On a steamy, late-summer day near the Salvadoran coast, more than 100 police working an intelligence tip scoured a near-vacant cattle ranch the size of 42 Manhattan blocks.
Using probes and backhoes, they unearthed two plastic storage drums packed with U.S. dollars. It took three days to count the $20s, $50s and $100s — which added up to more than $10 million. A third barrel was excavated a week later from beneath a patio in an upscale San Salvador suburb, for a total of $14.5 million.
Though questions remain, the stash may be Mexican drug cartel money. One of the two Guatemalan ranch owners allegedly had ties to the leader of a Guatemalan branch of Mexico's Gulf Cartel, who is serving a 31-year sentence for drug trafficking in the U.S.
Mexican drug cartels now operate virtually uninhibited in their Central American backyard. U.S.-supported crackdowns in Mexico and Colombia have only pushed traffickers into a region where corruption is rampant, borders lack even minimal immigration control and local gangs provide a ready-made infrastructure for organized crime.
"The cartels are clear on the possibilities for using El Salvador as a place to launder money or to transport it south to pay for their drugs," National Police deputy director Howard Cotto told The Associated Press in an interview.
When President Barack Obama visits El Salvador later this month as part of a swing through Latin America, he will hit the region at its hottest point since the civil wars in the 1980s. Cocaine seizures in Central America tripled from 2003 to 2008, according to the U.N. World Drug Report. The murder rate in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already the highest in the world, is climbing in part from a rise in local drug dealing, authorities say.
While the U.S. and Mexico focus on gunrunning on their shared border, arms trafficking thrives in Guatemala, a country that doesn't manufacture a single firearm. There is even evidence that guns are brought from the U.S. into Guatemala and then smuggled into Mexico, in an example of reverse trafficking from south to north, one U.S. government official said.
"We have no firm numbers," said the official, who could not be named for security reasons. "What we know is that it's occurring and it doesn't seem to be random."
Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, who maintains close ties with the U.S. despite being the country's first leftist leader, says he will focus the Obama visit on poverty. El Salvador has seen little change in the poverty and violence that fueled its 13-year civil war until 1992, and the rural states and outskirts of the capital that served as guerrilla battlegrounds are now the domain of deadly gangs.
The White House says the president, scheduled to be in El Salvador March 22 and 23, will talk about "regional and bilateral economic, clean energy, and citizen security cooperation initiatives."
But other Central American countries say security is issue No. 1 and are baffled at White House plans for only a bilateral meeting.
"For those of us who have worked for decades in regional cooperation, we feel let down," said former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, noting that the White House may not have wanted to wade into regional problems, such as a border dispute between Costa Rica and Nicaragua. "It looks like they are trying to protect the president from local infighting. But it feels like a cop out."
Central America has always been a transit corridor for drugs coming from Colombia to the United States and a hideout for Mexican capos. A key suspect later convicted in the 1985 killing of DEA agent Enrique "Kiki" Camarena in Mexico was arrested in Costa Rica. The head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, was nabbed near the border between Mexico and Guatemala in 1993.
"There have long been connections between five to six families here and the Gulf cartel and Sinaloa cartel," said U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Stephen McFarland. "Most groups had dealings here with one or the other or both ... generally the drug-trafficking organizations more or less left each other alone."
But the flood of drugs and money have intensified, first with security crackdowns in the U.S. after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and later with Mexico's assault on organized crime beginning in 2006. Authorities mark the worst crime waves with the arrival of the Zetas cartel in Central America in 2008, about the same time Mexican cartels started to pay their collaborators on the ground in drugs instead of cash — creating a boom in local drug sales and violent street crime.
McFarland said the Zetas, formed from defectors of Mexico's elite forces as the enforcement arm of the Gulf Cartel, were invited to Guatemala by local cartels to provide protection, but soon after began taking over the territory for themselves.
Today, any cartel that wants to do business in Guatemala has to pay an extortion fee to the Zetas, according to Leonel Ruiz, federal prosecutor for narcotics activity, whose caseload has gone up 50 percent in the last five years.
The Guatemalan government recently ended a two-month siege in the mountainous northern state of Alta Verapaz near the Mexican border, a prime corridor for smuggling drugs from Honduras to Mexico, where Zetas roamed the streets with assault rifles and armored vehicles and even controlled when people could leave their homes. But few people think a siege in one state did much -- Ruiz says the Zetas control four other states and as much as half of Guatemala's territory.
Now, the vast majority of suspicious transports by sea end up in Guatemala, while an overwhelming number of suspicious flights land in Honduras, according to intelligence information shown to the AP. Honduran authorities have found an average of 20 abandoned airplanes a year along the Atlantic coast in the last three years and suspect that fishermen help offload drugs from ships at sea to avoid potential detection in ports.
Honduran authorities were alarmed last week to find a cocaine-processing laboratory in the remote northeastern mountains. Evidence ties the lab, capable of producing 440 to 880 pounds (200 to 400 kilograms) a week, to the Sinaloa Cartel.
Government corruption and porous borders make it difficult for authorities to fight back. Across the region, countless public officials, including police chiefs and drug czars, have been prosecuted or made to resign. An arms trafficking study by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala cited dozens of uncontrolled vehicle crossings along Guatemala's borders with four countries, including 44 along the 600-mile (963-kilometer) border with Mexico.
The northern triangle already struggles with networks of street gangs that pushed murder rates to between 50 and 60 people per 100,000 in 2008, compared to 11.6 in Mexico and five in the U.S., according to the U.N. World Drug Report.
The gangs still mostly stick to petty crime and extortion, especially in Guatemala. But they have become increasingly involved in local drugs sales. And in El Salvador, Cotto said, authorities have reports that the Mexican cartels are eyeing the Mara Salvatruchas for an alliance that could overwhelm the small country.
"We would be in a very difficult situation crime-wise, because they would have more money and bigger arms than they do at the moment," said Gen. David Munguia Payes, Salvadoran defense minister, who says he also has documented cases of Zetas trying to recruit Salvadoran military and police.
Even in Costa Rica and Panama, countries with much lower crime rates, murders and cocaine seizures have skyrocketed, including cases of execution-style killings in Panama that authorities say are directly related to drug trafficking.
The U.S. and international groups have worked with Central America to build regional programs for fingerprinting, wiretapping and police training, among others. A U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime program to inspect containers coming into Guatemala ports is set to begin this month. And the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives is now establishing arms-tracking operations in the region.
After complaints that Central America was an afterthought, receiving only $165 million for the now $1.8 billion Merida Initiative to fight drugs in Mexico, Congress last year created a separate Central America Regional Security Initiative with a total of $248 million to date.
The region says it's not enough.
The Central American Integration System, an organization representing seven countries, says it would take close to $1 billion to pay for a viable security plan and plans a donors conference in June to raise the money.
But the stunning case of the narco-barrels shows how deep the transnational drug ties already run.
The two barrels were dug up in early September about five yards (meters) apart on a 72-acre (29-hectare) ranch in the town of Penitente Abajo, about 40 miles (62 kilometers) from the capital of San Salvador.
One of the ranch's owners, Guatemalan Bilbardy Obdulio Ortega Vasquez, was already in custody after he and two women were picked up in the San Salvador airport in August, heading to Panama with $36,900 in undeclared cash. Authorities say Ortega Vasquez is the alleged accountant of jailed drug kingpin Jorge Mario Paredes Cordova, a.k.a. "El Gordo," who ran an arm of the Gulf Cartel in Guatemala before he was captured in Honduras and sentenced in New York last year to 31 years for conspiracy to import and distribute cocaine.
A third narco-barrel found a week later under a patio had more than $4 million in $100 bills. Cotto says the barrels are clearly related to the same operation, packed in the same manner with money distributed in the same quantities. But they still don't know who is behind it.
"We don't know for sure that there aren't more barrels," Cotto said. "They say everyone is now excavating their patios."
Associated Press writers Diego Mendez and Marcos Aleman in San Salvador, Kathia Martinez and Juan Zamorano in Panama City, Freddy Cuevas in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and Marianela Jimenez in San Jose, Costa Rica, contributed to this report.