some 10 metric tons of cocaine are believed to have passed through the nation last year, the report said, and observers in Belize report the presence of Mexican gangsters from Los Zetas, a feared crime group, in border areas and ports.

The report cited an increase in cocaine flowing from South America to West Africa, which it said has become a gateway to Europe.

"According to the U.S. assessment of cocaine movement, about a third of cocaine destined for Europe passed through West Africa in 2009," it said.

While Canada was not put on the watch list, the statement noted that production of marijuana and synthetic drugs, such as ecstasy, make it critical for "more robust engagement and dialogue" with Canada on "this shared problem."

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