SAN SALVADOR – In addition to being a security threat in El Salvador, gangs are undermining the public health and the country’s economy by smuggling cigarettes in the areas they control, the operations chief of the police Border Security Division, Jose Alfredo Castro, told EFE.
According to Castro, gangs do not participate directly in the introduction and distribution of cigarettes, but they profit from it by allowing the organized criminal groups that specialize in it to operate in the zones they control.
“Their participation occurs on the level of the presence they have in the communities and, obviously, the border communities” where tobacco smuggling “is not the exception, because ... they exercise control there: If someone wants to work in that area, they must pay,” he said.
According to the non-governmental organization Crime Stoppers, which cooperates with the police by providing tips received on an Internet site pertaining to illegal cigarette trafficking, the gangs use the funds they receive to buy weapons, vehicles and real estate.
Castro said that in addition to the threat the gangs pose to national security because of the resources they control, cigarette smuggling “affects” the legitimate tobacco sellers and, thus, has a negative impact on the economy and the public finances.
In March, Crime Stoppers presented a study by CID Gallup saying that each year El Salvador consumes $940 million in cigarettes, of which 31 percent are illegal, the second-highest such figure in Central America.
The companies authorized to import, distribute and sell this tobacco product are losing more than $291 million and the public coffers are losing $15 million per year due to the illegal trade in cigarettes.
The same study, contracted by the Costa Rican-US Chamber of Commerce, found that in Panama 67 percent of the cigarettes are illegal, in Guatemala 21 percent, Honduras 20 percent, Costa Rica 16 percent and Nicaragua 5 percent.
The risk to public health, Castro said, lies in the fact that the cigarettes do not have the Salvadoran public health authorization and it is not known how they are manufactured.
The contraband cigarettes first arrive at ports in Panama and Belize and “from there they move on land by different routes” until they enter Salvadoran territory via clandestine border crossing points.
Castro did not rule out the possibility that the gangs “have some level of communication and coordination” with drug trafficking bands and use the same routes to move their product.