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Guatemala at Crime Crossroads
Diplomatic Pouch / November 2, 2010

By Larry Luxner

Drug smugglers, armed gangs and common criminals acting with impunity threaten the stability of Central America’s largest country, warned a panel of diplomats meeting Oct. 5 at a conference entitled “Guatemala at the Crossroads.”

The event, hosted by Americas Society/Council of the Americas, was moderated by Washington Postcorrespondent Mary Beth Sheridan and featured David T. Johnson, assistant secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Also speaking were Francisco Villagran de León, Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States; Eduardo Ibarrola, Mexico’s envoy to Guatemala, and Donla J. Planty, a former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala who is now a private consultant.

Villagran said most Americans envision Guatemala as a country of both natural beauty and violence — but are not aware of how deeply organized crime and narcotrafficking has penetrated the social fabric of his nation of 13.5 million.

“The problems posed by organized crime and narcotrafficking are indeed very serious,” he acknowledged. “It is true that Guatemala’s weak institutions have been unable to contain the violence, and that the authority of the Guatemalan state is being challenged.”

Guatemala is already one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 2009, said Johnson, it reported 48 homicides per 100,000 people — giving it a murder rate eight times that of the United States, and four times that of Mexico.

“Drug violence is spilling over the border, as the Mexican government’s tough stand on narco-traffickers pushes notorious organizations like the Zetas southwards,” said the U.S. official, noting that nearly 90 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States transits through Mexico via Central America’s land, sea or air corridors.

Each year, an estimated 250 metric tons of cocaine moves through Guatemala, which is also a key transit country for pseudoephedrine, a main component of methamphetamine, as well as a minor producer of poppy and opium derivatives.

“Drug traffickers are not the only international criminal forces plaguing Guatemala. In recent years, we have also seen the proliferation of powerful youth gangs which terrorize entire neighborhoods,” said Johnson. “They engage in armed robbery and murder-for-hire, as well as elaborate extortion schemes often coordinated by gang leaders inside Guatemala’s prisons, exposing just how weakened the criminal justice system has become.” .”

And because of intimidation and deep budget cuts, he said, “Guatemala lacks the resources to confront these challenges; it has one of the lowest tax collection rates in Latin America. These factors combine to create an impunity rate of 96.5 percent for murder, with similarly high numbers for other crimes.”

To be fair, said Villagran de León, “Guatemala is not the only country facing these dilemmas across Latin America. But Guatemala is more vulnerable because of its size, its geographic location, its weak institutions and its social problems. We are a transit point for drugs coming from South America to the North American market.”

The ambassador said Guatemala is plagued by three types of criminal organizations: the large international cartels that also operate in Mexico, locally based cartels and transnational gangs.

“All of these groups are now well-armed and well-funded, and their activities have become increasingly detrimental to the public order,” he warned. “Maras, as the gangs are known, are involved in kidnapping, extortion, robbery, murder and small-scale drug trafficking. The largest of these gangs, the MS-13, is thought to be close to the Sinaloa cartel. The Zetas have been moving into Guatemala to extend greater control over their supply network, and to find sanctuary from the Mexican authorities.”

Eric Farnsworth, vice-president of AS-COA, was a delegate to the 1996 peace accords, which ended Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.

“Optimism was palpable at the time,” he said. “ Fourteen years ago, Guatemala was positioned for a bright future as Central America’s largest economy with a newly demobilized guerrilla force hungry for work, and an immense tailwind of international economic support. Regional integration was increasing, but the scenario was never guaranteed. Today, however, Guatemala’s problems are massive, budgets are constrained and local governments are overwhelmed. Together, we must find a way to return to the promise of 1996.”

In 2008, the U.S. government launched the Mérida Initiative — a partnership with Mexico and Central America that in Guatemala has emphasized the need for institutional capacity building among law enforcement and the judicial branch.

In addition, the State Department has facilitated a training and cooperation program between U.S. law enforcement agencies and their counterparts in Guatemala. .

“The most immediate result of this cooperation has been the establishment of elite units of prosecutors and police officers who have been thoroughly vetted,” said Johnson. “These vetted units now form a reliable core of professionals trained to address Guatemala’s numerous law enforcement challenges.”

Under the direction of the vetted units, and through the use of expanded investigative methods like wiretapping, informants and intelligence-based surveillance, said Johnson, the Guatemalan government seized 100 percent more illegal narcotics in 2009 than in 2008; 11.8 metric tons of pseudoephedrine, 7.1 metric tons of cocaine, and 950 grams of heroin. As for narcotics produced within Guatemala, last year the United States provided provisions and logistic support for four poppy eradication operations, helping our Guatemalan counterparts destroy 1,345 hectares of poppy.

“Success in Guatemala, however, is about more than the volume of drugs seized,” he said. “Success depends on the creation of durable law enforcement institutions that are effective in their fight against crime and responsive to the citizens they must serve.”

Villagran de León said four critical initiatives are now underway to reduce violence in Guatemala: the national accord on security, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish), a new role for the armed forces, and broader coordination at the regional level.

The ambassador said Guatemala’s civilian police force now has 23,000 members, compared to 13,000 members of the military.

“This police force will grow over the next five years to 60,000,” he said. “New model police precincts have been developed, jails have been remodeled, and each precinct has its own justice of the peace and a special court to try local criminal cases. This model has proven quite successful.”

In August, agents from Guatemala’s counternarcotics force arrested four suspected Zetas with a cache of military-grade weapons outside the northern city of Cobán, making the area an essential next step in expanding the reach of effective law enforcement outside of the capital area.

Yet Johnson stressed that fixing Guatemala’s problems won’t be easy — and could take years.

“Though the United States has achieved some success with the specific programs described above, we do not by ourselves have the resources to establish a 24-hour court in every neighborhood or a vetted unit at every precinct. There is no one solution to address Guatemala’s deteriorating security situation; the challenge is complex and multifaceted, and so our response must be targeted and thoughtful,” he said.

“Turning the tide will require collaboration with other donors, other governments, and the United Nations, as well as strong regional programs from South America to Mexico and, most important, good governance from the Guatemalans themselves. Only by coordinating efforts across all these diverse sources can we hope to achieve meaningful and lasting progress.”

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