WASHINGTON, D.C. – Drug smugglers, armed gangs and common criminals acting with impunity threaten the stability of Central America’s largest country, warned a panel of diplomats at a recent conference entitled “Guatemala at the Crossroads.”
Guatemala’s Ambassador to the United States, Francisco Villagran de León, said Guatemala has a reputation as a country of both natural beauty and violence. But he said most foreigners don’t realize how deeply organized crime and drug trafficking has penetrated the social fabric of his nation of 13.5 million people.
“Guatemala’s weak institutions have been unable to contain the violence, and the authority of the Guatemalan state is being challenged,” he admitted.
Guatemala is already one of the most dangerous countries in the Western Hemisphere. In 2009, 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, according to David T. Johnson, assistant secretary of the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
“Drug violence is spilling over the border, as the Mexican government’s tough stand on narcotraffickers pushes notorious organizations like the Zetas southward,” 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.”
Intimidation and deep budget cuts have made the situation even more difficult, he said.
“Guatemala lacks the resources to confront these challenges; it has one of the lowest tax collection rates in Latin America,” Johnson said. “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 in Latin America facing these problems.
But, he added, “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 his country is plagued by three types of criminal organizations: 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 (or the Salvatrucha), is thought to be close to the Sinaloa cartel of Mexico. The notoriously dangerous Zetas gang has also been moving into Guatemala to extend greater control over their supply network and to find sanctuary from the Mexican authorities, Johnson said.
Analysts claim the security concerns in Guatemala are threatening the achievements of the 1996 peace accords, which ended Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.
“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,” said Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas and a delegate to the 1996 peace accords. “Today, however, Guatemala’s problems are massive, budgets are constrained and local governments are overwhelmed. We must find a way to return to the promise of 1996.”
The violence in Guatemala is also affecting neighboring countries. Last month, five Nicaraguans – including a 7-year-old girl – were tortured and killed in Guatemala, apparently because the father of the family, a truck driver, refused to pay extortion money to unidentified elements involved in Guatemala’s organized crime syndicates.
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 U.S. 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 these units, and through the use of expanded investigative methods like wire-tapping, informants and intelligence-based surveillance, the Guatemalan government seized 100 percent more illegal narcotics in 2009 than in 2008.
The United States also provided provisions and logistic support for the eradication of poppy production in Guatemala, helping Guatemalan counterparts to destroy 1,345 hectares of poppy last year.
“Success in Guatemala, however, is about more than the volume of drugs seized,” Johnson 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, 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 the Army’s 13,000 soldiers.
“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 counter-narcotics 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.
Johnson stressed that fixing Guatemala’s problems won’t be easy – and could take years.
“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,” the counter-narcotics expert said.
Johnson said turning the tide will require collaboration with other governments and the United Nations, as well as strong regional programs from South America to Mexico. It will also require good governance by Guatemalan officials, he stressed.
“Only by coordinating efforts across all these diverse areas can we hope to achieve meaningful and lasting progress.”